Essential Facts About the Holocaust

Gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

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. 

Holocaust Key Terms

  • Holocaust: From the Greek word holokauston, meaning sacrifice by fire. It refers to the Nazi persecution and planned slaughter of the Jewish people and others considered inferior to "true" Germans.
  • Shoah: A Hebrew word meaning devastation, ruin or waste, also used to refer to the Holocaust.
  • Nazi: German acronym standing for Nationalsozialistishe Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker's Party).
  • Final Solution: Nazi term referring to their plan to exterminate the Jewish people.
  • Kristallnacht: Literally "Crystal Night" or The Night of Broken Glass, refers to the night of November 9-10, 1938 when thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned homes and businesses in Austria and Germany were attacked.
  • Concentration Camps: Although we use the blanket term "concentration camps", there were actually a number of different types of camps with different purposes. These included extermination camps, labor camps, prisoner-of-war camps, and transit camps.

Introduction to the Holocaust

Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany, is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg in 1933.
Adolf Hitler, chancellor of Germany, is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg in 1933. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images 

The Holocaust began in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and ended in 1945 when the Nazis were defeated by the Allied powers. 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 to be 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 the Roma, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and people with disabilities for persecution. Those who resisted the Nazis were 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.

Death Toll

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a little over 17 million people were killed during the Holocaust, but no single document exists recording the total number. Six million of these were Jews—approximately two-thirds of all Jews living in Europe. An estimated 1.5 million Jewish children and thousands of Romani, German, and Polish children died in the Holocaust.

Number of Holocaust Deaths

The following statistics are from the U.S. National Holocaust Museum. As more information and records are uncovered, it is likely that these numbers will change. All numbers are approximate.

  • 6 million Jews
  • 5.7 million Soviet civilians (an additional 1.3 Soviet Jewish civilians are included in the 6 million figure for Jews)
  • 3 million Soviet prisoners of war (including about 50,000 Jewish soldiers)
  • 1.9 million Polish civilians (non-Jewish)
  • 312,000 Serb civilians
  • Up to 250,000 people with disabilities
  • Up to 250,000 Roma
  • 1,900 Jehovah's Witnesses
  • At least 70,000 repeat criminal offenders and "asocials"
  • An undetermined number of German political opponents and activists.
  • Hundreds or thousands of homosexuals (might be included in the 70,000 repeat criminal offenders and "asocials" number above).

The Beginning of the Holocaust

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 September 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.

Kristallnacht: The Night of Broken Glass

Damaged Jewish-owned storefront in Berlin after the Kristallnacht riot.
Shattered fronts of Jewish-owned stores in Berlin after Kristallnacht. Bettmann/Getty Images 

Overnight on November 9 and 10, 1938, the Nazis incited a pogrom against Jews in Austria and Germany called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, or literally translated from German, "Crystal Night"). This included the pillaging and burning of synagogues, the breaking of windows of Jewish-owned businesses and the looting of those stores. In the morning, broken glass littered the ground. 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 were similarly targeted and forced to wear pink triangles.

Jewish Ghettos

Lublin Ghetto in Poland
The Lublin Ghetto in Poland. Bettmann/Getty Images

After the beginning of World War II, Nazis began ordering all Jews to live in 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 were initially 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, meaning that Jews were not allowed to leave under any circumstances. Major ghettos were located in the 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.

Regulating and Liquidating the Ghettos

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, 5,000 to 6,000 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 through a combination of mass murder on the spot and transferring the remaining residents to extermination camps. 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 almost a month.

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. 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. They 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.

Death Camps

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.

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. Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp built. It is estimated that almost 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz.

View Article Sources
  1. Stone, Lewi. "Quantifying the Holocaust: Hyperintense Kill Rates During the Nazi Genocide." Science Advances, vol. 5, no. 1, 2 Jan. 2019, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aau7292

  2. "Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Persecution." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 4 Feb. 2019.

  3. "Children During the Holocaust." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 1 Oct. 2019.

  4. "Kristallnacht." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

  5. "Ghetto." Yad Vashem. SHOAH Resource Center, the International School for Holocaust Studies.

  6. "Warsaw Ghetto Uprising." United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

  7. "The Number of Victims." Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Essential Facts About the Holocaust." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, February 16). Essential Facts About the Holocaust. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Essential Facts About the Holocaust." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).