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This page is primarily about the Nazi Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s. Many other groups have used the word "holocaust" to describe things that have happened to them. For these uses, see Holocaust (disambiguation).

Table of contents
1 Etymology
2 Overview
3 Concentration and extermination camps
4 Historical interpretations
5 Holocaust theology
6 Origin and use of the term
7 Political ramifications
8 Related topics
9 Bibliography
10 Selected filmography
11 External links


The word Holocaust (Greek for "a completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering") was introduced in the late 20th century to refer to the attempt of Nazi-ruled Germany to exterminate those groups of people it found "undesirable".

Shoa (השואה), also spelled Shoah and Sho'ah, Hebrew for "Calamity", is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust; Churban Europa Hebrew for "European Destruction" (as opposed to simply Churban, the destruction of the Second Temple), is also used. The Shoa in particular is used by many Jews and a growing number of Christians due to theological discomfort with the literal meaning of the word Holocaust. These groups believe it is theologically offensive to imply that the European Jews were a sacrifice to God. It is nonetheless recognized that most people who use the term Holocaust do not intend such a meaning. Similarly, many Roma (Gypsy) people use the word Porajmos, meaning "Devouring", to describe the Nazi attempt to exterminate those groups.

Today, the term "holocaust" is also applied to other attempts at genocide before and after World War II and, more generally, for any overwhelming, deliberate extermination of life, such as that which would result from a nuclear war (sometimes called a "nuclear holocaust").


Holocaust refers to the Nazis' systematic extermination of various groups they deemed undesirable during World War II: primarily Jews, but also Communists, homosexuals, Roma and Sinti (also known as gypsies), the physically handicapped, the mentally retarded, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish, Russian, and other Slavic intelligentsia, political activists, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Catholic and Protestant clergy, trade unionists, psychiatric patients, and common criminals all perished alongside one another in the camps, according to the extensive documentation left behind by the Nazis themselves (written and photographed), eye-witness testimony (by survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders), and the statistical records of the various countries under occupation. The exact number of deaths during the Holocaust is unknown (see Extent of the Holocaust below).

One feature of the Nazi Holocaust that distinguishes it from other mass murders was the efficient and systematic method with which the mass killings were conducted. Detailed lists of present and future potential victims were made, and meticulous records of the killings have been found. As prisoners entered the death camps, they had to surrender all personal property to the Nazis - which was precisely catalogued and tagged, and for which receipts were issued. In addition, considerable effort was expended over the course of the Holocaust to find increasingly efficient means of killing more people, for example, by switching from carbon monoxide poisoning in the Aktion Reinhard death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka to the use of Zyklon-B at Majdanek and Auschwitz.

Unlike other mass killings, which were usually carried out in a specific area or country, the Holocaust was methodically carried out in virtually every inch of Nazi-occupied territory, with Jews and other victims being persecuted and killed in what are now 35 present-day nations of Europe, being sent to concentration camps in some nations, and death camps in other nations.

In addition to mass killings, Nazis carried out sadistic medical experiments on prisoners, including children. Dr. Josef Mengele, one of the most widely known Nazis, was known as the "Angel of Death" by the inmates of Auschwitz for his cruel and bizarre experiments.

The full extent of what was happening in German-controlled areas was not known until after the war. However, numerous rumors and eye-witness accounts from escapees and others did give some indication that Jews were being killed in large numbers. Some protests were held. For example, on October 29, 1942, in the United Kingdom, leading clergymen and political figures held a public meeting to register outrage over Germany's persecution of Jews.

While the Holocaust stands as a reminder that modern, 'civilized' nations can engage in the most horrific of organized group behavior, it is also important to remember that during the Holocaust, many nonJews risked (and often lost) their lives attempting to aid Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, for no conceivable gain other than to satisfy their own consciences. In order to recognize these examples of the most noble of human behaviors among the most debased, the Israeli government through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial set up a Righteous gentiles program to honor and memorialize as many of these heroic individuals as can be found.

Concentration and extermination camps

Concentration camps for "undesirables" were spread throughout Europe, with new camps being created near centers of dense "undesirable" populations, often focusing on heavily Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, communists, or Roma groups. Most of the camps were located in the area of General Government. The transportion of prisoners was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars, in which many died before their destination.

