|A lunatic Chaplin imitator|
and his greatest fans
|First as tragedy|
|Then as farce|
“”Time does not heal all wounds; there are those that remain painfully open.
The Holocaust, known by many Jews as The Shoah, was the systematic and deliberate genocide of ethnic Jews, Slavs, Roma, homosexuals, transgender people, handicapped people, and political opponents by Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945. This program of mass murder occurred in various methods, including mass extrajudicial executions, pogroms, gas vans, forced labor in concentration camps, and gas chambers in Nazi extermination camps. The most heavily used death camps were Auschwitz, Bełżec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór, and Treblinka, which the Nazis built across occupied Poland. Nazi Germany and its Axis allies murdered approximately 17 million people in the course of the Holocaust, about 6 million of them Jews.
The Holocaust was the culmination of centuries of European antisemitism. Hatred towards Jews dates all the way back to the Roman Empire and resulted in myriad pogroms and massacres carried out against Jews during the Middle Ages and the early modern period; in 1997 Pope John Paul II recognized that "erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people… contributed to a lulling of many consciences" during the time of the Nazis. Nazi propaganda also played upon old stereotypes and myths playing into Europe's hatred, like the Evil Jew and blood libel. The final element, the fear of communism, materialized when Adolf Hitler declared that the mission of Nazism was to destroy "Jewish Bolshevism" and falsely claimed that the Jews had engineered the rise of the Soviet Union.
Germany implemented the Holocaust in stages, beginning with the construction of the Dachau camp in 1933 to house socialist and communist prisoners, and then beginning measures to isolate Jews from German society with boycotts and the 1935 Nuremberg Laws which stripped Jews of citizenship and declared them to be enemies of the state. In 1938, German and Austrian citizens looted and destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues during Kristallnacht. After Germany's invasion of Poland, they established ghettos to segregate Jews and leave them to suffer and starve. During their invasion of the Soviet Union, murder squads started mass executing Jews in occupied territories. At the Wannsee Conference in 1942, Waffen-SS second-in-command Reinhard Heydrich assembled high-ranking members of the German government, including Adolf Eichmann, to discuss the implementation of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question". During the meeting, Heydrich and the others decided to round up Europe's Jews and send them to death camps in occupied Poland with the intent of murdering every Jew in Europe. Germany implemented the plan almost immediately, where the Germans deported victims from the ghettos and other parts of Europe in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if the victims survived the journey, they were gassed, worked, or beaten to death. Alongside the Jews, the Germans also started murdering Slavic POWs and civilians and others they considered undesirable in their ethnostate. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945 as the Nazi German war effort collapsed on all fronts.
Origin of term
“”Our central focus was memory—our own and that of the victims during a time of unprecedented evil and suffering. That was the Holocaust, an era we must remember not only because of the dead; it is too late for them. Not only because of the survivors; it may even be late for them. Our remembering is... aimed saving men and women from apathy to evil, if not from evil itself.
|—Report to the President, President's Commission on the Holocaust, 1979.|
The term "Holocaust" was first used by the New York Times to refer to the genocide of Armenians and other Christians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The word itself means "burnt offering, or sacrifice by fire", which was poetic in the Armenian case but disturbingly fitting for this event when murdered Jews were cremated in masses. In referring to the Nazi atrocity, it seems that the New York Times got there first again by referring to it by that name as early as 1943. The Library of Congress created a category for the Holocaust in 1968, NBC popularized the term in 1978 with their television series Holocaust about the harrowing experiences of a family of German Jews. Also in 1978, Jimmy Carter established the President's Commission on the Holocaust to begin the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Many Jews tend to refer to the Holocaust by their own term, the Biblical term shoah (Hebrew: שׁוֹאָה), meaning "destruction". In the Hebrew Bible, the word was used to describe the Jews' darkest moments of catastrophe, so it naturally seems appropriate here, too.
“”What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. First to set fire to their synagogues or schools… Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed… Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.
|—Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies.|
Antisemitism was endemic to European culture for almost its entire history. The Roman Empire was discriminatory towards Jews for as long as they were present in the empire, and this escalated into violence when the Jews tried to revolt for their freedom in 66 CE. The Romans then totally destroyed Jerusalem and forced almost the entire Jewish population into exile across Europe. Roman discrimination got even worse when the empire adopted Christianity as its state religion, and Roman laws effectively segregated Jews from the rest of Roman society while Roman officials destroyed synagogues and turned them into churches. Much of that was based on the canard of "Jewish deicide", or the idea that Jews are collectively responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and should all be punished for it; the Catholic Church didn't denounce this idea until 1964. The idea is also pretty fucking stupid, considering that it clashes with Christian theology, that the whole idea of Jesus' redemption of humanity couldn't have happened without the crucifixion and Jesus' death was itself part of God's plan. But whatever.
Throughout the Middle Ages, European Jews had to endure pogroms, expulsions, and general discrimination for centuries. Antisemitism also received a boost during the Reformation with the publication of Martin Luther's violent and vulgar tract, On the Jews and Their Lies, and his subsequent encouragement of his sponsors to expel the Jews from northern Germany. As you can expect, Nazi propaganda was real fond of playing on Luther's ideas and writings.
Jews were seen as a useful scapegoat for Europeans across history, as Christian and Islamic regimes questioned their loyalty, hated them for failing to culturally assimilate, and envied their economic successes in the face of hardship.
“”If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.
|—Adolf Hitler, 1939 speech to the Reichstag.|
Jews were also subject to conspiracy theories from antisemites who wanted to continue inventing reasons to hate them. One of the most pervasive was the idea that Jews were a secret cabal in charge of the whole world. This idiocy was codified in the dumbass fake book The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which was published in 1919 and purported to be a leaked Jewish plan to dominate the world. The Nazis, again unsurprisingly, glommed on to the book. Nazi propaganda in the German tabloid Der Stürmer wrote that, "The secret goals of the Jewish people are laid out in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion… They contain the Jewish plan for world conquest… The Jews will fight without pity. We must also fight without pity against Pan-Jewry. The Jewish people must be exterminated from the face of the earth."
