Understanding the Treatment of Jews during World War II

As early as 1933, the Nazis had been sending people to concentration camps. Initially, these camps were located in Germany (like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen) and were used for "undesirable" people: To the Nazis, these undesirable people included Communists, Democrats, Socialists, political prisoners, homosexuals, and Jews. During the war, these camps also held Soviet prisoners of war and slave laborers. Executions were commonplace, and most inmates of the camps were simply worked to death. It wasn't until later, however, that the camps came to be associated with Jews. The death camps, on the other hand, were intended only for the Jews from the beginning; these were the camps the Nazis created in order to exterminate them.

As the Nazi control spread through Europe, the deportation of Jews to concentration camps and death camps grew: Between 1939 and 1941, Austria, Hungary, and even France (led by the Vichy government) deported Jews. Although Germany had been removing Jews from Germany for some time, it wasn't until 1941 that the Nazis began a massive deportation of Jews.

The ghettos of Poland were another Nazi creation. To get the Lebensraum he wanted from Poland, Hitler needed to clear the Jews from the Polish countryside. To do this, the Nazis forced the Jewish population to sections of cities, which they were then forbidden to leave. Often, walls surrounded these areas, which were patrolled by heavily armed guards, trapping the people within.

By 1942, as the Nazis implemented the last phases of the Final Solution, Jews were being sent from ghettos, concentration camps, and transit camps (essentially way stations) to their deaths.

Life in the ghetto

Each ghetto had a Jewish council (the Judenrat), which was responsible for ensuring that people followed Nazi policies. The council, made up of rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community, was also responsible for distributing food, policing the ghetto, and taking care of the health and welfare (such that it was) of the people.

The living conditions in the ghettos were horrible. Deprived of food (the people in the ghetto were to receive the leftovers from the general population, but not more than was needed for bare sustenance), medical care, many of the basic necessities of life, and used extensively as slave labor, many Jews died of malnutrition, disease, and starvation. Several Jews were also executed for alleged crimes.

Like the concentration camps, the ghettos were simply a temporary solution to the Jewish problem for the Nazis. Eventually, these ghettos would be emptied and the inhabitants murdered.

Life in the concentration camps

During the years that Hitler ruled Germany, over 100 concentration camps appeared all over Europe. Although not used strictly for extermination purposes, the living conditions at the concentration camps were brutal and the death rates high.

The function of the prisoners in the concentration camps was to work, but their lives were worthless to the guards, the camp commanders, and the ever-present SS. Anyone who couldn't work was killed, and those who could work were usually worked to death.

Working long hours at hard labor in all kinds of weather and under constant beatings by the guards, many prisoners died from exhaustion and exposure. With only a little food a day (usually a piece of bread and weak soup), many others died from malnutrition and starvation. Even those prisoners who managed to avoid starvation or death by exposure were still vulnerable to death at the hands of the guards.

Medical care did not exist. The ill and the weak were abandoned to die. Others, many of them children, died at the hands of doctors who conducted barbaric medical experiments on them.

Because so many prisoners died — in fact, the goal in many concentration camps was "extermination by work" — most camps had crematoriums so that the guards could dispose of the bodies. Near the end of the war, these camps were used as holding areas for Jews from death camps who were moved westward to avoid detection.

The "death factories"

The death camps, like Auschwitz, Birkenau, Chelmno, Treblinka, and Sobibor, were unique in that they were simply temporary holding areas for the mass murder of people. Jews were unloaded from train cars and in many cases herded directly to gas chambers or firing squads. Those who escaped immediate death were often used as slave laborers at the camp itself. They were placed in work details that supported the execution process (working the crematoriums, for example) until they, too, were killed. In Auschwitz, some able-bodied prisoners were kept alive as slave labor to assist in war production until they succumbed to overwork and starvation.

The death camps used gas chambers as their means of murder, and these were chillingly efficient. Some, such as the twin chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau (the largest death camp), could accommodate over 4,000 people at a single time. Victims destined for the gas chambers were forced to remove their clothing; then they were shoved into the death chamber itself. About 20 minutes after the gas (usually Zyklon-B) was released in the room, everyone inside was dead.

The bodies of the victims were stripped of any remaining valuables, such as gold from their teeth and rings, and then burned in ovens built especially for this purpose. When the ovens gave out, as they did in some death camps because of the sheer number of people killed, the Germans burned the bodies out in the open.

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