What Was The Holocaust? – Holocaust History | IWM – Imperial War Museums

Posted By on January 21, 2024

Were in the Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museum in London.What were looking at here is a concrete tile that has recently gone on display. Its a small object that tells one part of the devastating history of the Holocaust.

Lauren Wilmott: "So this is a tile or part of a tile from one of the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp. It's most likely a wall tile and we know this from the limited survivor testimony that's in existence that describes the colour of the wall and the floor tiles in the gas chambers, and the reason that I say limited testimony is that there were very few survivors from the Treblinka death camp. It was a camp designed specifically for mass murder. Between July 1942 and September 1943 approximately nine hundred thousand Jews and two thousand Roma were murdered at the Treblinka death camp. To hide all traces of what had happened at Treblinka, the Nazis demolished the camp and turned it into a farm. Because of this it had been assumed that there was nothing left to find at Treblinka but in 2014 there was a large excavation. This tile was one of the artifacts found during this excavation so it's some of the only physical evidence in existence that was once witness to what happened in the gas chambers at Treblinka."

The genocide now known as the Holocaust was the state-sponsored mass murder of six million Jewish men, women and children. There was nothing inevitable about the decision of the Nazis and their collaborators to attempt to exterminate Europes Jews, and hundreds of thousands of people were complicit. The Nazi regime came to power in 1933, which saw the spread of their insidiousideas of racial ideology. Persecution and violence towards Jewish people living within the Reich became sinister and overt. Jewish people were initially pressured to emigrate, and many escaped from the Reich. But thousands were left behind. War was declared on 3 September 1939. The eventsthat followed eventually led to the Nazis plan for the extermination of Europes Jews.

Newsreel: "It was in September 1939 when Warsaw first made front-page news. With horror and bewilderment, fear and incredulity the world followed it."

The invasion of Poland and the start of the war in Europe provided circumstances for more extremebehaviour from the Nazi regime. Their invasion and occupation tactics were brutal and ruthless.Civilians were on the front line and were not spared. Nazism had become an explicitlymurderous regime. Germanys territorial expansion also brought about a large increase in the numberof Jews under the control of the Reich. This led to the formation of the first ghettos.

James Bulgin: "When the Nazis first occupied Poland they knew that they wanted to try and address their so-called Jewish problem, this self-invented problem of theirs, but they weren't quite sure about how to go about it so Heydrich sent out a schnellbrief to all of the Nazis going intothis territory which laid out a kind of a principle that Jewish people should be centralised into population centres, and these places were described as ghettos. So these are places that Jews are forced to live. They become massively overpopulated. Now at first ghettos are open so people are able to leave and re-enter, but over time most of them become sealed and once they become sealedit means that levels of hardship amplify very quickly and ghettos become places of enormoussuffering. They have very little access to food, very little access to medicine and death rates start to climb, and some people are forced to live in these places for years on end.

Wlodka Robertson: "We moved into the ghetto and we moved with my grandparents, and at first the conditions anyway for us, for the children, didn't seem so threateningbut very quickly the conditions together became worse and worse. There was German soldiers and some Ukrainians and that things just walkingaround the streets of the ghetto and shooting people or beating them up. They particularlylike to beat up old men especially men who had beards. There was so much hunger that very quicklypeople began to die of hunger and I remember seeing children who I knew from the school before with swollen bellies and then then they were outside the gates even bodies put out because so many people died and people couldn't bury them."

The invasion of the Soviet Union was a turning point in the course of the war and the Holocaust. As the Nazis occupied Soviet countries in the East, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of non-combatants that they considered enemies within these territories.

JB: "As the German army advanced east into the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa they arefollowed by four units of Einsatzgruppen. Now these Einsatzgruppen answer to Heinrich Himmler head of the SS, and they're supposed to be a security unit protecting the advancing German line. In practice, it's really about the Nazis' racist ideology. So Einsatzgruppen are given orders to shoot any Jewish people in positions of authority within the Soviet Union. It doesn't take longfor this to evolve to include all Jewish people. So it only takes six weeks for the Einsatzgruppen to move from shooting military-age men to shooting women and children. This has nothing to do with camps or gas chambers, this is about brutal face-to-face killings in ditches, in fields, in beaches, in ravines, in barns all across the occupied Soviet Union and the scale of this is vast. In Babi Yar for example over 32,000 people are shot in a matter of days, so this is when the Nazis' whole policy towards Jews becomes unambiguously murderous."

By early 1942, annihilation of the Jews had become the formal policy of the Nazis. The confirmation of the covert plan (Operation Reinhard) to liquidate the 2 million Jews under Nazi control in occupied Poland was approved. This would begin with the deportation and murderof those living in ghettos. The extermination of all Jewish people in Europe is the ultimate goal. This requires immense logistical organisation and complicity not just from the Nazis, but commercial companies and hundreds of thousands of individuals across occupied Europe.

The so-called Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka II, were the final destination of approximately 1.75 million men, women and children. Located within occupied Poland,they were designed to be discreet and efficient. People were told that they are being processed for work in the east, but will need to be showered before this procedure. The showerswere actually gas chambers that pumped carbon monoxide into the sealed rooms.The process was brutal, barbaric, and routinely inefficient.

