Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Part Eight in a series about Jews and the Second World War

Part One: British and French Appeasement of Nazi Germany

Part Two: Soviet Russia as ally of Nazi Germany

Part Three: United States Isolationism from Nazi Germany

Part Four: France: Ally of the West to Collaborator with Nazi Germany

Part Five:Nations That Actively Saved Jews During The Holocaust

Part Six: Jews Who Fought To Defeat The Nazis

Part Seven: Jews in Muslim Lands During The Holocaust

Origins of the term "Holocaust"

The Nazi Third Reich lasted from 1933 when Hitler came to power to 1945 when Hitler committed suicide and Germany lost the Second World War. During that time there came the persecution and genocide of the Jews known today as the Holocaust. The term Holocaust or Shoah in Hebrew were created and popularized many years after the war was over to describe the events surrounding the murder of the Six Million Jews known in Hebrew as the Kedoshim, "holy ones" or martyrs.

When the Nazis took control of Germany there was no immediate mass murder or Holocaust of the Jews of Germany.

Only after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and then moved on to conquer most of the European mainland until 1942 and 1943 when it began to lose major battles to the Allies, such as at the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942 and at the Battle of Stalingrad, Russia in 1943, did the terrible mass genocide of Jews or Holocaust begin. The word Holocaust was not around at that time. In fact few really knew exactly for sure what was actually happening to the Jews under the tyranny of the Nazis. It is only years later, in historical retrospect, as one looks back in time, that the term Holocaust is applied to events leading up to and during the times of the mass murder of Jews to then justify such a strong description as a Holocaust to those events.

There was a time immediately after the end of the Second World War in 1945, when the name Holocaust was first introduced, that the Holocaust was synonymous strictly with the years of the Second World War itself, 1939 to 1945. An article in The New Republic "When 'Holocaust' Became 'The Holocaust: An Etymylogical Mystery" says that: "Yet for decades after the war, the genocide lacked any formal title in English except, perhaps, 'The Final Solution,' the term the Nazis used. In Hebrew, the calamity quickly became known as 'Shoah,' which means 'the catastrophe.' But it wasn’t until the 1960s that scholars and writers began using the term 'Holocaust,' and it took the 1978 TV film Holocaust, starring Meryl Streep, to push it into widespread use."

Haredi view of the term "Holocaust"

From a strictly Jewish Torah point of view, the use of the term "Holocaust" is not used by many Haredi rabbis. Usage of it should not be viewed as acceptance. Some prefer the term Churban חוּרבָּן in Hebrew meaning destruction or catastrophe. Hence Churban Europa is taken to mean the catastrophe which befell Jewry in Europe during the Second World War. This would be in keeping with traditional historical definitions of past calamities such as Churban Bayis Rishon, the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., and Churban Bayis Sheni denoting the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 of the present era.

Rabbi Yitschok Hutner (1906–1980) one of America's leading yeshivah deans, was asked whether the term "Shoah" (literally, "Holocaust") was acceptable in describing the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War. His reply was:"CLEARLY NOT". The reason being, that the word Shoah in Hebrew, like "Holocaust" in English, implies an "isolated catastrophe, unrelated to anything before or after it, such as an earthquake or tidal wave." This approach is "far from the Torah view of Jewish history" because "the churban of European Jewry is an integral part of our history and we dare not isolate and deprive it of the monumental significance it has for us."

In the later stages of the article "'Holocaust'--A Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe" (1977), Rabbi Hutner asserts that ironically, the "artificially contrived term [Holocaust/Shoah]. . . empties the churban of its profound meaning and significance." Those who coined the term "Holocaust", and who thereby appropriated a term which signifies isolation and detachment from history, "did not realize that, the significance of the 'Holocaust' is precisely in its intricate relationship with what will come after". Thus, concludes Rav Hutner, the pattern of Jewish history throughout the ages is ChurbanGolusGeulah: Destruction–Exile–Redemption, and no event requires new categories or definitions!

Broadening the definition of the Holocaust

That being said, the modern secular twenty-first century approach has been to broaden both the term Holocaust, as applying to not just Jewish victims, and the time frame as extending from 1933 when the Nazis came to power in Germany and not from 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and World War Two proper began. Hence people who escaped from Germany and from countries that would later be conquered by Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1939 are labelled as "Holocaust survivors" no different to people who survived the ghettos, firing squads, concentration and death camps.

Thus, for example The Museum of Tolerance has a Timeline of the Holocaust starting from January 30, 1933 when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany to September 2, 1945 when Japan finally surrendered to the Allies. Likewise, in Introduction to the Holocaust "The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the years of the Holocaust as 1933–1945. The Holocaust era began in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. It ended in May 1945, when the Allied Powers defeated Nazi Germany in World War II."

