The Holocaust was a campaign of deportation, forced labour and mass murder during World War II, carried out by Germany's Nazi regime and some other Axis states. Among the victims were Jews; Roma people; Slavs, especially Poles, Serbs and Soviet prisoners of war; homosexuals; political opponents; and people with disabilities. About 6 million Jews were killed, along with at least 5 million people of other ethnic origins.
Though the Nazis and their allies tried to destroy the death camps at the end of the war, the remnants function as museums and monuments of this dark period of Europe's modern history. As of the 2010s, the few remaining Holocaust survivors are getting old and the very last perpetrators are facing justice, emphasizing the importance of the Holocaust memories.
The Holocaust was a complex series of events, with roots in Europe's long history of racism and Antisemitism. Political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the state were rounded up in concentration camps from 1933, shortly after Hitler's rise to power. The Nuremberg Laws, introduced in 1935, stripped Jews of many of their civil rights. Organized mass murder started in 1941, and on January 20, 1942, the notorious Wannsee Conference took place, in which Nazi officials met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan the "final solution" (Endlösung) to the "Jewish question" (Judenfrage).
While the mass murder was planned by the Nazi government and most of the killing was done by German soldiers and SS, some occupied countries and allies of the Nazis also contributed in the killings and in some cases (such as the Ustase in Croatia) actually went farther or targeted other groups than the Nazis did. While some people helped Jews and other persecuted people escape, often risking their own lives and safety, the overwhelming majority ignored the killings, and some even collaborated with the Nazis, making the acts of resistance and human decency all the more laudable and celebrated to this day, both in the countries where they happened and in Israel. In the context of the mass murder of the European Jews, the Hebrew word Shoah (meaning "catastrophe") is frequently used and is preferred by some people, as the term Holocaust originally had religious implications.
As the war ended in 1945, the camps were liberated, and some of the surviving Nazi leaders were held responsible in a series of criminal trials in Nuremberg. While they were also tried for war crimes, participation in the Holocaust brought the most attention and the harshest punishments. As the Allied governments, and later West Germany and the reunified Germany, have tried and imprisoned perpetrators of the Holocaust well into the 21st century, they have established a precedent of international law. While the Holocaust was neither the first nor the last genocide in world history, it is arguably the most thoroughly documented and researched crime against humanity.
The Holocaust was carried out in most Axis-occupied territory in Europe, with a few exceptions, such as Denmark (where almost the entire Jewish population were helped to escape and those who couldn't to stay alive), Finland and Albania. Even Jews in North Africa were rounded up for murder.
After the Nazis seized power in 1933, they started setting up prison camps around Germany (which included what is today western Poland); first for political prisoners, later for Jews and other prisoner groups. As the camp system evolved into a mass murder campaign, extermination camps were set up, most of them in Poland. In the Soviet Union, much of the killing took place in the field, without camps. See below for details about the Holocaust in each country.
Aside from the camps and other sites in Europe, there are Holocaust museums and monuments around the world, including in Israel, the United States, Germany and France.
Austria has had national military service for much of the post-war period. As an alternative to joining the military, young Austrians have the option to work with a memorial service instead in order to inform the public about the horrors of the war.
EbenseeA labour camp with harsh conditions.
Mauthausen-GusenA labour camp, mostly for Soviet and Polish prisoners
Shanghai GhettoHome to many Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust during World War II. While they were spared from the fate of the gas chamber or forced labour that their compatriots remaining in Nazi-occupied Europe had to go through, the occupying Japanese placed heavy restrictions on the Jews. Conditions in the ghetto were appalling, and many of these refugees died of various diseases as a result. The former Ohel Moshe Synagogue has been converted to a museum commemorating the Jewish refugees who lived here.
Jasenovacphone: +385 44 672 319Known as Auschwitz of the Balkans, an extermination camp operated by the Ustaše regime ("Independent State of Croatia", a puppet of Nazi Germany). Many Jews, Serbs, Roma and anti-fascist Croats were murdered here. This may have contributed to the ethnic violence of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
TheresienstadtThis camp is located in the Sudetenland, annexed by Germany in 1938. It could be described a "showcase" concentration camp, built to make the internment look better than it actually was. The camp was mainly a temporary holding place for Jews before deportation to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Natzweiler-StruthofThe only Nazi concentration camp in France, set up in the region of Alsace, considered by the Nazis to be part of Germany itself liberated from France, and not occupied territory. The camp had an extremely high death toll for a camp that was not intended as a death camp, due to high altitude, particularly vicious ill-treatment of inmates, and intensive pseudo-scientific human experimentation. The most notorious examples of this were the execution of over eighty Jewish prisoners, transferred from Auschwitz specifically for the purpose, to create a "historical" collection of Jewish skeletons, and experimentation with poison gases to "improve" the extermination process.
