Holocaust, Hebrew Shoʾah (“Catastrophe”), Yiddish and Hebrew Ḥurban (“Destruction”), the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The Germans called this “the final solution to the Jewish question.” Yiddish-speaking Jews and survivors in the years immediately following their liberation called the murder of the Jews the Ḥurban, the word used to describe the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 bce and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 ce. Shoʾah (“Catastrophe”) is the term preferred by Israelis and the French, most especially after Claude Lanzmann’s masterful 1985 motion picture documentary of that title. It is also preferred by people who speak Hebrew and by those who want to be more particular about the Jewish experience or who are uncomfortable with the religious connotations of the word Holocaust. Less universal and more particular, Shoʾah emphasizes the annihilation of the Jews, not the totality of Nazi victims. More particular terms also were used by Raul Hilberg, who called his pioneering work The Destruction of the European Jews, and Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who entitled her book on the Holocaust The War Against the Jews. In part she showed how Germany fought two wars simultaneously: World War II and the racial war against the Jews. The Allies fought only the World War. The word Holocaust is derived from the Greek holokauston, a translation of the Hebrew word ʿolah, meaning a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God. This word was chosen because in the ultimate manifestation of the Nazi killing program—the extermination camps—the bodies of the victims were consumed whole in crematoria and open fires.
Hitler quickly moved to cement his power by suspending many civil liberties and allowing imprisonment without trial. By March, the first Nazi concentration camp was established at Dachau, not to imprison Jews but to hold political dissidents. Further laws targeted Jews, restricting the jobs they could hold and revoking their German citizenship. Anti-Semitic sentiment increased as the Jewish population was blamed for many of Germany's recent and historical problems.
To murder the Jews of "Greater Germany" as well as Jews residing in German-occupied or German-influenced areas of western, southern, southeastern and northern Europe, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) in the spring of 1942 as a killing facility. Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with the Auschwitz main camp, was subordinated to the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Berlin. Originally planned as a vast forced-labor camp for Soviet prisoners of war and, later for Jewish forced laborers, Auschwitz-Birkenau began to operate as a killing center in the spring of 1942. The SS authorities murdered approximately one million Jews from various European countries at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Jews from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Norway, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, German-occupied western and southwestern Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, and Hungary.
Most Holocaust historians define the Holocaust as the enactment, between 1941 and 1945, of the German state policy to exterminate the European Jews.[a] In Teaching the Holocaust (2015), Michael Gray, a specialist in Holocaust education, offers three definitions: (a) "the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust; (b) "the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945", which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe; and (c) "the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which includes all the Nazis' victims. The third definition fails, Gray writes, to acknowledge that only the Jewish people were singled out for annihilation.
When France fell to Nazi Germany, the mission to resist the Nazis became increasingly important. Following the establishment of the Vichy France regime during the occupation, Trocmé and his church members helped their town develop ways of resisting the dominant evil they faced. Together they established first one, and then a number of "safe houses" where Jewish and other refugees seeking to escape the Nazis could hide. Many refugees were helped to escape to Switzerland following an underground railroad network. Between 1940 and 1944 when World War II ended in Europe, it is estimated that about 3500 Jewish refugees including many children were saved by the small village of Le Chambon and the communities on the surrounding plateau because the people refused to give in to what they considered to be the illegitimate legal, military, and police power of the Nazis.
Life within Nazi concentration camps was horrible. Prisoners were forced to do hard physical labor and given little food. Prisoners slept three or more to a crowded wooden bunk; bedding was unheard of. Torture within the concentration camps was common and deaths were frequent. At a number of concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will.
In 1935, Mengele earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Munich. In January 1937, he joined the Institute for Hereditary Biology and Racial Hygiene in Frankfurt, where he worked for Dr. Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer, a German geneticist with a particular interest in researching twins. As von Verschuer's assistant, Mengele focused on the genetic factors that result in a cleft lip and palate, or a cleft chin. His thesis on the subject earned him a cum laude doctorate in medicine (MD) from the University of Frankfurt in 1938. (Both of his degrees were revoked by the issuing universities in the 1960s.) In a letter of recommendation, von Verschuer praised Mengele's reliability and his ability to verbally present complex material in a clear manner. The American author Robert Jay Lifton notes that Mengele's published works were in keeping with the scientific mainstream of the time, and would probably have been viewed as valid scientific efforts even outside Nazi Germany.