There was also the good old blood libel canard, which has existed since the Middle Ages and stupidly accuses Jews of using Christian blood for dark magic rituals or even as medicine. Despite the rather blatant falsifiability, the canard maintained its influence into the modern world and played into Nazi propaganda.
The Nazis also linked Jews with communism and the Soviet Union. This went back to the October Revolution, which Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg called "the revolt of the Jewish, Slavic and Mongolian races against the German (Aryan]) element in Russia". That's a dumb idea, but the Nazis loved to back it up by grossly exaggerating the number of Jews who were involved in the Soviet takeover. By the 1920s, Hitler was declaring that the Nazi mission was to destroy "Jewish Bolshevism". The Nazis kept this up during their 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel stated in a field order that "the struggle against Bolshevism demands ruthless and energetic, rigorous action above all against the Jews, the main carriers of Bolshevism".
During the late Nineteenth Century, Germany and Austria saw the rise of the Völkisch movement, developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. Among the movement's ideas was the concept that Jews were a separate race from the Aryan Germans, and those two races were locked in a secret war with each other for world domination. They argued that only by defeating the Jews could Germany be revitalized. This became a key part of Nazi ideology, and the acceptance of race "science" allowed the Nazis to cloak their base hatred in a guise of supposed rationality.
The conception of Jews as a separate race made it easier for the Nazis to make blanket condemnations against all of them. They declared that the Jews had innate racial characteristics which would condemn them regardless of what actual religion they followed; these supposed characteristics included greed, a special aptitude for money-making, aversion to hard work, clannishness and obtrusiveness, lack of social tact, low cunning, and lack of patriotism. The Nazi government even had lessons to be used in classrooms to teach German kids how to identify Jews. Nazi propaganda also endlessly focused on the supposed 'Jewish nose'.
Wehrmact officers and the Nazi Party also viewed Slavs (such as Russians and Poles) to be subhuman, and they described their invasion of Eastern Europe as a war to wipe out the 'Asiatic hordes' and 'Jewish vermin'.
The Nazis didn't except their own race from persecution either. They viewed the physically and mentally ill as defects in the genetic makeup of the "master race", and they decided that those undesirables had to be murdered as well in order to perfect the German race.
Buildup and escalation
Dachau and political prisoners
The Nazi campaign of oppression and crackdowns began very shortly after Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany. The Nazis considered their political opponents "enemies of the state", and they preyed upon fears of communism and social democracy to convince the German people to go along with the extrajudicial arrests and imprisonment of these political opponents. The first concentration camp, Dachau, opened in Munich in 1933 and began housing communists and social democrats.
The Dachau camp pioneered the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei", "Work Will Set You Free", as its initial purpose was to impose severe discipline, Spartan living conditions, and forced labor upon its victims in order to transform them into good Nazi German citizens. Those who refused to reform would die there.
Punishments were routine and random at Dachau. They included: forcing prisoners to stand completely still in stress positions for many hours, severe beatings with a cane, lashing prisoners dozens of times with a whip, and solitary confinement in tiny stand-up prison cells which were too cramped to sit down or stand up in. Goddamn.
The Dachau model proved popular enough with the government to prompt the ordering of more such camps, and soon camps like it or smaller were sprouting up across Germany to serve as a warning and threat to its population. Camps built during this period included Sachsenhausen (built 1936) north of Berlin, Buchenwald (1937) near Weimar, Neuengamme (1938) near Hamburg, Flossenbürg (1938), Mauthausen (1938), and Ravensbrück (1939).
Persecution of Jews
As the 1930s progressed, the Nazi government steadily increased its persecution of Jews. In 1933, the government organized a boycott of Jewish businesses, which was largely unsuccessful but did reveal the government's intent to start cracking down on Jews. The same year saw the passage of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which excluded Jews and communists from government positions at all levels, including teachers, professors, and judges. It was quickly followed by a new law banning Jews from being lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, musicians, and notaries.
The Nazi government then implemented reverse affirmative action, using quotas to restrict the number of Jewish students who could attend schools and universities. Jewish businesses were randomly appropriated by the Nazi government for "Aryanization", in which they'd be shut down and sold to Germans. All of this occurred amid a great rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes, encouraged by government authorities.
In 1935, the German government announced the Nuremberg Laws, a slew of legislation that stripped citizenship from Jews and made it totally legal for citizens or the government to commit any acts of violence against them. Jews, Romaf, and other racial undesirables were declared to be the "enemies of the race-based state." The Nuremberg Laws provided the legal basis for later steps in the Holocaust.
Albert Einstein was among those targeted by the Nazi regime; he openly criticized the government and then fled the country, and the Nazi regime froze his bank account and had his publications burned. One German poster about Einstein had the ominous slogan, "Bis Jetzt Ungehaengt", meaning "Not Yet Hanged." Einstein was joined by tens of thousands of other Jews who were lucky enough to escape Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, many of those Jews were later captured when the Nazis started invading their new home countries.
Sterilization and euthanasia
“”The more severely burdened should not propagate themselves… If we do nothing but make mental and physical cripples capable of propagating themselves, and the healthy stocks have to limit the number of their children because so much has to be done for the maintenance of others, if natural selection is generally suppressed, then unless we will get new measures our race must rapidly deteriorate.
|—Paul Eugen Bleuler, Textbook of Psychiatry.|
During the Great Depression, the Nazis started denouncing the mentally and physically disabled as burdens on society. They advocated for the forced sterilization or even forced euthanasia of those individuals they deemed useless to the state. The Nazis called them Lebensunwertes Leben, meaning "life unworthy of life".
