What was the Holocaust?

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Chapter Judaism

The term “Holocaust” derives from a pair of Greek words that mean “whole burnt offering.” The term originally referred to a kind of sacrifice performed in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. In more common contemporary usage, however, Holocaust refers to the suffering and death of as many as six million Jews during World War II as a result of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Jews all over Europe were systematically targeted by Nazi propaganda and police action. The Sho’ah, as it is called in Hebrew, began in 1933 and escalated dramatically after a series of violent attacks on Jews called Kristallnacht (“the night of shattered glass,” November 9-10, 1938). According to the Nazi view, only a return to Aryan racial purity could save the human race. With their Semitic blood, Jews were seen as a source of racial pollution and, therefore needed to be exterminated. Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hitler and his collaborators, led by the Gestapo (Geheime Staats-polizei, or state secret police) and the feared black-shirted S.S. (Schutzstaffel), rounded up hundreds of thousands of Jews and herded them into boxcars for transport to concentration camps scattered throughout central and eastern Europe. Many prisoners too small or too weak to work were immediately taken to the gas chambers—often disguised as showers—where they were killed with Zyklon-B gas. The Holocaust represents one of history’s most extraordinary and horrifying examples of both genocide and scapegoating.


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