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Female Leadership during the Holocaust: History of the Holocaust

This LibGuide showcases women as central figures in the Jewish resistance movement during World War II.

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What was the Holocaust?

The Holocaust (1933–1945) was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators.

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. The Holocaust is also sometimes referred to as “the Shoah,” the Hebrew word for “catastrophe.”

Why did the Nazis target Jews?

Members of the Storm Troopers with boycott signs during Nazi Germany

Members of the Storm Troopers (SA), with boycott signs, block the entrance to a Jewish-owned shop. One of the signs exhorts: "Germans! Defend yourselves! Don't buy from Jews!" Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933.

National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

The Nazis targeted Jews because the Nazis were radically antisemitic. This means that they were prejudiced against and hated Jews. In fact, antisemitism was a basic tenet of their ideology and at the foundation of their worldview.

The Nazis believed that the world was divided into distinct races and that some of these races were superior to others. They considered Germans to be members of the supposedly superior "Aryan" race. They asserted that “Aryans” were locked in a struggle for existence with other, inferior races. Further, the Nazis believed that the so-called “Jewish race” was the most inferior and dangerous of all. According to the Nazis, Jews were a threat that needed to be removed from German society.

Where did the Holocaust take place?

The Holocaust began in Germany after Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. Almost immediately, the Nazi German regime (which called itself the Third Reich) excluded Jews from German economic, political, social, and cultural life. Throughout the 1930s, the regime increasingly pressured Jews to emigrate.

Nazi Germany’s territorial expansion began in 1938–1939. During this time, Germany annexed neighboring Austria and the Sudetenland (territory comprising the western, northern, and southern border regions of the former Czechoslovakia, long inhabited by ethnic Germans.) and occupied the Czech lands. On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany began World War II (1939–1945) by attacking Poland. Over the next two years, Germany invaded and occupied much of Europe, including western parts of the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany further extended its control by forming alliances with the governments of Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. It also created puppet states in Slovakia and Croatia. Together these countries made up the European members of the Axis alliance, which also included Japan.

By 1942—as a result of annexations, invasions, occupations, and alliances—Nazi Germany controlled most of Europe and parts of North Africa. Nazi control brought harsh policies and ultimately mass murder to Jewish civilians across Europe.

The Nazis and their allies and collaborators murdered six million Jews.

How did Germany and its allies and collaborators persecute Jewish people?

Anti-Jewish policies and measures

  • Physical Displacement. Perpetrators used forced emigration, resettlement (a Nazi euphemism for deportation and murder), expulsion, deportation and ghettoization to physically displace Jewish individuals and communities.
  • Internment. Perpetrators interned Jews in overcrowded ghettos, concentration camps, and forced-labor camps, where many died from starvation, disease, and other inhumane conditions.
  • Widespread theft and plunder. The confiscation of Jews’ property, personal belongings, and valuables was a key part of the Holocaust.

  • Forced labor. Jews had to perform forced labor in service of the Axis war effort or for the enrichment of Nazi organizations, the military, and/or private businesses.

Dachau Concentration Camps, Germany

Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp. Dachau, Germany, May 24th, 1933.

Nazi concentration camps served three main purposes:

  1. To incarcerate people whom the Nazi regime perceived to be a security threat. These people were incarcerated for indefinite amounts of time.
  2. To eliminate individuals and small, targeted groups of individuals by murder, away from the public and judicial review.
  3. To exploit forced labor of the prisoner population. This purpose grew out of a labor shortage.

What was the "Final Solution" to the Jewish question?

As part of the "Final Solution", Nazi Germany committed mass murder on an unprecedented scale. There were two main methods of killing. One method was mass shooting. German units carried out mass shootings on the outskirts of villages, towns, and cities throughout eastern Europe. The other method was asphyxiation with poison gas. Gassing operations were conducted at killing centers and with mobile gas vans.

Killing Centers

In late 1941, the Nazi regime began building specially designed, stationary killing centers in German-occupied Poland. In English, killing centers are sometimes called “extermination camps” or “death camps.” Nazi Germany operated five killing centers: ChelmnoBelzecSobiborTreblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. They built these killing centers for the sole purpose of efficiently murdering Jews on a mass scale. The primary means of murder at the killing centers was poisonous gas released into sealed gas chambers or vans. 


The Nazis constantly searched for more efficient means of extermination. At the Auschwitz camp in German-occupied Poland, they conducted experiments with Zyklon B (previously used for fumigation) by gassing some 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 ill prisoners in September 1941. Zyklon B pellets, converted to lethal gas when exposed to air. They proved the quickest gassing method and were chosen as the means of mass murder at Auschwitz.

At the height of the deportations in 1943–44, an average of 6,000 Jews were gassed each day at Auschwitz.

Russian doctor examines Auschwitz camp survivors

A Soviet physician examines Auschwitz camp survivors. Poland, February 18th, 1945.

This photograph is a still image from Soviet film of the liberation of Auschwitz.


Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz

Arrival of Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz. Poland, May 1944.

In mid-May 1944, the Hungarian authorities, in coordination with the German Security Police, began to systematically deport the Hungarian Jews.  The Hungarian police carried out the roundups and forced the Jews onto the deportation trains.  In less than two months, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary in more than 145 trains. 

Yad Vashem Photo Archives


LibGuide Author:  Liliana Ramirez

LibGuide Contributor:  Stephanie Garcia

What were ghettos and why did German authorities create them during the Holocaust?

