International Holocaust Remembrance Day

The Day

The Holocaust memorial day represents of the saddest moments of global and European history, that must never to be forgotten. This annual international observance aims to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust during WWII, most of them being European Jews, perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

Anne Frank, symbol and victim of the holocaust

“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl,1947

International Holocaust Remembrance Day was instituted by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005.  Some countries, such as Italy, had instituted their own Holocaust memorial day before the United Nations’ decision. The date was chosen for a specific reasons: on January 27th 1945,  the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army.

The Nazi Death machine can be resumed with these cold numbers:

  • 6 milions European jews killed in concentration camps and in the genocide perpetrated by Nazi, their allies, and collaborationists.
  • At least 30000 people belonging to Romani and Sinti ethinicty killed in concentraion camps ( the exact number is still unknown, some studies report around 800,000 victims).
  • 300,000 people with a cognitive and physical impairment killed in the name of eugenics and improvement of the species.
  • 100,000 political opponents of the Nazi regime killed (mostly Communists and liberal Freemasons)
  • 25,000 homosexuals
  • 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses

The numbers indicated, often approximate, serve to give testimony of what happened and what we must not forget.

At this link it is possible to find further information on the history of Auschwitz, on the victims, on the reports of the time and much more.

Besides Auschwitz

The Nazi strategy, easily guessed since their political takeover in the 30s, was built upon the creation of several concentrations camps and a meticulous organization and division of labor. The first Nazi camp was inaugurated in 1933 in Dachau, motivated by Himmler, who, at the time, was chief police officer in Munich and became soon the major creator of the Nazi Final Solution. Since its inauguration, roughly 200,000 were deported to the Dachau work camp.

We Italians had decided to meet every Sunday evening in a corner of the Lager, but we stopped it at once, because it was too sad to count our numbers and find fewer each time, and to see each other ever more deformed and more squalid.

Primo Levi, If this is a man, 1947
A US soldier liberating the Mauthausen’s camp, May 1945

With the expansion of Nazi Germany across Europe, many several camps were built in the occupied areas: Austria, Ukraine, 

Lithuania,  Estonia, Italy, France, Belgium, Serbia and Norway. Those camps were mainly designed to imprison, to force labor, and finally to kill.

Most of the Extermination camps, designed to achieve Himmler’ Final solution, are situated in Poland, besides Auschwitz, the main ones are in  Bełżec, Treblinka, Chełmno, Sobibór.

Some historians have reported that the Nazi built around 15,000 camps between 1930s and 1940s. This finding includes all of those camps erected in areas or countries under the Nazi influence, and all those camps designed for the purpose of detection and genocide.

Most of those, even the smallest ones in local communities, were destroyed by the Nazis themselves before the Allies’ arrival.

Let’s take a step back: the Dreyfus Affaire

Zola’s letter to President Félix Faure

An antisemitic sentiment has always been deeply rooted in most of European countries, not only in Germany. It often led to discrimination against European jews.

Between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of nineteenth century, the European public opinion was shocked by the Dreyfus affair. He was a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry, he was convicted for treasons and 

espionage. The allegations were proven to be false, however this particular event proved to be an extremely important event for French politics and to uncover the antisemitic sentiment, spread and rooted in European societies.

This legal case became even more population thanks to the famous open letter J’Accuse!  written by Emile Zola and published on the front page of L’Aurore, in which the famous French author accused the government of antisemitism and the unlawful jailing of French officer.

And The Protocols of the Elders of Zion

Other antisemitic events occurred in Europe and all over the world: Russia, Algeria, Morocco, France, US and Middle East. To add more fuel to the fire, it has started to spread one of the most famous fake news in the history of humankind: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was a fabricated antisemitic text, first found in the Russian empire,  purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination.

The British Times, with a series of articles published in the 1921, provided evidence of its fraudulent nature and exposed it as an hoax.

This antisemitic sentiment found fertile soil in post-war Germany of the 1920s. WWI and the peace treaties, among them the most important the Treaty of Versailles, had left Germany politically and economically weak and unstable. Hitler was able to intercept the growing hatred towards Jews and incorporated into his political agenda.

The continuous discontent in Germany after WWI, was challenging the social stability of the country.

Heading towards WWII

Hitler’s intentions and his belief in purity of the Aryan race not only were clear in the Mein Kampf, but also were present in his political takeover during the 1930s and were made even more explicit in the regime’s propaganda. Among the many horrific crimes committed, the ones against books: the book burnings – Bücherverbrennungen – organized in the 1933, necessary, according to them, to

To commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.

