The outbreak of World War Two spelt disaster for those Jews who had remained in Germany and it also extended the Nazis’ persecution to those Jews living in territories invaded and occupied by the German army and its European allies. The eventual extermination of up to six million European Jews by the Nazis proceeded in three phases:
The German conquest of Poland in autumn 1939 brought three million more Jews under Nazi control. Polish Jews were confined to ghettos and camps in terrible conditions, where hundreds of thousands died of starvation and disease.
Hitler is believed to have given the order to begin the attempted extermination of Europe’s 11 million Jews in 1941. This so-called ‘Final Solution’ to the question of what to do with Europe’s Jews led to phase two.
During the German invasion of the USSR (June 1941), four specially created SS units called Einsatzgruppen followed behind the German army. Their task was to round up Jews, as well as communist officials and Russian army officers, and execute them. The victims were taken to the edge of towns and villages, forced to dig mass graves and then shot and buried in huge numbers. By the end of 1941, 500,000 Jews had been killed in this way and in total the victims of Einsatzgruppen numbered around 1.2 million.
These mass killings were expensive and time consuming. The need to make the extermination process more efficient led to phase three.
On 20 January 1942 Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Sicherheitsdienst, held a conference in the Wansee suburb of Berlin. At this meeting it was agreed that all Jews under German occupation would be brought to Poland, where those fit enough would be worked to death and the rest exterminated. This led to the horror of the Nazi death camps, six of which were built specifically to murder those brought to them.
The biggest and most notorious camp was Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 2.5 million Jews were murdered. Jews arrived at the camps on trains, where they were separated into two groups: those fit enough to work and those to be killed immediately – usually women, children and the elderly. The latter group were ushered into what they thought were showers, where they were gassed to death using pellets of cyanide known as Zyklon B.
Altogether, it is thought around six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, as well as several million others, including gypsies, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other ‘undesirables’. Up to 88 per cent of Polish Jews were killed and Jews from all over Nazi-occupied Europe were sent to the camps.