As the war ended, the world faced the horrors of the Holocaust.
Lee Potasinski (puh-tah-ZEEN-ski) was only 12 when liberation came. A Polish Jew, he already had spent three years in Nazi concentration camps. But now, in April and May of 1944, Allied armies were closing in from east and west.
"The Nazi guards wanted to take us into the woods and shoot us all," Potasinski told Junior Scholastic. But many guards, realizing that defeat was near, slipped away. "That morning, a friend and I went out and the guards were gone. Then two jeeps pulled into camp. I had no idea who these people were. . . . I asked if they spoke German and one man said "yes" in a friendly tone of voice. They were Americans. . . . We ran back to tell the others. Everyone stood together and hugged and cried."
Potasinski was freed. But for the rest of his family and six million other Jews, it was too late. They had been killed, wiped out by the scorching hatred of Adolf Hitler and his Nazis. Many people consider this to be the darkest chapter in all of human history: the Holocaust.
The Final Solution
How could such a thing happen? The Holocaust grew out of Europe's long history of anti-Semitism (prejudice against Jews). For centuries, Jews had been the continent's scapegoats and victims.
Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party took advantage of these feelings to help gain political power. Hitler had a maniacal (crazy) hatred for Jews. He blamed them for Germany's defeat in World War I, and for all of the country's economic troubles. Once Hitler became dictator in 1933, Germany's government passed many laws that deprived Jews of their rights, liberty, and property.
After the German army's lightning-fast conquest of Europe in 1939—1940, the Nazi campaign against the Jews turned into a nightmare. The Nazis launched their "Final Solution to the Jewish Question." That "solution" called for the murder of every single Jew in Europe.
At first, Nazi death squads went to captured cities and towns. They lined up Jews — from old men to babies in their mothers'arms — and executed them.
This method was too slow for the Nazis. So they built death camps throughout central and eastern Europe. The camps were equipped with gas chambers that could kill as many as 2,000 prisoners at a time. Incinerators were built to burn the bodies.
Jews and other prisoners were taken to the camps in railroad freight cars. A camp officer would then "select" which prisoners would live and die. Able-bodied men and women were selected as slave laborers. The others — children, the elderly and disabled, and mothers with young children — were marked for death.
The gas chambers were disguised to look like showers. Many victims did not realize the trick until it was too late. Uprisings by prisoners were brutally crushed.
In addition to Jews, five million other "undesirables" died at Nazi hands during the Holocaust. Nearly 500,000 Gypsies were murdered, as well as Poles, Russians, homosexuals, the physically disabled, and the mentally ill.
Many people in the camps died of starvation and disease. As Allied armies were closing in on the camps, the Germans forced prisoners who could walk — including Lee Potasinski — to go on death marches. The Germans often blew up gas chambers and incinerators in an attempt to destroy evidence of Nazi atrocities (horrific crimes).
The World Faces the Holocaust
Allied leaders had heard reports of mass murder. But nothing could prepare their troops for the dead and dying people they found in the camps. Battle-hardened soldiers broke down and cried. Photographs and films of the piles of corpses shocked the world.
Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. After Germany surrendered, Nazi leaders accused of war crimes were tried at the Nuremberg Trials. Dozens were hanged for their crimes. Before his execution, Rudolf Höss (huhss), commander of the Auschwitz (OWSH-vihts) death camp, wrote: "We were all so trained to obey orders without even thinking that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody. . . ."
Those orders led to one of the largest mass murders in history. In 1942, 11 million Jews lived in Europe. By the end of the war, only five million were still alive.
As a result of the Holocaust, the United Nations (UN) approved a plan in 1947 to create a Jewish homeland. After the state of Israel was born in 1948, millions of European Jews moved there to rebuild their shattered lives. They adopted an unofficial motto: "Never again."