In 1933 they passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, establishing Genetic Health Courts which could order any German citizen to be sterilized. Disorders which would warrant a court order included hereditary blindness or deafness, epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, and even alcoholism. Also targeted were the "Rhineland Bastards", or Afro-Germans who were believed to have been fathered by French African troops during the post-World War I Rhineland occupation. In the first year of this policy there were more than 54,000 recorded court orders for forced sterilization. Over the entire existence of Nazi Germany, that number went up to around 400,000. Four hundred of them were young men who were denounced by the government as "Rhineland Bastards".
In 1939 this escalated into overt murder. This program, Aktion T4, was targeted mostly at adults but also resulted in the forced euthanasia of many children as well. Being a Jew was also considered proper cause for euthanasia. The program resulted in roughly 150,000 deaths.
The corpses of those murdered under Aktion T4 were often used for medical research, as they could be dissected or selected for organs to study. For instance, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research by 1940 had around 700 human brains in their possession for dissection and study, all taken from victims of Aktion T4.
Persecution in Austria
In 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Jews who had previously considered themselves lucky to not be in Germany abruptly found themselves living in Germany. Austrian and German Nazis unleashed a wave of violence upon the country's Jews, smashing Jewish homes and shops, beating the crap out of Jewish people, and forcing other Jews to participate in humiliating performances of cleaning streets or toilets. Anti-Jewish legislation like the Nuremberg Laws also went into place immediately, and Jews were subject to increasingly intense persecution. Tens of thousands of Jews fled Austria, and they were subjected to the huge "flight tax", which the government charged them for the privilege of getting to leave.
The wave of celebratory violence also helped the Nazi regime consolidate its hold over Austria. Any Austrian politicians or citizens who opposed the German annexation were quickly arrested and tortured into either compliance or death.
Amid the appropriation of Jewish businesses and wealth, the Nazi Party revealed its innate corruption as many of its officials had to be arrested and investigated for embezzling funds that should have been stolen on behalf of the German state. They were stealing, yes, but not for the right reason.
“”I still remember my mother's words when [my father] was taken away by two policemen: 'What's going on, what are you doing with him, what has he done, where is he being taken to?' Even as a 12-year-old, you can feel the fear of adults.
|—W. Michael Blumenthal, witness to Kristallnacht.|
In November of 1938, Nazi antisemitism exploded into nationwide violence. This was allegedly a spontaneous civilian occurrence in response to the recent assassination of German foreign official Ernst vom Rath, who had been killed by a young Polish Jew who had been distraught over the treatment of his family. In reality, the event was effectively planned by the government, with Joseph Goebbels effectively commanding that a general pogrom proceed. Reinhard Heydrich went so far as to write guidelines for the pogrom's progress, instructing police not to interfere with any violence unless a foreign national was threatened.
The result of all of this was a 48-hour period of madness where violent mobs, encouraged by Nazi officials, burned and destroyed Jewish shops and synagogues, desecrated Jewish religious landmarks and items, murdered 91 people, and helped send 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. In some instances, Jews were captured by crowds and made to bow or dance as their shops and synagogues burned. The event was called Kristallnacht, named after the huge amount of shattered glass that filled the streets from the destroyed Jewish shops. The Nazi government held Jews responsible for the violence and confiscated their insurance payouts and other funds in order to pay for the damage and replace the destroyed Jewish institutions with German ones.
Kristallnacht marked a turning point for Nazi Germany, as it was the first time the German nation had mobilized for mass violence against the Jews. Hateful rhetoric and discriminatory laws had turned into bloodshed, and that was one of the final steps towards genocide.
Massacres and ghettos in Poland
The mass murder began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. Poland itself had seen antisemitic rioting in the 1930s, and the German army simply encouraged more of the same. The worst of these massacres were the Lviv Pogroms, in which Ukrainian nationalists, German soldiers, and civilians raped and murdered thousands of people. The Jedwabne pogrom saw Polish civilians seal around 340 Jews in a barn and burn them alive.
The Nazis also assembled elite killing squads called the SS Einsatzgruppen, who were tasked exclusively with murdering Jews. By the first week of the invasion, they were hunting down and killing an average of 200 people per day.
The Jews who weren't murdered were concentrated in ghettos across Poland's major cities, and these ghettos were then sealed off and denied basic survival necessities. The largest was the Warsaw Ghetto, which housed as many as 460,000 Jews. In these ghettos, Jews had to wear armbands or stars to identify themselves to German military police. They were sealed in by walls and barbed wire, and Jews who tried to escape were shot.
Nazi officials intentionally limited the amount of food that reached the ghettos; the average daily food intake in the Warsaw ghetto was just 184 calories. Food items supplied included dry bread, flour and potatoes of the lowest quality, groats, turnips, and a tiny amount of meat. They spent their days working as slaves to manufacture goods for the German military.
Persecution in France
After the swift defeat of France in 1940, the collaborationist government of Philippe Pétain began cooperating with the Nazi efforts to round up Europe's Jews. Nazi military occupiers of the Netherlands and Belgium also began implementing anti-Jewish policies in preparation for deporting them.
In France, Pétain passed his own anti-Jewish legislation to strip them of French citizenship, force them out of the civil service, and allow for their immediate internment. The Vichy French laws were noticeably harsher than the laws passed in those parts of France occupied by fascist Italy. According to Marshal Pétain's chief of staff, "Germany was not at the origin of the anti-Jewish legislation of Vichy. That legislation was spontaneous and autonomous." The Vichy regime also cooperated with helping the Nazis draw up a list of French Jews, which greatly assisted the later German effort of deporting them all into death camps.