If the start of the years of the Holocaust revolves around Hitler rising to power and leadership of Germany, why not go even further back to the publication of his notorious anti-Semitic book Mein Kampf wherein he lays out his vision of the Jews as being evil and his plans for the future of Germany in 1925? Or perhaps the date of the early start of the Holocaust should begin when Hitler joins the German Workers Party in 1919 and turns it into the Nazi Party that he became leader of in 1921? That is, if everything about the history of the Holocaust's roots revolves around the pertsona of Hitler.

There is William Shirer's classic work "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" (published 1960) "...in which the author chronicles the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the birth of Adolf Hitler in 1889 to the end of World War II in Europe in 1945." So why not start with writing about the earliest beginnings of the Holocaust as well from the year of Hitler's birth in 1889? In fact in his book, Shirer shows how there was always serious anti-Semtism in Germany especially going back to the days of the founder of Protestantism Martin Luther (1483–1546) who was a notorious anti-Semite judging by his writings filled with anti-Jewish polemics and anti-Semitism such as his 65,000 word "On the Jews and Their Lies" and other such hateful diatribe.

Some historians have written about the Holocaust as being the modern version of the Middle Ages' Christian Crusades. "The best known of these Crusades are those to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291 that were intended to recover Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule." Along the way from Europe to the Holy Land the Crusaders murdered untold thousands of Jews over a number of centuries Indeed, the history of Christianity versus the Jews is an anti-Semitic one. This then ties in with the prior hatred of the Romans who both predate and establish the Christian Church and its desire to fight the Jews.

So it's really one long line and a continuum that stretches back over 2,000 years. The events of the Second World War and the Holocaust being a technologically advance twentieth century explosion of hatred for the Jews and the desire to exterminate them.

Beginnings of the Holocaust

The Holocaust Encyclopedia of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum does break down the pre-wars years by writing about "Prewar Nazi Germany and the Beginnings of the Holocaust" of the years 1933 to 1938. This is in keeping with studying "causes" in history. However, a "cause" is not the thing itself because reasons for a phenomenon do not equal the phenomenon itself. Another example would be a human being created by a mother and father, but the human is not the "father and mother" of itself! Yet in spite of this obvious logical fact, the further we move away from the years of the Second World War the more inclusive becomes the term "Holocaust" to include non-Jews such as gypsies, non-Jewish political prisoners and disabled people and even homosexuals of no particular religion, while the years for the Holocaust are rotated backwards to 1933, six years before the outbreak of the war in 1939 and way before anyone ever heard of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, "the last stage of the Holocaust that took place from 1941 to 1945" according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, whereas in fact "the last stage" was the main thing i.e. the Holocaust itself!

Undoubtedly there were key events paving the way and leading the way to the Holocaust, but these events in themselves were not a "Holocaust" in the strictest sense of the word. Basically, the modern-day twenty-first century elongated definition of the Holocaust coincides with the rise and fall of the Nazi German Third Reich from 1933 to 1945. So while one person can be talking about the Third Reich another would supposedly understand it to be the same as The Holocaust. However the ascension of Hitler and the Nazis to power in Germany in January of 1933 was not a "Holocaust" as such. The introduction of the racist anti-Semitic discriminatory Nuremberg Laws in 1935 also cannot be defined as a "Holocaust" in and of themselves.

In 1933 there were well over 500,000 Jews in Germany but by October 1941, when Jewish emigration was officially forbidden, the number of Jews in Germany had declined to a number as low as 163,000. 500,000 minus 163,000 equals at least 337,000 German Jews who escaped from Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1941, probably one of the highest numbers and ratios of Jews saved from a Nazi-dominated country. That too cannot be called a "Holocaust". It is alternately referred to as a "Refugee" crisis but historically the advent of the Final Solution only effectively commences with the massive killing operations carried out after the invasion of Russia in June 1941.

Concentration Camps

Nazi concentration camps were set up during 1933 to 1945 during the time of the Nazi Third Reich: "Nazi Germany operated more than a thousand concentration camps on its own territory and in parts of German-occupied Europe...The first camps were established in March 1933 immediately after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany...After the beginning of World War II, people from German-occupied Europe were imprisoned in the concentration camps. Following Allied military victories, the camps were gradually liberated in 1944 and 1945, although hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the death marches...More than 1,000 concentration camps (including subcamps) were established during the history of Nazi Germany and around 1.65 million people were registered prisoners in the camps at one point. Around a million died during their imprisonment." Not all deaths were of Jews.