Joseph Goebbels, May 1933

At the first, Nazi’s political goal was to remove Jews  from Germany. The Reich created, then, the conditions for their confinement. Firstly, it  proclaimed the Nuremberg Laws, which excluded Jews from social and public life; three years later it imposed the Aryanization of all Jews businesses, services, stores.

Book burnings organized by the Deutsche Studentenschaft

On the Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, the night between 9–10 November 1938, the Nazi forces,  motivated by the  Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Goebbels , destroyed synagogues, cemeteries, Jewish gathering places. Thousands of Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed and almost 30,000 Jewish citizens were deprived of their properties and deported to concentration camps.

At this dramatic point, those who could fled the county, those who decided to stay, encounter hell. In 1939 with the Invasion of Poland and the outbreak of WWII, the living conditions of Jewish became even more critical. Many of them ended up living in overcrowded ghettos. For instance, the ghetto of Warsaw, established in 1940, had a population of 400,000 people in a tiny space of 4 km x 2 km.

In the meantime, the Reichskommissariat Ostland, guided by the chief police officer Himmler, planned operations of ethnic cleansing with the goal of removing all of the Jews living in Germany and the newly-occupied territories. The problem was: where to put them all, considering that in Poland only, there were 3 million Jewish people.

The Final Solution

The Nazi plan for the genocide of Jews, which speeded up in the last phase of the war, was not something improvised, on the contrary, it represented a large project, carefully and methodically designed and organized. The precision of the raids and following sorting of thousands of people towards concentration or extermination camps shows how meticulous and organized this planning was.

Changes in the war scenario and in the power dynamics between countries involved, led to a violent speed up of the genocide towards “inferior races”. On January 20th of 1942,  in a villa on the Wannsee lake, nearby Berlin, 15 Nazi high officers met to discuss the Final Solution. It was the leader of the SS to present a plan. On the 16th of the same year, Himmler, who had become the Hitler’s right-hand man, commanded the deportation of all the Sinti and Romani living in Germany to the Auschwitz camp. This is how the final solution towards the Gitano population started. Around 600,000 Romani and Sinti would be killed.

Gas chambers in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp

in the Extermination camp were deported and killed around 3 million jews (roughly 90% of the total victims) with a standard procedure that could resemble the one of modern factories.

People were usually killed using gas, with gas chambers either with mobile gas chambers or static ones, or they were  mass-murdered, primarily by shooting. There were also other causes, such as medical experiments or the use of particular deadly gas.

Even though the extermination camps needed to be kept secret, in the nearby villages, disturbing news about them started to spread. For instance, the smoke coming from the chimneys of Crematoriums in Auschwitz was visible from a distance of 19 km and many nauseating smells spread across the air.

The end of an unforgivable nightmare

On January 27th 1945,  the Red Army’s 60th army commanded by Gen. Ivan Konev, arrived first at the Polish city of  Oświęcim (Auschwitz), finding out the nearby extermination camp and freeing the survivors. Discovering the camp of Auschwitz e the survivors’ testimonies shed a light, for the first time, on the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  

Ten days before the red army’s arrival, the Nazis had taken with them forcing them in a long march all of the healthy prisoners, most of them died in the process. The opening of Auschwitz’s gates showed the world not only the witnesses of this tragedy but also the torture methods and devices used by the Nazis.

The world finally had the chance to see what has happened in those camps: prisoners who were unable to work and were unfit to be participants of medical experiments were immediately killed, the others were sorted according to the camps’ needs. Moreover, there were those who, in exchange for their safety, worked for the Nazis inside the camps.

The Nazi hierarchs at the Nuremberg trial: in the front row (from left to right): Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel. In the second row: Karl Dönitz, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Fritz Sauckel.

The defeat and the surrender of Nazi Germany which occurred few months later, initiated a series of trials against the responsible for the atrocities committed, the most famous were the Nuremberg trails.  The testimonies of the survivors, and of those who have repented, and of the Nazi hierarchs shed the light on one of the darkest pages of our history.The discovery of the atrocities committed by the Nazis must never to be forgotten, it must serve as a stimulus to remember what has occurred and make sure it does not happen again, to anyone.

The remembering of the victims, of their struggle, of resistance against Nazism and the fight towards it, must be considered as essential values to be kept as present and alive as possible.

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