The Holocaust and Persecution of the Jewish People

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The Holocaust and Persecution of the Jewish People

The Holocaust is a human tragedy. Words alone cannot describe the genocide of six million Jews and as many as 12 million people. A product of the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler, the Holocaust must be remembered so that future generations work to ensure that an event this tragic will never be repeated. As you are completing this activity, keep in mind that the Holocaust happened only generations ago. Consider these two questions: “How could humanity allow this tragedy to happen?” and “What can I do to ensure that it will never be repeated?”

To understand the Holocaust, we must consider the history of Jewish persecution. The following is a brief look at some of the important dates to remember in Jewish history

1400 BCE? (date unclear) The descendants of Abraham move to Egypt where they work as slaves.

1280 BCE Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt and across the Red Sea.

721 BCE Assyrians conquer and invade Israel (Northern Tribes), evicting most Jews.

586 BCE Babylonians capture Jerusalem (Southern Tribes) and destroy Solomon’s Temple which is later rebuilt. Jews exiled.

70 CE Roman invaders conquer Jerusalem, seize the city, and destroy the temple, which is never rebuilt.

119 CE Emperor Hadrian bans circumcision in an attempt to ban the expression of Judaism.

135 CE Emperor Hadrian continues persecution of the Jews. Renames Judea, Palestine.

529-559 CE Justinian the Great restricts citizenship to Christians, restricts Jewish civil rights, banishes of use of Hebrew in worship, and changes synagogues into churches.

613 CE Jews persecuted in Spain. All who refused to be baptized are exiled. Later remaining Jews lose all rights and property. All children under the age of 7 must receive a Christian education.

807 CE Jews and Christians ordered to wear different coloured belts

1290 CE Edward I banishes Jews from England; 15 000 Jewish people leave the country.

1306 CE King Philip banishes Jews from France; 100 000 Jewish people leave the country.

1321 CE Jews accused of poisoning wells in France; 5 000 Jewish people are burned to death.

1348 CE European Jews blamed for the plague. Massacres of Jewish people occur in Spain, France, and Germany. Over 200 Jewish communities were destroyed.

1794 CE Jewish men forced to serve 25 years in Russian military. Thousands left the country.

Again, these are just some of the experiences of Jewish people throughout history.

When looking at the historical realities of Jewish persecution, most simply ask the question, “Why?” There is no one real answer to this question. However, the following attempts to give us at the very least an explanation and not a “justification” for the persecution.

  1. The Diaspora meant that Jews did not have any type of social safety net or safety in numbers. They represented a very small minority in communities throughout history, making them vulnerable to attacks.

  2. No matter where they went throughout history, Jewish people always brought with them, unique ways of expressing their religion and culture. These customs distinguished or set them apart in communities in which they lived.

  3. Some groups of Christians held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. This is interesting since Jesus’ life and death fulfilled Christian prophecy. Some believe that this misinterpretation still exists today. Recently, this debate reignited in the 2004 Mel Gibson movie, Passion of the Christ.

  4. Perhaps related to all three of the above, Jews became scapegoats for problems that existed in communities and countries. Certainly, Adolf Hitler blamed the Jews for many of Germany’s problems after WWI.

The Holocaust

The Context


When examining how and why the Holocaust happened, we must first consider the realities of Germany to make sense of the rise of the Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. On November 11, 1918, political leaders signed the Treaty of Versailles officially marking the end of World War I. A significant inclusion stated that Germany and her allies had to formally accept responsibility for the war. This provision, the “War Guilt” clause meant that Germany suffered greatly, defensively, territorially, and financially. The total cost to Germany was 132 billion marks. Many historians today blame at least part of the rise of Hitler and WWII on this “fine.”

As a result, Germany plummeted into economic turmoil, which lead to an economic depression. Paper money basically became worthless, as the government simply printed off more money to try and cope with its woes, devaluing the currency. A very famous picture out of Germany at the time shows an older woman literally burning money in her woodstove to provide a source of heat for her home

As Hitler rose to power he increasingly referred to Jews as the cause of German’s misfortune; and he made anti-Semitism a central theme of the Nazi message. When Hitler seized complete political power in 1933, anti-Semitism became a significant part of government policy. In 1933, Hitler introduced the “Nuremberg Laws,” which took away citizenship from the Jews and restricted their civil rights. The laws classified Jews as “sub-human” and forced them to wear special badges and symbols that would readily identify them as Jewish. The Nazi regime took away Jewish rights and property, and eventually adopted the “final solution” - the goal to systematically exterminate the Jewish population.