Separate to the small number of extermination camps, was the concentration camp network. This network had started in the early years of the regime to target all of those the Nazis consideredenemies of the state, including communists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexual men. The campnetwork grew rapidly as the war developed and the Nazis' need for additional labour to support the crumbling war effort became increasingly acute. Auschwitz became a centre of this processand by 1944 had become the focal point of both the mass murder and enslavement of Europes Jews.

JB: "Within the concentration camp system Jewish people were considered by the Nazis to have no worth at all. They were treated incredibly badly, and from the Germans' point of view the ultimate aim was still to ensure all Jewish people within Europe were murdered, they just saw this as a different way of killing them rather than killing them directly they would work them to death, so they made them work on very, very, very meager rations in dreadful conditions, in barracksliving with three or four or five people to a bunk infested with lice, and they made them workincredibly dangerous versions of hard labour in order to serve Germany's ailing war effort."

LW: "This jacket belonged to Leibish Engelberg when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp system. Leibish survived several forced labour camps and numerous concentration camps. Leibish, his wife Liber and two young sons David and Israel moved from Belgium to theunoccupied zone of France thinking that they would be safer. But in the summer of 1942roundup of Jews, particularly foreign Jews which the Engelbergs were, began and Leibish and his family were arrested on the 26 of August 1942.Leibish and his family which included his wife, sons and brothers, and their families, were put onconvoy number 29. This convoy was one of those from France and the Netherlands that was stopped at a town called Kosel on its way to Auschwitz. Here men between about the ages of 15 to 50 were selected for forced labour. Leibish and his brother Joseph were likely selected, the rest of his family continued on to Auschwitz where they were murdered in the gas chambers on arrival.Leibish and his brother Joseph actually remained together throughout the duration of the war. They were held together in several forced labour camps and then in concentration camps includingAuschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau and they were liberated from a sub-camp of Dachau in April 1945.

"This jacket was worn by Leibish within the concentration camp system and he kept this jacket after liberation. He actually kept it in a cupboard at his home but never spoke about his experiences. After his death his daughter Rita donated the jacket to Imperial War Museums so that we couldtell his story. There were only 34 men of Leibish's entire transport of a thousand people who were known to have survived until the end of the war. Leibish and his brother Joseph were among the 34."

As the Reich became encircled by the Allies on all sides, the Germans became very aware that the concentration camps on the edges of their territories were in the path of the advancingarmies. So they forced the few prisoners who are left alive to walk huge distances through the winter back to Germany. These became known as the death marches. They were enormously dangerous.If people couldnt keep up they were shot, and many froze or starved to death. They were also walking straight through towns and villagesand were hugely visible. About a third of the people on these death marches did not survive.

JB: "So from relatively early on the Germans are aware of the fact that the world might not see things as they do, and so from 1941 they begin efforts to cover the traces of their crimes. But as the Allies close in on the right these efforts start to begin with an increased volume so the Germans seek to raze any remaining sites to the ground if they're able to, they seek to destroy paperwork and they also become really aware that the prisoners themselvesare sources of testimony to potential Allied investigators, so they don't want any prisoners to be found alive also because of the volume of this crime means that it's not possible to destroy all of these traces. So whilst a huge volume of it is destroyed, a huge volume of it isn't as well."

The camps were liberated from July 1944, and footage of the scenes that Allied soldiers encountered were witnessed across the world. The conditions are so badthat many prisoners continued to die after liberation due to malnutrition and disease. For those prisoners that did survive, liberation was not the end of their suffering.

JB: "So as soon as the Allies begin to liberate the few remaining concentration camps and they find the people within them these people cease to be prisoners of the Nazis and become displaced persons, and these people have nowhere to go. The homes that they had come from that they've been forced out of or taken from aren't theirs anymore. A lot of them don't want to go back to the countries or the neighbourhoods and be surrounded by the people who are happy to see them deported, but also a lot of them don't have homes to go back to because the homes have beentaken from them or been destroyed. And these DP camps become the homes of the people who live within them for years, some of them are in the sites of former concentration camps, others are not, and they become places where people start to rebuild their lives and makeconnections with the few people that they can find who are left alive, but of course that's a massive challenge for these individuals because what they'd experienced is more than a lot ofpeople can bear, and they know that whatever the years in front of them hold it's going to bea very, very, very different reality to the one that they'd left before the Second World War."

LW: "So what we have here is the wedding dress worn by Gena Goldfinger on her wedding day to Norman Turgel in October 1945, and what's so special about this dress, about this story, is that Gena and Norman met when Norman entered Belsen concentration camp upon its liberation, and thetwo met and were engaged within a week, and they got married a few months later, and this is thedress that Gena was wearing. It's made of British parachute silk and made into a dress by a localtailor. So Bergen-Belsen was liberated on 15 April 1945 and the conditions at that time werecatastrophic, it was in a state of absolute chaos. The British soldiers upon arrival found almost 60,000 prisoners so it's severely overcrowded, and typhus was running rampant throughout the camp.This wedding dress tells the story of Gena who survived the Holocaust. She was forced toface a future and rebuild her life, but it was a future that she had to face without her family, the majority of whom didn't survive, without a home to go to and without any possessions."

While accounts of survival help us to remember and give a human face to a series of events that are so hard to comprehend, it is also important to recognise that millions of people the vast majority were not able to escape or survive.The Nazis were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempt to annihilate Europes Jews, but nevertheless, the Holocaust is overwhelmingly a history of loss.

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What Was The Holocaust? - Holocaust History | IWM - Imperial War Museums

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