The Nazi government also briefly considered using the French colony of Madagascar as a giant concentration camp for all of Europe's Jews. Adolf Eichmann and other SS members believed that the harsh tropical conditions there would quickly kill off great numbers of Jews. However, the stiff resistance put up by the British Empire and the near-invincibility of its Royal Navy ensured that sending the Jews overseas on German ships would be impossible.
Pogroms in Romania
Among Hitler's pals in the Axis, one of the worst was the regime of Marshal Ion Antonescu in Romania. Unlike in some of the other Axis nations, the persecution and mass murder of Jews in Romania was effectively an independent undertaking which they did without any need for coercion or encouragement from the Nazis. Romanian anti-Jewish laws went into effect in 1940 during that country's attempts to woo Germany into letting it join the Axis.
Ion Antonescu's consolidation of power in January 1941 involved a bloody instance of mass violence against Jews in Bucharest, resulting in the total destruction of the city's Jewish quarter and the deaths of hundreds. The furious mob also attacked and killed anyone who wasn't willing to participate in their mass murder, and they killed hundreds of Christians as well who either weren't interested in killing anyone or were actually trying to defend the Jews.
Even worse than that was the Iași pogrom in June 1941, in which the Antonescu government meticulously planned the extermination of the entire city's Jewish population, even demonstrating one of the first uses of "death trains". Alongside the hunting, massacre, and brutalization of the city's Jews, the government forces also helped load Jews onto trains, pretending that they were helping them escape. Instead, those trains simply took the Jews outside of the city, where they were shot and dumped. The pogrom here resulted in the deaths of roughly 13,200 people, making it one of the worst pogroms in history.
Genocide in Slovakia and Yugoslavia
“”The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner not only against males of conscript age, but especially against helpless old people, women and children. The number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about three hundred thousand.
|—Gestapo report to Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, 17 February 1942.|
One of Hitler's most loyal allies was Jozef Tiso, leader of the Nazi puppet government, the Slovak State. He took power after the Nazi partition of Czechoslovakia. A clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church, Tiso's hatred of Jews led him into joyfully collaborating with Hitler's genocidal aims. Tiso was convinced that Jews were sabotaging the Slovak economy, and he began deporting tens of thousands of Jews into Germany's concentration camps as early as 1940, with the full knowledge that Germany intended to murder them all.
Competing with Romania for the position of vilest Nazi partner, the Independent State of Croatia led by Ante Pavelić, emerged after the Axis invaded and partitioned Yugoslavia. Croatia was ruled by the Ustaša, a Croatian Catholic and fascist movement that had long hoped to have Croatia join the Axis as an independent partner. They even started the yellow star requirements several months before Nazi Germany had gotten around to fully implementing it themselves.
Not only did the Ustaša hate Jews, but they also wanted to commit genocide upon the Slavs in Yugoslavia as well. To that end, they constructed numerous concentration camps in which to murder people across much of Yugoslavia, essentially anyone who wasn't a Catholic, such as Serbs, Bosniak Muslims, Roma, and naturally Jews. Conditions in these camps were just as wretched as in the Nazi concentration camps, and guards cruelly tortured, terrorized, and murdered prisoners at will. Around 30,000 Jews and 340,000 Serbs died in Croatian camps or were deported to die in German camps. Fascist Croatia also had a large militia force which executed and tortured people across the region, burned Eastern Orthodox churches and murdered their clergy, and rounded people up to be sent to the camps. Even local Nazi officials were shocked at the level of sadism that the Croatian fascists displayed. Other Serbs were rounded up and forced to convert to Catholicism on the threat of painful death.
The Final Solution
“”Regarding the Jewish question, the Führer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it.
|—Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda.|
Throughout 1941 and 1942, Nazi Germany started finalizing one of the most horrifying ideas ever envisioned by human beings. The idea called for genocide on an unimaginable scale: the total extermination of Slavs and other non-Germanic races from all of Eastern Europe up to the Ural Mountains and the colonization of those regions by Germans. The plan called for the extermination of tens of millions of people, the forced slavery and "Germanization" of millions more, and of course the genocide of Jews over the course of roughly ten years. The result, had the plan been totally implemented, would have been a Nazi ethnostate spanning most of Europe. Again, this wasn't some fantasy or harebrained scheme. This was actual, written foreign policy of the Nazi state. The Holocaust was the first step in the plan's implementation.
The motive came from Adolf Hitler's idea of lebensraum, or the idea that the German people needed to control the rich farmlands of the east in order to ensure the survival and expansion of their race and the self-sufficiency of their nation. This was the culmination of decades of racialism and racism directed towards Slavs.
Hitler's inspiration for the plan came from the United States, which had successfully committed many American Indian genocides and had colonized an entire continent. The same way places like Kansas and California had become dominated by white Americans, so Hitler hoped the same would happen to Russia and Ukraine.
This political agenda had been in Hitler's mind since the writing of Mein Kampf, and he ordered Heinrich Himmler and others to formalize the idea into an actual war plan. In the end, the plan's primary weapon of genocide was to be starvation by concentrating Slavic populations into geographical areas and then cutting off the food supply. It was a more advanced application of the same methodology Stalin had used in the Holodomor. This would be combined with mass murder and German colonization, both tactics which saw use from the opening stages of the war.
Brutality in the Soviet Union
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the beginning of the final stage of the Holocaust and the first stage of Generalplan Ost. Nazi propagandists portrayed the conflict as an ideological war against Jews and their "subhuman" proxies. Although Hitler had previously struck a non-aggression pact with Joseph Stalin, Hitler never intended to live up to it. Invading the Soviet Union was always one of the central ideas of Nazism, as Hitler hoped to seize the agricultural lands of the Soviet Union, especially in Ukraine, and turn it into the breadbasket of a new Nazi empire.
