33 Essential Holocaust Facts

What You Need to Know About the Holocaust

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The Holocaust is one of the most notorious acts of genocide in modern history. The many atrocities committed by Nazi Germany before and during World War II destroyed millions of lives and permanently altered the face of Europe. Below you will find a list of 33 important Holocaust facts.

What Is the Holocaust?

  • The term Holocaust is derived from the Greek word holokauston, which means sacrifice by fire. It refers to the Nazi persecution and planned slaughter of the Jewish people and others considered inferior to "true" Germans. The Hebrew word Shoah, which means devastation, ruin or waste, also refers to this genocide.
  • In addition to Jews, the Nazis targeted Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and the disabled for persecution. Those who resisted the Nazis was sent to forced labor camps or murdered.
  • The word Nazi is a German acronym for Nationalsozialistishe Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker's Party).
  • The Nazis sometimes used the term "Final Solution" to refer to their plan to exterminate the Jewish people, although the origins of this are unclear, according to historians.

How Many People Died?

  • It is estimated that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. Six million of these were Jews.
  • The Nazis killed approximately two-thirds of all Jews living in Europe.
  • An estimated 1.1 million children died in the Holocaust.

How Did the Holocaust Begin?

  • On April 1, 1933, the Nazis instigated their first action against German Jews by announcing a boycott of all Jewish-run businesses.
  • The Nuremberg Laws, issued on Sept. 15, 1935, were designed to exclude Jews from public life. The Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited marriages and extramarital sex between Jews and Gentiles. These measures set the legal precedent for anti-Jewish legislation that followed.
  • Nazis issued numerous anti-Jewish laws over the next several years. Jews were banned from public parks, fired from civil service jobs and forced to register their property. Other laws barred Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jewish patients, expelled Jewish children from public schools and placed severe travel restrictions on Jews.
  • Overnight on Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Nazis incited a pogrom against Jews in Austria and Germany called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). This included the pillaging and burning of synagogues, the breaking of windows of Jewish-owned businesses and the looting of these stores. Many Jews were physically attacked or harassed, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
  • After World War II started in 1939, the Nazis ordered Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing so they could be easily recognized and targeted. Homosexuals similarly targeted and forced to wear pink triangles.

What Were the Jewish Ghettos? 

  • After the beginning of World War II, Nazis began ordering all Jews to live within small, segregated areas of big cities, called ghettos.
  • Jews were forced out of their homes and moved into smaller dwellings, often shared with one or more other families.
  • Some ghettos initially were open, which meant that Jews could leave the area during the daytime but had to be back by a curfew. Later, all ghettos became closed, which meant that Jews were not allowed to leave under any circumstances.
  • Major ghettos were located in the cities of Polish cities of Bialystok, Lodz, and Warsaw. Other ghettos were found in present-day Minsk, Belarus; Riga, Latvia; and Vilna, Lithuania.
  • The largest ghetto was in Warsaw. At its peak in March 1941, some 445,000 were crammed into an area just 1.3 square miles in size.
  • In most ghettos, Nazis ordered the Jews to establish a Judenrat (Jewish council) to administer Nazi demands and to regulate the internal life of the ghetto.
  • The Nazis routinely ordered deportations from the ghettos. In some of the large ghettos, 1,000 people per day were sent by rail to concentration and extermination camps.
  • To get them to cooperate, the Nazis told the Jews they were being transported elsewhere for labor.
  • As the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis, they began a systematic plan to eliminate or "liquidate" the ghettos they had established.
  • When the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto on April 13, 1943, the remaining Jews fought back in what has become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Jewish resistance fighters held out against the entire Nazi regime for 28 days, longer than many European countries had been able to withstand Nazi conquest.

What Were the Concentration Camps?

  • Although many people refer to all Nazi camps as concentration camps, there were actually a number of different kinds of camps, including concentration camps, extermination camps, labor camps, prisoner-of-war camps and transit camps. (Map)
  • One of the first concentration camps was in Dachau, in southern Germany. It opened on March 20, 1933.
  • From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless and the mentally ill.
  • After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
  • 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.
  • While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently.
  • The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
  • Prisoners transported to these extermination camps were told to undress so they could shower. Rather than a shower, the prisoners were herded into gas chambers and killed. (At Chelmno, the prisoners were herded into gas vans instead of gas chambers.)
  • Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp built. It is estimated that 1.1 million people were killed.