Concentration camps for Jews and other, "undesirables," also existed in Germany itself, and while not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many concentration camp prisoners died because of harsh conditions or were executed.

Some camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, combined slave labour with systematic extermination. Upon arrival in these camps, prisoners were divided into two groups: those too weak for work were immediately executed in gas chambers (which were sometimes disguised as showers) and their bodies burned, while others were first used for slave labor in factories or industrial enterprises located in the camp or nearby. The Nazis also forced some prisoners to work in the collection and disposal of corpses, and to mutilate them when required. Gold teeth were extracted from the corpses, and women's hair (shaved from the heads of victims before they entered the gas chambers) was recycled for use in products such as rugs and socks.

Four camps — Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka II — were used exclusively for extermination. Only a small number of prisoners were kept alive to work at the task of disposing of the bodies of people murdered in the gas chambers.


Anti-Semitism was common in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (though its history extends far back throughout many centuries during the course of Judaism). Adolf Hitler's fanatical anti-Semitism was laid out in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, largely ignored when it was first printed, but which later became popular in Germany once Hitler acquired political power.

On April 1, 1933 the recently elected Nazis, under Julius Streicher, organized a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. This policy helped to usher-in a series of anti-Semitic acts that would eventually culminate in the Holocaust. The last remaining Jewish enterprises in Germany were closed on July 6, 1939.

In many cities throughout Europe, Jews had been living in concentrated areas. During the first years of World War II, the Nazis formalized the borders of these areas and restricted movement, creating modern ghettos to which Jews were confined. The ghettos were, in effect, prisons in which many Jews died from hunger and disease; others were executed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Concentration camps for Jews existed in Germany itself. During the invasion of the Soviet Union, over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the Wehrmacht and conducted mass killings of Communist officials and of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out by being rounded up, robbed of their possessions and clothing, and shot at the edges of ditches.

In December 1941, Hitler finally decided to exterminate European Jews. In January 1942, during the Wannsee conference, several Nazi leaders discussed the details of the "Final Solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). Dr. Josef Buhler urged Reinhard Heydrich to proceed with the Final Solution in the General Government. They began to systematically deport Jewish populations from the ghettos and all occupied territories to the seven camps designated as Vernichtungslager, or extermination camps: Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibor and Treblinka II.


Poles were one of the first targets of extermination by Hitler, as outlined in the speech he gave the Wehrmacht commanders before the invasion of Poland in 1939. The intelligentsia and socially prominent or powerful people were primarily targeted, although there were some mass murders and instances of genocide (notoriously, the Croatian Ustashe).

During Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Russian Army POWs were arbitrarily executed in the field by the invading German armies (in particular by the notorious Waffen SS), or were shipped to extermination camps for execution simply because they were of Slavic extraction. Thousands of Russian peasant villages were annihilated by German troops for more or less the same reason.


Main article: Porajmos

Hitler's campaign of genocide against the Roma people of Europe was seen by many as a particularly bizarre application of Nazi racial science. German anthropologists were forced to contend with the fact that Gypsies were descendants of the original Aryan invaders of India, who made their way back to Europe. Ironically, this made them no less Aryan than the German people itself, in practice if not in theory. This dilemma was resolved by Professor Hans Gunther, a leading racial scientist, who wrote:

"The Gypsies have indeed retained some elements from their Nordic home, but they are descended from the lowest classes of the population in that region. In the course of their migration, they absorbed the blood of the surrounding peoples, thus becoming an Oriental, West-Asiatic racial mixture with an addition of Indian, mid-Asiatic, and European strains."
As a result, however, and despite discriminatory measures, some groups of Roma, including the Sinti and Lalleri tribes of Germany, were spared deportation and death. Remaining Gypsy groups suffered much like the Jews (and in some instances, were degraded even more than Jews). In Eastern Europe, Gypsies were deported to the Jewish ghettoes, shot by SS Einsatzgruppen in their villages, and deported and gassed in Auschwitz and Treblinka.