Nazi Einsatzgruppen immediately received orders to shoot communist party members and Jews in those areas of the Soviet Union the Germans managed to occupy. By the winter of 1941–1942, they had murdered up to 500,000 people in mass executions. This was all in accordance with Hitler's Barbarossa Decree, which explained that the war against the Soviets was one of extermination and thus legalized all war crimes committed by German soldiers. Rape, murders, and beatings immediately became commonplace. In August, Himmler issued an order clarifying that the Einsatzgruppen mission included orders to murder women and children as well, just to make sure that nobody tried to spare them.
Some of the worst Jewish massacres in history unfolded during the early stages of the Nazi invasion. The Ponary massacre in Lithuania saw about 100,000 Jews, Poles, and Russians gunned down by German SS troops and Lithuanian collaborators. In Ukraine, the Nazis used a ravine called Babi Yar near Kiev to murder as many as 170,000 Jews, Slavs, and Roma from September 1941.
Ultimately, these massacres provided the final step towards outright elimination. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler and his government weren't sure that the SS and other German units would be willing to commit mass murder on such a scale, but the huge massacres they committed at the outset of the war removed these doubts and allowed full planning for the genocide to proceed.
After the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor and the US declared war on Japan, Hitler apparently blamed American Jews for all of it. He was more than happy, then, to declare war on the United States. Shortly after this, Hitler assembled his senior members of government and reiterated his full intent to exterminate all Jews in Europe.
The only question left was how to implement the total murder of all Jews in Europe. On 20 January 1942, deputy head of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, assembled a meeting of senior Reich officials at the Berlin suburb of Wannsee in order to discuss implementation and other issues. The actual minutes of the conference, taken by Adolf Eichmann, survived the war, so it's quite well known what happened there. The most pressing issue discussed there was the legal definition of a "Jew", as the Nazi prejudice against them had no scientific basis, and the Reich had to fall back on the grandparents rule. Of course, there was thus also no way to determine what made someone's grandparents a Jew. The meeting also covered the issue of what to do with the huge numbers of Polish and Soviet Jews the Nazis had imprisoned, and Eichmann reported that the conference attendees discussed the merits and feasibility of various different kinds of mass murder.
The final action plan, as Eichmann's minutes report, was:
“”Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival.
The death camps
“”Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives.
|—Johann Kremer, SS doctor who oversaw gassings at Auschwitz.|
After resolving to murder Jews through forced labor and mass murder, the Nazi government immediately started constructing extermination camps and expanding existing concentration camps. The death camps started opening throughout 1942, and they used gas chambers as their primary means of mass murder. Victims arrived in trains, having been deported from other parts of Europe, and roughly 20% were selected for forced labor.:219–220
The rest were sent into the gas chambers after being forced to surrender their valuables and clothing. To prevent panic and resistance, Nazi officials told the victims that the gas chambers were actually group showers. The victims were then sealed inside and exposed to either carbon monoxide or Zyklon-B, which was a pesticide that the Nazis had turned into a chemical weapon.
Afterwards, the gas would be pumped out, and Sonderkommando, who were mostly prisoners who were forced on the threat of death, disposed of gas chamber victims. Many of them were then murdered themselves. To their horror, some of them ended up discovering that they had to dispose of corpses from their own friends and family members. Many ended up committing suicide.
The bodies were initially buried, but most of the rest were burned in mass crematoriums. The bones left over were crushed by the Sonderkommando, sometimes in specially-made machinery.
Located near the Polish city of Łódź, this was the first death camp to begin mass gassing of Jews, as it was the site of early Nazi experiments in using gas vans for mass murder of Polish prisoners. Alongside other gas vans used by the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front, the camp functioned as a proof-of-concept for gassing at the Wannsee Conference.
The camp's first operations began in December 1941, and it was used to start emptying out the Łódź ghetto and murder Polish prisoners, with the camp averaging roughly nine truckloads of dead per day. In mid-1942, a series of accidents involving gas vans breaking down or even exploding convinced Nazi authorities to transition to a variant of the later gas chamber model of operations.
Chełmno extermination camp ultimately managed to kill roughly 200,000 people.
Bełżec, built near the Polish town of the same name, was the second camp to start mass gassing operations. It was built under the aegis of Operation Reinhard, which was the Nazi plan to exterminate all Jews in Poland. Many personnel involved with Aktion T4 were reassigned here to begin experiments in new ways of mass murder. In this camp and the other Reinhard camps, officials used truck engines to produce carbon monoxide gas, which they then pumped into stationary gas chambers.
A narrow path called the "tube" connected the front reception area to the hidden death centers in the back, and railroad tracks led to a mass grave and later a pyre for the camp's victims. Bełżec saw the murder of between 434,000 and 600,000 people. It's one of the least known camps as only seven of the many Sonderkommando who worked there survived the war, and only one was seriously interviewed.
The second of the Reinhard camps, Sobibór started operations in May 1942. It was constructed with forced labor, and any workers who showed signs of exhaustion were shot on sight. The rest were killed upon completion.
This camp used the Bełżec model for its gas chambers, with a large engine taken from a tractor or a tank used to generate carbon monoxide. However, its chambers were simply adapted from existing structures, and were thus made of wood. In the violent process of gassing so many people, the wood walls absorbed so much sweat, urine, blood, and excrement that they became uncleanable by the summer and had to be demolished and replaced by brick structures. The camp authorities also embarked on a "beautification" program in which they did their best to make the camp look like a quaint little German village, apparently for their own comfort. The appearance was still noted by the camp's victims, and it helped conceal the facility's true purpose from the soon-to-be murdered.
The camp killed between 170,000 and 250,000 people, a number which was only so low due to a revolt in 1943 that forced the camp's closure.