Bergen-BelsenAfter the war, a camp for displaced persons was set up here.
BuchenwaldOpened in 1937, and one of the largest camps in Germany. From 1945 to 1950, it was used as a Soviet prison camp.
DachauThe first concentration camp, opened in 1933, the same year as Hitler rose to power. Initially used for political prisoners.
FlossenbürgOriginally a camp for criminals and "antisocial" prisoners; later for Polish and Soviet prisoners.
HadamarAn institution for T-4 Euthanasia Programme, in which people with disabilities were put to death.
Mittelbau-DoraSlave labour camp for production of rocket weapons, including the V2.
NeuengammeA slave labour camp for political prisoners. Used as a prison after the war.
RavensbrückA women's camp.
SachsenhausenAn internment camp, mainly for political prisoners.
- Nuremberg, site of the Nuremberg Party Rallies and the Nuremberg Trials
- Munich is the birthplace of the Nazi Party.
phone: +49 89 233-67000Displays items such as hand-written sonnets found in the pocket of an executed resistance member and video describing the disappearance of the city's Jewish community over time as they were deported to the camps.
SalaspilsThe site of a former concentration camp where the SS and Latvian collaborators held Jews, Russian POWs and political prisoners. Nowadays the site only hosts a museum and a memorial with several statues, the actual barracks having been destroyed.
AmersfoortA transit camp.
phone: +31 20 556 71 00address: Prinsengracht 267The house where the Jewish girl Anne Frank wrote her diary while hiding with her family from the Nazis. Don't let the (usually) long line discourage you; it moves quickly and the experience inside the hiding places on the top floors is moving. The museum lacks any exhibits to explain the historical context at the time of Anne's diary, however. Go in the early evening around 5PM to avoid any lines, or alternatively skip the lines entirely by reserving tickets from the official website. The Anne Frank House is open later during the summer. Museumkaart is valid, I Amsterdam Card is not valid.
HerzogenbuschOpened in 1943, as the earlier camps were too small.
WesterborkA transit camp.
Białystok, and central Poland became the General Government, essentially a colony ruled by the Nazis. As the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the General Government was extended to most of eastern Poland. While a few Polish people were among the perpetrators, around three million Polish Jews and two million other Poles were killed in the Holocaust.
In contrast to the German prison camps, the sites in Poland were typically extermination camps (Vernichtungslager), where prisoners (mostly Jews from all parts of Europe, but also non-Jewish Poles and other perceived enemies of the German state) were sent to die, either in gas chambers, or through forced labour, weakened by starvation and epidemics. The extermination policy makes the notorious slogan Arbeit macht frei — "Work makes (you) free" which was displayed on many camp gates — bitterly ironic.
For the death camps, the word "camp" was a misnomer, since nearly all prisoners were killed in gas chambers on arrival; the only inhabitants were guards and Sonderkommandos — prisoners assigned for disposal of bodies. The Sonderkommandos were regularly killed and replaced; some camps had more of a dozen "generations" of them. The very few who survived were valuable as witnesses to the final stage of the Holocaust.
Some of these sites have both a German and a Polish name. By convention, the German names (Auschwitz etc) are used to describe the concentration camp, while the Polish names (Oświęcim etc) are used to describe the civilian settlements.
BełżecA death camp with a toll of nearly 500,000 Jews, and an unknown number of non-Jewish Poles and Romani. Only seven prisoners were known to survive.
Chełmno nad NeremThis was the first death camp the Nazis built in occupied Poland; starting in December, 1941, between 152,000 and 180,000 Jews along with some Romani people and non-Jewish Poles were murdered by being forced and tricked into walking through a corridor that led into the back of one of two large trucks that were rigged to fill up with exhaust and cause death by carbon monoxide poisoning. There were very few survivors. There is now a Holocaust museum and memorial in this small village.