Homosexuals were another of the groups targeted during the time of the Holocaust. However, the Nazi party made no systematic attempt to exterminate all homosexuals; according to Nazi law, being homosexual itself was not grounds for arrest. Some prominent members of the Nazi leadership were known to other Nazi leaders to be homosexual, which may account for the fact that the leadership offered mixed signals on how to deal with homosexuals. Some leaders clearly wanted homosexuals exterminated; others wanted them left alone, while others wanted laws against homosexual acts enforced, but otherwise allowed homosexuals to live as other citizens did. Many Germans suspected of homosexuality wisely kept their orientation hidden.

Several hundred thousand mentally and physically disabled were exterminated. The Nazis believed that the disabled were a burden to society because they needed to be taken care of. Around 400,000 individuals were sterilized against their will for having mental deficiencies or illnesses deemed as hereditary in nature.

Estimates vary wildly as to the number of homosexuals killed for the specific reason of being homosexual. Most estimates give number around 10,000. The larger numbers include those who were Jewish and homosexual, or even Jewish, homosexual and Communist. In addition, records as to the specific reasons for internment are non-existent in many areas. See Homosexuals in Nazi Germany for more information.

Around 2000 Jehovah's Witnesses perished in concentration camps, where they were held for political and ideological reasons. They refused involvement in politics, would not say "Heil Hitler", and did not serve in the German army. See Jehovah's Witnesses and the Holocaust.

The T-4 Euthanasia Program was established in 1939 in order to maintain the supposed purity of the so-called Aryan race by systematically killing children and adults born with physical deformities or suffering from mental illness.

On August 18, 1941, Hitler ordered a temporary halt to T-4. Graduates of the Aktion T4 program were then transferred to the concentration camps, where they continued in their trade.

Euthanasia did not end in 1941, however; it still took place in hospitals around Germany and Austria, and crept East into a few of the occupied territories.

Extent of the Holocaust

inspecting prisoners' corpses at a liberated death camp, 1945]]
The exact number of people killed by the Nazi regime is still subject to further research. Recently declassified
British and Soviet documents have indicated the total may be somewhat higher than previously believed [1]. However, the following estimates are considered to be highly reliable.

The Nazis persecuted many groups of people deemed inferior to the Nazi Aryan ideal. The following estimates refer to groups that were actively singled out in Nazi ideology as being 'unfit for life' and were part of the Nazi's planned and systematic genocide.

"There is no precise figure for the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The figure commonly used is the six million quoted by Adolf Eichmann, a senior SS official. Most research confirms that the number of victims was between five and six million. Early calculations range from 5.1 million (Professor Raul Hilberg) to 5.95 million (Jacob Leschinsky). More recent research, by Professor Yisrael Gutman and Dr. Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, estimates the Jewish losses at 5.59-5.86 million, and a study headed by Dr. Wolfgang Benz presents a range from 5.29 million to six million. The main sources for these statistics are comparisons of prewar censuses with postwar censuses and population estimates. Nazi documentation containing partial data on various deportations and murders is also used. " From Yad Vashem

The following groups of people were also victimized by the Nazi regime but there is little evidence that the Nazis planned to systematically target them for genocide as was the case for the groups above.

Searching for records of Victims

Initially after
WWII, of course, there were millions of members of families broken up by the war or the Holocaust searching for some record of the fate and/or whereabouts of their missing friends and relatives, which became much less intense as the years went by. More recently, however, there has a been a resurgence of interest by descendants of Holocaust survivors in researching the fates of their lost relatives. Yad Vashem provides a searchable database of three million names. Although not accessible via the Internet, they will accept search requests via Email:

"Yad Vashem's databank containing information on approximately three million victims of the Shoah is not accessible on the Internet. However, a large subset of it, containing information on over two million victims, is accessible on an Intranet browser application for visitors who come to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem for short queries, or in the new Archives building for research. The use of the facilities is free of charge, but there is a small fee for the printing of copies. A member of the Hall of Names staff is available at all times to offer assistance and guidance with searches whenever necessary. If you cannot come to Yad Vashem, it is possible to request a names search via email: names.research@yadvashem.org.il"

Other databases and lists of victims' names, some searchable over the Web, are listed in the #External Links below.