Treblinka was the second deadliest Nazi extermination camp, and it was the third Reinhard camp to be built. It was split into two halves. Treblinka I, which opened much earlier in 1941, was a forced labor camp, where workers cut wood to fuel the mass crematoriums from Treblinka II, the extermination camp. Treblinka I had around 20,000 slaves working there, and around half of them died over the course of its operation through shootings, hunger, disease and mistreatment.
Like the other Reinhard camps, it used carbon monoxide gas, in this case pumped in from the engine of a captured Soviet tank. Treblinka prisoners were told by guards that the chambers were a delousing facility rather than a group shower. Men were always gassed first, as it was believed that they were the most dangerous, so women and children waiting outside could hear their suffering. This always caused panic and distress among the women and children.
One particularly evil guard was nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible", as he liked to torture prisoners by beating them with pipes, or cut off people's noses and ears or gouge out their eyes with his sword collection. On at least one occasion, Ivan apparently smashed an infant's head against a wall. Other guards could be just as cruel. Over the weekends or on days when they didn't expect prisoners, the guards liked to put prisoners in the gas chambers and simply leave them there for days to slowly suffocate. According to guard testimony, the chambers were usually so overcrowded that people died while standing up, as they had no room to fall; dead mothers were usually embracing their children.
Treblinka's estimated body count is between 700,000 and 900,000 people.
Auschwitz was the deadliest of the Nazi concentration camps, and it was a complex of over 40 smaller facilities. Auschwitz I was the main camp, and it served as a forced labor and administration center. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the main death camp, and it was constructed on the orders of Heinrich Himmler to fill the Nazi desire for yet more death camps. Auschwitz III-Monowitz was another labor camp, which used slave labor to run the huge nearby synthetic rubber factory.
Even the labor camps served as means of mass murder. Those lucky enough to be spared immediate gassing had their hair shaved off and were tattooed with a serial number. Prisoners lived in huge, cramped barracks which had no protection from heat or cold. They ate small rations of rotting food, and they could be arbitrarily beaten or murdered by the cruel guards. The Nazis also conducted human experimentation here, and the infamous Josef Mengele was based in the camp.
This was the first camp to use Zyklon-B as a killing agent, having conducted the initial experiments in using it on Soviet POWs and captured Poles. The gassing facilities were repeatedly expanded to kill greater and greater numbers of Jews and other victims. So many people perished in the gas chambers that the Sonderkommando had to burn piles of corpses in open air pits in the ground because the crematoria were too full. The SS also decided to make use of the corpses by having gold extracted from people's fillings and having the shaved hair used to make clothing items.
Auschwitz had an estimated death toll of about 1.1 million people.
“”I have just seen the most terrible place on the face of the earth.
|—W.H. Lawrence, New York Times reporter visiting the Soviet-liberated camp, August 1944.|
Majdanek was the last Nazi death camp to begin operations, getting up and running in October 1942. It was originally built to house the huge number of Soviet POWs the Nazis were capturing during the initial advance into the Soviet Union. Its construction was repeatedly delayed due to the need to continually expand its maximum capacity to hold more prisoners. Himmler then visited the camp one more time after seeing the effectiveness of Auschwitz and Treblinka, and he ordered its conversion into another death camp modeled after them. When it was completed, it became the second largest camp after Auschwitz, containing labor and concentration facilities as well.
Like Auschwitz, Majdanek used Zyklon-B in its many gas chambers. The gas buildings were in plain view of the other inmates, without fences or any other means of concealing the final fate from the other prisoners. Majdanek was also cursed with an extremely cruel cadre of guards, who enjoyed killing children in front of their mothers and forcing the prisoners to engage in death sports.
Majdanek death camp killed roughly 80,000 people; its operations were thankfully cut short when it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army.
“”From behind the screen of smoke and fire, in which the ranks of fighting Jewish partisans are dying, the legend of the exceptional fighting qualities of the Germans is being undermined... The fighting Jews have won for us what is most important: the truth about the weakness of the Germans.
|—Gwardia Ludowa, Polish resistance publication, after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.|
Jews in the ghettos across Nazi-occupied Europe, despite knowing their likely fate, largely avoided violent resistance out of fear of further aggravating their oppressors. This changed in late 1942 as news of the horrors in the death camps became more well-known, and the Jewish community came to a gradual agreement that total resistance was better than extermination.
By 1943, uprisings were happening in dozens of ghettos despite the knowledge that resistance would be futile. Ultimately, they deemed it better to go down fighting. The most significant was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which was in response to Nazi Germany's attempts to deport its population into Treblinka. The Warsaw uprising lasted for weeks, and the SS resorted to burning its way across the entire city, killing some 56,000 people and destroying the entire ghetto. It was remarkable, and a great humiliation for the Nazis, because only about 1,000 poorly-armed fighters managed to hold off the SS for almost a month.
Uprisings also happened in the death camps themselves. The first uprising was in Sobibór, when Jews killed 11 SS guards and police auxiliaries and set the camp on fire. The damage was extensive enough that Himmler ordered the camp to be closed and demolished. The SS dispatched Jewish slaves from Treblinka to destroy the Sobibór remains, and then they had all of the Jews shot. Shortly after, another revolt caused damage to Treblinka, although it was sadly less successful.
Between 20,000 and 100,000 Jews participated in partisan efforts across Europe to fight against the Nazi occupation. Some joined Soviet partisans, and some joined the Polish Home Army. Others started their own partisan forces, such as the Bielski brothers, who assembled an army of some 1,200 people and saved many Jews from the Nazis.
The world finds out
“”There are different methods of execution. People are shot by firing squads, killed by an "air hammer", and poisoned by gas in special gas chambers. Prisoners condemned to death by the Gestapo are murdered by the first two methods. The third method, the gas chamber, is employed for those who are ill or incapable of work and those who have been brought in transports especially for the purpose.
|—Conclusion of the Polish report on Auschwitz.|
Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish Home Army and a goddamn hero, deliberately got himself captured and sent to Auschwitz in order to smuggle out evidence of German atrocities happening within it. His reports reached the Polish government-in-exile, which compiled a report on the Holocaust and distributed it to the other Allies. The Allies responded by issuing the Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations,[note 1] which revealed the Holocaust to the world and condemned the German atrocity.