Kraków GhettoKnown to posterity from Schindler's List.
Krakow-Plaszow concentration campThe area of the former camp is now grass fields and hills with one large stone monument commemorating the victims. Also the villa of Amon Göth, the commandant of the camp, is still standing.
phone: +48 81 74 426 40address: Droga Męczenników Majdanka 67This former Nazi concentration and death camp was captured nearly intact by the Soviet Red Army, so the operation of the gas chambers and other aspects of the camp can be seen more clearly here than in any other Nazi death camp. There is debate over the number of victims here, with figures between 78,000 and several hundred thousand given by different scholars. Most victims were Jews, while many others were non-Jewish Poles, and there were prisoners from a wide variety of other nationalities. After the war, the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, used the facility to imprison and torture members of the non-communist Polish Home Army, which had fought against both Nazi and Soviet occupation, and as a transit camp for exiling some of them to Siberia.
Gross-RosenLocated in Lower Silesia, which was part of Germany before the war. The camp was set up in 1940 as a labour camp.
SobibórThis was purely a death camp. At least 167,000 and possibly as many as 300,000 people were murdered there — as in other death camps, primarily Jews. Among the victims were the Sonderkommandos from the Bełżec death camp, who managed to pass notes to the Sonderkommandos at Sobibór before being shot. Once the Sobibór Sonderkommandos realized beyond doubt that they, too, would definitely be murdered once the Nazis no longer felt a need for their services, they planned a revolt. It was only partly successful as most of them were killed, but since the Sonderkommandos knew they were dead, anyway, any level of success was worth the effort. After the uprising in 1943, the Nazis demolished the camp. Nearly nothing of the actual camp remains today, though there is a museum, and recent archeology has discovered the remains of the gas chamber.
TreblinkaBetween 700,000 and 900,000 Jews were killed here, along with 2,000 Romani. As in Sobibór, there was eventually a revolt by the Sonderkommandos, and this revolt was more successful in terms of the number of survivors but did not lead to the destruction of the camp
The Warsaw GhettoThe largest ghetto.
Litzmannstadt GhettoThe Litzmannstadt Ghetto was the second largest Jewish ghetto in Poland after the Warsaw Ghetto. It is referred to as both the Łódź Ghetto and the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, the latter name coming from the German general who captured the city in World War One (the entire city was later renamed Litzmannstadt in his honor). The ghetto was the last one to be liquidated due to the high productivity of the slave laborers and lack of armed resistance.
Janowska CampThis camp on the outskirts of Lviv, which before World War II was part of Poland, served as a slave labour and transit camp as well as an outright murder centre, but was mainly associated with the liquidation of the Lwów (Lviv) Ghetto
AlderneyThis island, one of the Channel Islands, was occupied by Germany during World War II. Four concentration camps were built here, and between 400 and 40,000 Jews (both locals, and others deported from mainland Europe) were killed over the course of the war. A few remains of one of the camps, named Lager Sylt, can be seen. See details.
In many parts of Europe, anti-Semitism, antiziganism and other kinds of racism are common, and usually entangled with current events.
Denial of the Holocaust has been a political issue to the extent that it is criminalized in Germany and several other European countries.
Visiting Holocaust museums and sites can be emotional, upsetting, and sometimes surreal. You'll see and learn things that are difficult to grapple with, and it's hard to anticipate exactly how you'll react. You may find yourself hurrying to get away from the site as quickly as you can, morose and weary as you physically feel the weight of what you're seeing, or unexpectedly detached and distant—or some combination of these.
Given the evil nature of the crimes committed in the Holocaust, you would be forgiven for thinking the places where the crimes were perpetrated would look in some way evil too, or be in isolated locations tucked out of sight. This is not always the case, and the surroundings may often be positively mundane, and be in close proximity to roads, homes and workplaces filled with people going about their daily lives. The sun may be shining. It is this contrast between expectation and reality, or between horror and banality, that can cause you to feel strangely disoriented.
Be prepared for complicated and heavy emotions, and do not expect to just move on cheerfully to your next activity once you leave. Conversely, you may need to do just that. It is not uncommon for visitors to Holocaust sites to plan some form of relaxation or entertainment immediately afterwards in order to not be completely overwhelmed by negative emotion. Your experience at the site may weigh on you for the rest of the day and beyond.