The triangles

Main article: Inverted triangle

To identify prisoners in the camps according to their "offense", they were required to wear colored triangles on their clothing. Although the colors used differed from camp to camp, the colors most commonly were:

Historical interpretations

As with any historical event, scholars continue to argue over what exactly happened, and why. Among the major questions historians have sought to answer are:

Functionalism versus intentionalism

A major issue in contemporary Holocaust studies is the question of functionalism versus intentionalism. Intentionalists like Lucy Davidowicz argue that the Holocaust was planned by Hitler from the very beginning. More moderate recent intentionalist historians like Eberhard Jäckel continue to emphasize the relative earliness of the decision to murder the Jews, although they are not willing to claim that Hitler planned the Holocaust from the beginning. Functionalists like Hans Mommsen hold that the Holocaust was started in 1942 as a result of the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and the impending military losses in Russia. They claim that extermination fantasies outlined in Hitler's Mein Kampf and other Nazi literature were mere propaganda and did not constitute concrete plans.

Another controversy was started by the historian Daniel Goldhagen, who argues that ordinary Germans were knowing and willing participants in the Holocaust, which he claims had its roots in a deep eliminationist German anti-Semitism. Most other historians have disagreed with Goldhagen's thesis, arguing that while anti-Semitism undeniably existed in Germany, Goldhagen's idea of a uniquely German "eliminationist" anti-semitism is untenable, and that the extermination was unknown to many and had to be enforced by the dictatorial Nazi apparatus.

Revisionists and deniers

Some groups, commonly referred to as Holocaust deniers, deny that the Holocaust happened. Many of the Holocaust deniers are neo-Nazis or anti-Semites.

The cause of the deniers was helped by the fact that many Germans did not talk about their war-time ventures, for fear of persecution.

Holocaust revisionism claims that far fewer than 5-6 million Jews were killed, and that the killing was not a result of deliberate Nazi policy. Although Holocaust revisionists claim to present documentary evidence to support their claims, critics argue that the evidence is flawed, the research is specious, and the conclusions are pre-determined. Many claim that such revisionism is a form of anti-Semitism and tantamount to denial. However, many revisionists claim no anti-Semitism, saying that they merely want to "set the record straight". These people say they are glad that not as many people were killed as previously thought, and that they wish others would take revisionist evidence as good news.

Holocaust theology

On account of the magnitude of the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical theological views on God's goodness and actions in the world. Believers and apostates question whether people can still have any faith after the Holocaust, and the theological responses to these questions are explored in Holocaust theology.

Origin and use of the term

The word 'Holocaust', from the Greek word holokauston meaning "a burnt sacrifice offered to God", originally referred to a sacrifice Jews were required to make by the Torah, and later to large scale catastrophes or massacres. Due to the theological meaning that this word carries, many Jews find the use of this word problematic, as it could imply that Jews were a sacrifice. Instead of holocaust many Jews prefer the Hebrew word Shoah, which means "desolation".

While nowadays the term 'Holocaust' usually refers to the above-mentioned large-scale killings of Jews, it is also sometimes used to refer to other occurrences of genocide or ethnic cleansing. See Holocaust (disambiguation) for details.

Political ramifications

The Holocaust has had a number of political and social ramifications which reach to the present. The need to find a homeland for many Jewish refugees led to the emigration of a great many Jews to Palestine, most of which became the modern State of Israel soon after. This immigration had a direct effect on the regional Arabs, which is discussed in the articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in other related articles linked to them.

Related topics

See also: Generalplan Ost, Anti-Semitism, Auschwitz, eugenics, final solution, genocide, The Holocaust Industry, Holocaust memorials, Jews in Poland, Judenrat, phases of the Holocaust, Righteous Among the Nations, List of people who helped Jews during the Holocaust, Rhineland Bastard, Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl, Protest of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, History of the Jews in Carpathian Ruthenia, Nazi concentration camp badges, Black Book, Oskar Schindler, Aristides Sousa Mendes Katyn Massacre


Historical studies

Selected survivor accounts

Selected semi-autobiographical fiction by survivors

Other documentation

Hypotheses and historiography

Selected filmography

External links