As the war started to turn against the Nazis, the Soviets also uncovered even more evidence of the Holocaust by uncovering mass graves and capturing Nazi documents. As the Red Army advanced further, the Nazis frantically shut down the death camps and dismantled their genocide facilities in an attempt to cover up what they had done. The Nazis weren't done with the former death camp inmates yet, though. German guards took the remaining inmates on brutal forced marches across Europe so that the former death camp victims could be used as forced labor to continue the war effort.
The first death camp to be discovered by Allied forces was Majdanek, which fell to the Soviets in July 1944. The discovery of Majdanek confirmed the myriad reports of German genocide, but tragically, the Soviets only discovered 500 survivors out of the many thousands of people the camp held at any given moment.
Liberation by the Allies
“”When I found the first camp like that I think I never was so angry in my life. The bestiality displayed there was not merely piled up bodies of people that had starved to death, but to follow out the road and see where they tried to evacuate them so they could still work, you could see where they sprawled on the road. You could go to their burial pits and see horrors that really I wouldn't even want to begin to describe. I think people ought to know about such things. It explains something of my attitude toward the German war criminal. I believe he must be punished, and I will hold out for that forever.
|—Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower describes liberating concentration camps.|
The Allied advance continued after the liberation of Majdanek by the Soviets, and it became multiple fronts after Normandy. Tragically, Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, as they were successfully destroyed by the Germans before the Soviets could reach them. Auschwitz was also emptied out by the Nazis, who forced 58,000 of its prisoners on a death march westwards, and just 7,000 people remained when the Soviets finally liberated it in January 1945.
Although not exclusively death camps, other concentration camps in the west featured horrific mass murders. Ohrdruf camp in southern Germany was the first to be liberated by the United States, and the US arrived after the guards went on a killing spree to eliminate its prisoners. Generals Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Omar Bradley toured it to see for themselves the corpses, torture chambers, and emaciated victims. One shed in the camp contained 30 corpses, and the smell was so horrible that Patton refused to enter; Eisenhower forced himself to do so in order to serve as a firsthand eyewitness as Supreme Allied Commander.
Bergen-Belsen, in Lower Saxony, was the first major camp to be liberated by the United Kingdom. It had originally served as a concentration camp, but it turned into a collection center for those people moved west by death marches, and further German neglect meant that its tens of thousands of inmates were starving, dead, and dying by the time the British reached it. Even after the liberation, 14,000 people were too far gone to be saved from the brink of death. The BBC's war correspondent Richard Dimbleby had to threaten resignation to get the BBC to broadcast the graphic evidence of these crimes. He said he had "never seen British soldiers so moved to cold fury". Dimbleby had also visited the camp himself as a reporter, describing his experiences:
“”Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Aftermath and legacy
“”If all Hitler had done was kill people in vast numbers more efficiently than anyone else ever did, the debate over his lasting importance might end there. But Hitler's impact went beyond his willingness to kill without mercy. He did something civilization had not seen before. Genghis Khan operated in the context of the nomadic steppe, where pillaging villages was the norm. Hitler came out of the most civilized society on Earth, the land of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller. He set out to kill people not for what they did but for who they were. Even Mao and Stalin were killing their "class enemies". Hitler killed a million Jewish babies just for existing.
|—Nancy Gibbs, American essayist and presidential historian.|
Among the number of people killed are counted: 6 million Jews, nearly 3 million non-Jewish Poles, 600,000 Serbs and close to 500,000 Roma. Further groups of victims include 1-1.5 million political activists and opponents of the Nazi regime (including communists, social democrats, socialists, trade unionists,anarchists), and 3 million Soviet POWs, 7,000-16,000 Spanish POWs, 80,000-200,000 Freemasons, 75,000-250,000 disabled people and 2,500-5,000 Jehovah's Witnesses. In addition, 5,000-15,000 gay men were gathered in concentration camps with an estimated death rate around 60%. All in all, this accounts for about 14 million deaths. An estimated one million died at Auschwitz alone. A broader definition of the Holocaust would include up to 17 million deaths.
“”Most commonly, Holocaust survivors respond with habitual panic when exposed to triggers that in some way symbolize the Holocaust. Such Holocaust associated triggers may include any or all of the following: crowded trains, train stations, medical exams, a knock at the door, uniforms, extermination (of insects), yellow color, selections, gas, shower, barbed wire, discarding food (especially bread), fences, cruelty, barking dogs, any major disaster or discrimination, separations, the smell of burned flesh, closed spaces, an oven, standing in line, the freezing cold, music by Wagner, the German language and German products in general. Any of these stimuli may create a violent emotional response in the survivor who at that moment is thrown back to a life-threatening situation during the Holocaust. In addition, happy occasions such as weddings, Jewish holidays and family celebrations may also evoke sudden grief reactions, as they remind survivors of their immense loss and all the people who are absent because they were so brutally killed.
|— Natan P.F. Kellermann, Journal of Loss and Trauma, "The Long-term Psychological Effects and Treatment of Holocaust Trauma" (2001).|
Flashbacks are common in Holocaust survivors, and can unfortunately have several extremely common triggers, including crowded trains, uniforms, medical exams, showers, discarded bread, or the German language. Chronic depression, sleep and memory impairments, and survivor's guilt are all common. Higher rates of PTSD have been shown in the children of survivors. These conditions are not unique to the Holocaust and are found in the families of those affected by other genocides. Survivors living in Israel have been shown on average to have higher reported well-being than those living in other countries.