Ghettos were areas of cities or towns where German occupiers forced Jews to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. German authorities often enclosed these areas by building walls or other barriers. Guards prevented Jews from leaving without permission. Some ghettos existed for years, but others existed only for months, weeks, or even days as holding sites prior to deportation or murder.

The Purpose of the Ghettos

Jewish forced labor became a central feature of life in many ghettos. In theory, it was supposed to help pay for the administration of the ghetto as well as support the German war effort. Sometimes, factories and workshops were established nearby in order to exploit the imprisoned Jews for forced labor. The labor was often manual and grueling.

Jews in the ghettos sought to maintain a sense of dignity and community. Schools, libraries, communal welfare services, and religious institutions provided some measure of connection among residents.

Many ghettos also had underground movements that carried out armed resistance. The most famous of these is the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. 

There were three types of ghettos:

Closed ghettos (situated primarily in German-occupied Poland and the occupied Soviet Union) were closed off by walls, or by fences with barbed wire. The German authorities compelled Jews living in the surrounding areas to move into the closed ghetto, thus exacerbating the extremely crowded and unsanitary conditions. Starvation, chronic shortages, severe winter weather, inadequate and unheated housing, and the absence of adequate municipal services led to repeated outbreaks of epidemics and to a high mortality rate. Most ghettos were of this type.

Open ghettos had no walls or fences, but there were restrictions on entering and leaving. These existed in German-occupied Poland and the occupied Soviet Union, as well as in Transnistria, that province of Ukraine occupied and administrated by Romanian authorities.

Destruction ghettos were tightly sealed off and existed for between two and six weeks before the Germans and/or their collaborators deported or shot the Jewish population concentrated in them. These existed in German-occupied Soviet Union (especially in Lithuania and the Ukraine), as well as Hungary.


Hungry children in the Warsaw ghetto

Children eating at a Warsaw ghetto street. Warsaw, Poland, between 1940 and 1943.  In the Warsaw ghetto more than 400,00 Jews were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles.

Picture: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Rafael Scharf

Liquidating the Ghettos

Beginning in 1941–1942, Germans and their allies and collaborators murdered ghetto residents en masse and dissolved ghetto administrative structures. They called this process “liquidation.” It was part of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” The majority of Jews in the ghettos were murdered either in mass shootings at nearby killing sites or after deportation to killing centers. Most of the killing centers were deliberately located near the large ghettos of German-occupied Poland or on easily-accessible railway routes.

Assembly point in the Warsaw ghetto

An assembly point (the Umschlagplatz) in the Warsaw ghetto for Jews rounded up for deportation. Warsaw, Poland, 1942–43.

Yad Vashem Photo Archives

Conditions in the Warsaw ghetto film

The Nazis sealed the Warsaw ghetto in mid-November 1940. German-induced overcrowding and food shortages led to an extremely high mortality rate in the ghetto. Almost 30 percent of the population of Warsaw was packed into 2.4 percent of the city's area. The Germans set a food ration for Jews at just 181 calories a day. By August 1941, more than 5,000 people a month succumbed to starvation and disease.

National Center for Jewish Film


Who was responsible for carrying out the Holocaust and the Final Solution?

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler addresses a SA rally. Dortmund, Germany 1933.

Many people were responsible for carrying out the Holocaust and the Final Solution.   At the highest level, Adolf Hitler inspired, ordered, approved, and supported the genocide of Europe’s Jews. However, Hitler did not act alone. Nor did he lay out an exact plan for the implementation of the Final Solution. Other Nazi leaders were the ones who directly coordinated, planned, and implemented the mass murder. Among them were Hermann GöringHeinrich HimmlerReinhard Heydrich, and Adolf Eichmann

However, millions of Germans and other Europeans participated in the Holocaust. Without their involvement, the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe would not have been possible.


Who were the other victims of Nazi persecution and mass murder?

People with disabilities were also victimized by the Nazi regime, especially those living in institutions.  They were considered both a genetic and a financial burden on Germany. These people were targeted for murder in the so-called Euthanasia Program.

The Nazi regime employed extreme measures against groups considered to be racial, civilizational, or ideological enemies. This included Roma (Gypsies), Poles (especially the Polish intelligentsia and elites), Soviet officials, and Soviet prisoners of war. The Nazis perpetrated mass murder against these groups.

Emmi G was a victim of the Nazi Euthanasia program

Emmi G. was a 16-year-old housemaid diagnosed as schizophrenic.  She was sterilized and sent to the Meseritz-Obrawalde euthanasia center where she was killed with an overdose of tranquilizers on December 7th, 1942. 

Place and date of picture:  Uncertain

How did the Holocaust end?

The Holocaust ended in May 1945 when the major Allied Powers (Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union) defeated Nazi Germany in World War II. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives, they overran concentration camps. There they liberated the surviving prisoners, many of whom were Jews. The Allies also encountered and liberated the survivors of so-called death marches. These forced marches consisted of groups of Jewish and non-Jewish concentration camp inmates who had been evacuated on foot from camps under SS guard. 

On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender became official.

US troops enter Buchenwald, Germany

US soldiers enter the Buchenwald concentration camp following the liberation of the camp. Buchenwald, Germany, after April 11, 1945.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Liberation of Auschwitz: Child survivors film

Soviet troops entered the Auschwitz camp in Poland on January 27, 1945. This Soviet military footage shows children who were liberated at Auschwitz by the Soviet army. During the camp's years of operation, many children in Auschwitz were subjected to medical experiments by Nazi physician Josef Mengele.

National Archives - Film