Although prisoners in concentration camps were used for slave labor, tortured, starved, executed, abused in cruel ways, they were not equipped with gas chambers as the death camps would eventually be with state of the art gas chambers to kill prisoners with poison gas and efficient crematoria to burn their bodies.

Forced labor in Nazi concentration camps: "was an important and ubiquitous aspect of the Nazi concentration camps which operated in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe between 1933 and 1945. It was the harshest and most inhumane part of a larger system of forced labor under German rule during World War II." See the list of Nazi concentration camps.


Historians view Kristallnacht, 9–10 November 1938, as a prelude to the Final Solution and the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust. Rioters destroyed 267 synagogues throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland. Early reports estimated that 91 Jews had been murdered. Modern analysis of German scholarly sources puts the figure much higher; when deaths from post-arrest maltreatment and subsequent suicides are included, the death toll reaches the hundreds, with Richard J. Evans estimating 638 deaths by suicide. Over 7,000 Jewish businesses were damaged or destroyed (Wikipedia).

"Units of the SS and Gestapo arrested up to 30,000 Jewish males, and transferred most of them from local prisons to Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other concentration camps. Significantly, Kristallnacht marks the first instance in which the Nazi regime incarcerated Jews on a massive scale simply on the basis of their ethnicity. Hundreds died in the camps as a result of the brutal treatment they endured. Most did obtain release over the next three months on the condition that they begin the process of emigration from Germany. Indeed, the effects of Kristallnacht would serve as a spur to the emigration of Jews from Germany in the months to come." (Holocaust Encyclopedia)

Kristallnacht took Nazi evil to another level, or low, but it was not the full-scale Holocaust yet, since German Jews still had the full option of escaping Nazi Germany which the majority did.

World War Two and the Holocaust

A good argument can be made that with the outbreak of war on September 1st, 1939 when Nazi Germany attacked Poland that the possibility of a Holocaust against Europe's Jews came into play. But even then, few, if any, people really could imagine that the Germans would institute a policy of genocide against the Jews, which is what a Holocaust really is.

The real German plan to get rid of the Jews was a well kept secret. After all, it's not easy to conquer the continent of Europe, bring its people and nations into subservience, pin-point all the Jews scattered in every far flung neck of Europe, then put Jews into Ghettos, and eventually use a sophisticated railroad system to ship millions of Jews to concentration and death camps. That all takes time, cunning and lots of planning.

Talking of the big job in locating and counting Jews in Germany and beyond: "IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation is a book by investigative journalist and historian Edwin Black which documents the strategic technology services rendered by US-based multinational corporation International Business Machines (IBM) and its German and other European subsidiaries for the Nazi government of Adolf Hitler from the beginning of the Third Reich in January 1933 through the last day of the regime in May 1945 at the end of World War II."

So planning to murder millions of Jews is one subset of the bigger picture, but planning something and actually carrying it through to successful completion is another thing. The outbreak of war on September 1st, 1939 unleashed Nazi Germany to commit the unthinkable crimes against the Jews and humanity that would become known as the Holocaust.

Einsatzgruppen and Holocaust by Bullets

22 June 1941 is when Nazi Germany attacked its ally the Soviet Union unleashing the fateful Operation Barbarossa. Although the name "Barbarossa" was based on the name of a medieval German emperor, the name also appropriately enough is very similar to the word "barbarian"! It was certainly barbaric for those Jews on Soviet territory who lay in the wake of the massive Nazi onslaught on Communist Russia.

Armed Nazi mobile execution and killing squads known as EinsatzgruppenandEinsatzkommandowere deployed from the time Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 but were highly ramped up with the invasion of Russia in June 1941. Einsatzgruppen were SS death squads that often worked in tandem with local anti-Semitic armed militias delighting in the mass shootings of Jews.

June 1941 is thus dubbed as the main onset of the time of "Holocaust by Bullets" as coined by Patrick Desbois in 2008. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states that the Holocaust by bullets was an "early collaboration to wipe out Europe's Jews" and that "as many as two million Jews were killed with bullets and at associated massacres across former Soviet territory." In Desbois' book the steps of the Holocaust by bullets are described:

"In each village, the steps through which the Holocaust by bullets occurred were different. In certain cases, the Jews were asked to congregate in a common location, then loaded into trucks and taken to killing sites. Upon arrival, they were forced to take off their clothes and were shot in groups. Most of the time, the shooters were Nazis, but Desbois’ interviews sometimes mention the requisitioning of prisoners of war or local police to murder Jews. In addition, most witnesses recall that the Nazis forced villagers or prisoners to collect rings, earrings and gold teeth that belonged to the Jews. Some villagers would later take the leftover clothing of Jews for themselves." (Wikipedia) In many cases, after executions and the bodies were buried or dumped in huge pits, buried decomposing bodies were dug up and cremated on the orders of Himmler the head of the SS.

