The Holocaust

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“Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews and others, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to so-called German racial purity.

The Holocaust (in Hebrew, the Shoah) was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during the Second World War, 1939-1945.


A Brief History of the Holocaust

In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over nine million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany would occupy or influence during World War II. By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators had killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of their “Final Solution,” the Nazi policy to murder the Jews of Europe.

Although Jews, whom the Nazis deemed a priority danger to Germany, were the primary victims of Nazi racism, other victims included some 200,000 Roma. The Nazi “Euthanasia Program” victimized at least 200,000 mostly-German mentally or physically disabled, institutionalized patients.

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, the persecution and segregation of the Jews was implemented in stages. Following the Nazi party rise to power in Germany in 1933, Hitler began introducing his program of state-sponsored racism including anti-Jewish legislation, economic boycotts of Jewish businesses, “racial purity” laws against the Jews, bans against Jews working in professions and the violence of the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom on November 9-10, 1938, all of which systematically isolated Jews from society, denying them basic rights and driving many out of the country.

After the September 1939 German invasion of Poland (beginning World War II), anti-Jewish policy escalated to the imprisonment and murder of European Jewry. The Nazis first established ghettos (enclosed areas designed to isolate and control the Jews), which immediately became overcrowded and unsanitary, and which lacked adequate food.

In the early years of the regime, the Nazi government established concentration camps to detain real and imagined political and ideological opponents. Increasingly in the years before the outbreak of war, Nazi SS and police officials incarcerated Jews, Roma, and other victims of ethnic and racial hatred in these camps. To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population, as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labour camps for Jews.

The German authorities also established numerous forced-labour camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labour the Germans sought to exploit.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and other units moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children and hundreds of thousands of others.

Between 1941 and 1944, Nazi German authorities deported millions of Jews from Germany, from occupied territories, and from the countries of many of its Axis allies to ghettos and to killing centres, often called extermination camps, where they were murdered in specially developed gassing facilities.

In January 1942, at a conference in Wannsee, Germany, the Nazis plotted the bureaucratic details of their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”  As part of the initial operationalization of the planned genocide, three killing centres, with no purpose other than mass murder, were established in occupied-Poland: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka.  Other killing centres, such as Majdanek and Chelmno also became notorious, and in the spring of 1942, Himmler designated Auschwitz II (Auschwitz-Birkenau) as a killing facility where the Nazis murdered approximately one million Jews.  Now synonymous with utter evil, it remains the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.

In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners as well as those in the process of marching from one camp to another. The marches continued until the War ended. Approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children – or two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe before the outbreak of World War II – were killed during the Holocaust.


Holocaust Denial

Despite the overwhelming documentary evidence and eye-witness testimony to the destruction of European Jewry, a new form of antisemitism appeared in the decades after the Second World War that took the form of denying that the Holocaust had ever taken place and that deaths that could not be denied outright were simply victims of military action or of disease and starvation.

Holocaust Denial has its roots in the conspiracy theories behind virtually all forms of antisemitism. In its simplest form, antisemitism is “a rumour about the Jews”, a suspicion that they are untrustworthy and dishonest. In this case, the “rumour” is that the Jews have fabricated evidence regarding the murder of six million men, women and children in order to extort reparations from countries and corporations or to falsely shame the world into supporting the creation of the State of Israel.

Deniers (hiding behind a false respectability by using the term ‘revisionists’) seize on any inconsistency in the documentary record of genocide to claim that such variations “prove” that the historical record is counterfeit. Legitimate historians, however, observe that such variations are expected when personal accounts (for example) are being correlated. Indeed, suspicion tends to be better founded when eye-witness accounts to a single event are perfectly aligned. Deniers also build fabricated stories to bolster their rejection of evidence refuting their thesis. They also deny that their actions are rooted in antisemitism.

CIJA and Holocaust Commemoration

Canadian organizations such as the Canadian Jewish Congress for decades defended the Jewish community against the slander of Holocaust deniers notably in their intervention in the human rights case against Ernst Zundel and at conferences (such as the Stockholm International Conference on the Holocaust) where an intergovernmental program of education was created to fight Holocaust denial and promote Holocaust remembrance.

The Canadian Jewish community joined in the international condemnation against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an inveterate Holocaust denier who, in 2007, hosted a conference to which Holocaust deniers where invited to debate the “historical veracity” of the murder of the Jews. CIJA continues this legacy, working to broaden understanding of the Holocaust as an unprecedented historical event and, at the same time, deepen our own understanding of the human rights tragedies that have darkened the histories of other communities.

Portions of this essay have been taken from The Holocaust Encyclopedia, “The Holocaust” and “The Final Solution”. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,

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