The questions of many adolescents in Israel were answered with silence, until the Eichmann trial; however one of the few outlets of information was the fictitious pornographic novel, House of Dolls. Sexually sensationalized written and drawn accounts of the Holocaust were featured in many Israeli dime store novels and became the genre of Stalag fiction.
Functionalism vs Intentionalism
A major debate in the study of the Holocaust is that between functionalism and intentionalism. Neither of these interpretations are Holocaust denial, though the controversy might be abused by Holocaust deniers.
Intentionalists believe that the Holocaust was planned, ordered and directed by Hitler — that he devised it and put it into place, and had even been secretly planning it before he came to power. Functionalists believe that the Holocaust was not directly planned but organically evolved in response to bureaucratic pressures within the Nazi state.
Intentionalists believe that Hitler personally ordered the murder of millions of Jews — although, we are lacking the "smoking gun" of a direct order or plan from him stating the same. For example, intentionalists believe that Hitler ordered the deportation of Jews to Eastern Europe as a prelude to killing them, and that his cryptic phrase "the final solution of the Jewish question" was code for extermination. Functionalists believe that Hitler gave the order for deportation with no particular end-goal in mind; but when the Jews arrived in Poland, local Nazi officials did not know what to do with them and decided that killing them was the simplest solution of their problem. Functionalists do not deny that Hitler had a major moral responsibility for the Holocaust, by helping to create and maintain the climate of anti-Semitism which made it possible and by authoring or approving some of the decisions which produced it — but they see the origin of the Holocaust as more a process of bottom-up innovations than top-down designs. Even if Hitler did not originate the idea for the Holocaust, he would have become aware of it, yet having so become aware he did nothing to stop it.
Map of the Holocaust
- Aktion T4 — Nazis killing people with disabilities, which lead up to Holocaust
- Eugenics, a key motive of the Holocaust
- Holocaust denial
- Holocaust envy
- Holocaust profit controversy
- Milgram's obedience study
- Extrajudicial execution
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- See the Wikipedia article on Treblinka extermination camp.
- Auschwitz, 1940–1945. Central Issues in the History of the Camp. I: The Establishment and Organization of the Camp. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. pp. 11–43. ISBN 978-8385047872. OCLC 874340863.
- Concentration Camp Auschwitz III (Monowitz). Traces of War.
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- Dwork, Debórah; van Pelt, Robert Jan (2002) . Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-32291-2. p. 341–343
- Strzelecki, Andrzej (2000b). "Utilization of the Victims' Corpses". In Długoborski, Wacław; Piper, Franciszek (eds.). Auschwitz, 1940–1945. Central Issues in the History of the Camp. II: The Prisoners—Their Life and Work. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. pp. 399–418. ISBN 978-8385047872. OCLC 929235229.
- See the Wikipedia article on Auschwitz concentration camp.
- Majdanek. Britannica.
- Wachsmann, Nikolaus (2015). KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-11825-9. p. 330.
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- See the Wikipedia article on Majdanek concentration camp § In operation.
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- See the Wikipedia article on Majdanek concentration camp.
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- Longerich, Peter (2010). Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280436-5. p. 410–412
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- Strzelecki, Andrzej (2000). "The Liquidation of the Camp". In Długoborski, Wacław; Piper, Franciszek (eds.). Auschwitz, 1940–1945. Central Issues in the History of the Camp. V: Epilogue. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. pp. 9–85. ISBN 978-8385047872. OCLC 929235229. p. 27.
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- See the Wikipedia article on The Holocaust § Liberation.
- The necessary evil? Why all Adolf Hitler's destructiveness is not enough to make him person of the century. TIME Magazine.
- FAQs. The Holocaust Resource Center Yad Vashem.
- Wikipedia: Nazi crimes against ethnic Poles
- 'We had the same pain': Most people know about the millions of Jews murdered in Hitler's death camps; less is known about the 500,000 Gypsies who also died. Walter Winter is determined that this must change by Emma Brockes (29 Nov 2004 05.26 EST) The Guardian.
- The Treatment of Soviet POWs: Starvation, Disease, and Shootings, June 1941–January 1942
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- The Holocaust Chronicle, Publications International Ltd., p. 108.
- Homosexuals & the Holocaust: Gay Prisoners in the Concentration Camps by Ruediger Lautmann, Jewish Virtual Library.
- Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi-Regime, 1933-1945: Social Disinterest, Governmental Disinformation, Renewed Persecution, and Now Manipulation of History? p. 251.
- The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust by Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia (2000) Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231112009. "The Holocaust is commonly defined as the mass murder of more than 5,000,000 Jews by the Germans during World War II. Not everyone finds this a fully satisfactory definition. The Nazis also killed millions of people belonging to other groups: Gypsies, the physically and mentally handicapped, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet citizens, political prisoners, religious dissenters, and homosexuals. Can it be said that any of these groups were treated in the same way as the Jews and for the same reasons and hence deserve to be included in the history of the Holocaust? A positive answer to this question would require a broader definition of the Holocaust and acknowledging as many as 17,000,000 victims. A more expansive view might also induce us to push the start of the Holocaust back from 1941 to 1939 (if we include the handicapped) or even to 1933 (if we assume that the whole thing was premeditated)." (page 45)
- "The Long-term Psychological Effects and Treatment of Holocaust Trauma". Journal of Loss and Trauma. 2001.
- Psychological Pain of Holocaust Still Haunts Survivors: Survivors’ cognitive functioning, physical health not significantly affected, says decades of research by Efrat Barel et al. (2010) American Psychological Association.
- Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey by Harold M. Schulweis (2010) Jewish Lights Publishing. ISBN 1580233759.
- בית-הבבות by 135633 דביר (1953) ק.צטניק. Later translated into English as House of Dolls.