The organization of the Einsatzgruppen "were a key component in the implementation of the 'Final Solution of the Jewish question' (German: Die Endlösung der Judenfrage) in the conquered territories. These killing units should be viewed in conjunction with the Holocaust."

Nazi Wannsee Conference

The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of senior government officials of Nazi Germany and SS leaders, held in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee on 20 January 1942. The purpose of the conference, called by Reinhard Heydrich, was to ensure the co-operation of administrative leaders of various government departments in the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, whereby most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe would be deported to occupied Poland and murdered. In the course of the meeting, Heydrich outlined how European Jews would be rounded up and sent to extermination camps in the General Government (the occupied part of Poland), where they would be killed.

The Wannsee Conference lasted only about ninety minutes. Towards the end of the meeting cognac was served, and 'The gentlemen were standing together, or sitting together,' Eichmann said, 'and were discussing the subject quite bluntly, quite differently from the language which I had to use later in the record. During the conversation they minced no words about it at all ... they spoke about methods of killing, about liquidation, about extermination'." (Wikipedia)

Extermination Camps

The establishment of extermination camps by the Nazis was at the heart of the Holocaust. Many people call them "concentration camps" meaning the extermination camps. But extermination or death camps were very specifically designed as factories of mass murder and genocide of the Jews. From Wikipedia:

Death camps differed from concentration camps located in Germany proper, such as Bergen-Belsen, Oranienburg, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen, which were prison camps set up prior to World War II for people defined as "undesirable". In the early years of World War II, the Jews were primarily sent to forced labour camps and ghettoised, but from 1942 onward, after the Wannsee Conference, they were deported to the extermination camps under the guise of "resettlement". For political and logistical reasons, the most infamous Nazi German killing factories were built in occupied Poland, where most of the intended victims lived.

Nazi Germany used six main extermination camps (Vernichtungslager), also called death camps (Todeslager), or killing centers (Tötungszentren), in Central Europe during World War II to systematically murder over 2.7 million people – mostly Jews – in the Holocaust. The victims of death camps were primarily murdered by gassing, either in permanent installations constructed for this specific purpose, or by means of gas vans. The six extermination camps were Chełmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz and Majdanek death camps also used extermination through labour in order to kill their prisoners. (Wikipedia)

The Nazi Operation Reinhard, was the codename of the secret German plan in World War II to exterminate Polish Jews in the General Government district of German-occupied Poland. This deadliest phase of the Holocaust was marked by the introduction of extermination camps. As many as two million Jews were sent to Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka to be murdered in purpose-built gas chambers. In addition, facilities for mass-murder using Zyklon B were developed at about the same time at the Majdanek concentration camp and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, near the earlier-established Auschwitz I camp.

To achieve their intended purpose, all death camps used subterfuge and misdirection to conceal the truth and trick their victims into cooperation. This element had been developed in Aktion T4 in the 1930s, when disabled and handicapped German non-Jewish people were taken away for "special treatment" by the SS from "Gekrat" wearing white laboratory coats, thus giving the process an air of medical authenticity.

The most notorious and worst of them was the combined concentration and death camp the Auschwitz concentration camp (Konzentrationslager Auschwitz), a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. It consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp (Stammlager) in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers; Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labor camp for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben; and dozens of subcamps. The camps became a major site of the Nazis' final solution to the Jewish question. (Wikipedia)

So When did the Holocaust Begin?

Does the Holocaust begin with the Nazis taking power in 1933 and building the first concentration camps? This means that when speaking of the twelve year Nazi Third Reich of 1933 to 1945 one is automatically equating it with the time of the Holocaust.

Is the beginning of the Holocaust Kristallnacht in 1938 when the synagogues were burnt down and almost 100 German Jews were killed in the ensuing pogrom?

Or does the Holocaust start with Nazi Germany finally going to war by attacking Poland on September 1st, 1939 starting the Second World War?

Does the real Holocaust begin with the Nazis unleashing the Einsatzgruppen death squads starting first with the German attack on Poland in 1939 and increasing horrifically in 1941 when the Germans attacked the Russians and resulting in the deaths of about two million Jews in the Holocaust by Bullets?

The Wannsee Conference and the decision to put extermination and death camps into high gear in 1941/1942 to finalize the Nazis' plans for a Final Solution to the Jewish Question can definitely be called the worst part of the Holocaust.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York. He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy. Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]