Did You Know?

The most famous pogrom against the Jewish people is known as Kristallnacht meaning “Crystal Night,” or “Night of Broken Glass.” On November 9, 1938, the Nazi regime destroyed over 1500 synagogues and 8000 Jewish businesses, leaving German streets covered in glass, Jewish people covered in blood, or herded into train cattle cars for a journey to concentration camps.

A decade of Nazi policies under the leadership of Hitler evolved during the WWII years, and resulted in the “final solution”. The final solution involved rounding up Jews by the thousands and transporting them to concentration, and eventually specialized death camps. The execution of six million Jews and six million other people described as “undesirable” is the Holocaust. How did the Holocaust happen? Not all Germans supported Hitler, and some did not really know the extent of the Hitler’s plan. Yet as a dictator Hitler pushed his plan ahead. Consider the ways in which the “final solution” reached into all sectors of government and society.

  • Review of birth records to identify people of Jewish origins.

  • Jewish children prohibited from schools.

  • Trains delivered prisoners to the concentration and death camps.

  • Clear and concise records kept of prisoners and death statistics.

Construction of concentration and labour camps demonstrated the organization and magnitude of the Nazi’s determination to free German society of Jews. Most historians consider Dachau to be the first concentration camp created by Hitler and his party. Initially used as political prisoners’ facility as the Nazis ravaged political opponents, later it became an extermination camp. Prisoners often faced disease, hunger, and unbelievable living conditions. For many, death brought an end to a long road of incredible suffering and misery.

These prison camps evolved into mechanisms of systematic and organized killing machines. The preferred method of extermination became gas chambers. It is believed that the order for the “final solution” came in the summer of 1941. Hitler wanted it made clear, the Jewish race had to be eliminated. The first use of gas took place at Auschwitz in September, 1941. Along with Auschwitz, five other “death” camps designated to carry out the mass extermination of the Jews existed: Chelmo, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. The operations at the death camps became extremely efficient. Camp officials processed new arrivals; and herded those not able to work, directly from trains to the gas chamber. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish people’s deaths occurred at these camps.

Only after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, did the world completely become aware of the extent of the horrors of this regime.

The Canadian Context

Many people ask the question, “How could the world let this happen?” Many historians argue governments knew some of the realities of the Holocaust, but the true scope did not become clear until the war ended. Here is an example of the treatment Jewish refugees faced in Canada. In 1939, a ship with 907 Jewish refugee passengers attempted to gain entry into Canada. The authorities refused the ship and its passengers’ entry. Earlier, both Cuba and the United States also refused the Jewish people entry into their countries. In the end, the ship returned to Europe, and it is believed that over half of the passengers died during the Holocaust.

There is little doubt that this “black eye” in Canadian history had at the very least some impact on the relationship that exists between religion and the state today. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, passed in 1982, guarantees a freedom of “religion, thought, belief and expression.” This protects people from persecution by the government for their religious beliefs. Furthermore, many of Canada’s provinces recognize Holocaust Remembrance Day, which has a two-fold purpose: to officially recognize the tragedy, and to create awareness about the need to educate and remember.

Did You Know?

Many people think that the Holocaust is something that could never happen again, especially in a morally conscious era. However, when one considers the realities of Rwanda, we can see that more must be done to protect people from persecution. In 1994, a civil war broke out in Rwanda, leading to the deaths of approximately one million people in just 100 days. The story is the subject of the 2004 movie, Hotel Rwanda. It is important to note that many criticized the United Nations for their inexcusable level of indifference to the genocide as it unfolded in this African nation. The criticism is a matter of debate and perspective

Discussion Questions- Think/Pair/Share

For the following discussion questions write down your individual response to the questions. After you have written your individual response, share your responses with your neighbour. Once you and your neighbour have shared your responses, be prepared to share your responses with the class.

  1. “Would God put his people through anything they were not strong enough to survive?”

  1. “Could something like the Holocaust happen again?”

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