Skip Navigation

Historical BackgroundShare

The Holocaust (1933-1945) was a time of fear, brutality, and tremendous bloodshed. The National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in German), commonly known as the Nazi Party, came to power in Germany in 1933. Its ideology of racial superiority targeted the Jews of Europe not only as inferior but also as "the enemy." By the end of World War II in 1945, the Nazis and their collaborators had murdered approximately six million Jews, along with millions of others, including Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), disabled individuals, political prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and Slavs (such as Poles, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians).

Over the course of twelve years, the Nazis gradually implemented their systematic, government-sponsored persecution of European Jewry. Shortly after coming to power in 1933, Adolf Hitler began a book-burning campaign, destroying books that were written by Jews or that contained ideas opposed to Nazi ideology. Two years later, the Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and outlawed marriages between Jews and non-Jews. On November 9-10, 1938, Nazi mobs attacked and burned Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues in an event that has come to be known as Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass." With the invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II in September 1939, the Nazis extended their persecution of Jews to the countries they occupied.

During the war, the Nazis seized Jewish businesses and property and started rounding up Jews and sending them "to the East." The Nazis deliberately kept their intentions secret. Most Jews were not aware that they were being sent to ghettos, concentration camps, or even death camps.

The Nazis intimidated and isolated the Jews in order to implement their policies more easily. In early 1942, at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, Nazi officials discussed details of the Final Solution, a plan to methodically kill an estimated eleven million Jews in Europe. By February 1942, the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland began murdering Jews in gas chambers designed to kill the maximum numbers of inmates in the most efficient manner. The peoples and governments of the world barely responded as word leaked out that Jews and others were being systematically put to death.

Despite the violence that dominated this era, some individuals and groups, both Jews and non-Jews, demonstrated considerable resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery. Some Jews were able to stay alive through a combination of luck, inventiveness, the help of friends, and, sometimes, the assistance of strangers who lent a hand despite the considerable danger.

Learn about Jewish Life in Europe Before World War II