STUDENTS' TOUGHEST QUESTIONS
As students study the Holocaust, they will — and should — have lots of questions. Answering and engaging in discussion about these and other questions that arise in the classroom is a valuable opportunity to refute incorrect information, add additional content and context, and deepen learning.
|1||Why did Hitler choose the swastika to be the symbol of the Nazi Party?
The swastika is an ancient symbol, possibly up to 7,000 years old, that has been used as a positive symbol of good luck and success. Because of its link to ancient Eurasian and Indian civilizations, the Nazis appropriated the swastika to connect themselves to the ancient Aryans, who they believed were a blond, blue-eyed race originating in India that had migrated to Europe by way of Asia. They were considered by German and Nazi racial thought to be the creators of human civilization. The swastika for the Nazis and their followers came to stand for the greatness of the Aryan race, its culture, and ancient nature.
|2||Why didn’t Germans speak out against laws that stripped Jews of their rights after the Nazis came to power?
One of the first things the Nazi regime did when it came to power in 1933 was to establish concentration camps for its political opponents to suppress opposition. The Nazis used these camps, together with other measures that terrorized Germany’s population, to ensure that the atmosphere in Germany would be one of fear, terror, and conformity. In addition, antisemitism existed in Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis, and Nazi propaganda exploited this antisemitism to marginalize Jews. Nazi legislation progressively isolated and stripped Jews of their rights. The combination of terror, propaganda, and pre-existing prejudice against Jews created a situation where Germans were afraid to speak out in general, and were even less likely to speak out on behalf of the Jews. Moreover, there was not a significant and clear moral authority (like the Church) that encouraged people to voice their dissent. Lastly, there was a significant element of the German population that agreed with what the Nazis were doing.
|3||Why didn’t Jews leave Germany when they saw what was happening in the 1930s?
Many Jewish people did leave Germany and Nazi-occupied territories in the 1930s. However, many others were not able to leave. The German Jews were one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. They were proud citizens who saw themselves as no less German than their non-Jewish neighbors. When the persecution of Jews began, it was difficult for most to grasp that anyone could strip them of their rights as Germans, let alone murder them. In the 1930s, the Nazis themselves were far from formulating a policy of murder. The elements of persecution didn’t begin all at once, but evolved over time. It started with a boycott of Jewish businesses, much street violence against Jews, and a series of laws that took away rights gradually. The biggest obstacle to emigration was finding a safe haven and organizing departure. The bureaucratic process in Germany itself was difficult, Jewish funds in Germany were blocked by the government, and obtaining visas to enter possible countries of refuge was very difficult. Some families couldn’t afford the fees associated with emigration; others were unable to secure the proper paperwork guaranteeing employment and other conditions to be met in a new country. Still others, even those with the financial means to emigrate, could not find a country willing to accept them (see #4 below). A powerful example of this is presented in the story of the MS
St. Louis, in the Echoes & Reflections unit on Perpetrators, Bystanders and Collaborators
. In all, over 25% of the Jewish population fled Germany between 1933 and 1938. With the outbreak of WWII, emigration became more difficult, until the Nazi government finally prohibited it altogether in October 1941. Despite the difficulties, from the end of 1938 until autumn 1941 another third of German Jewry managed to leave.
|4||Why were so many countries, including the United States, unwilling to accept Jews who wanted to leave Germany?
There are interlocking reasons why countries were unwilling to accept Jews who wanted to leave Germany or were willing to accept only relatively few. The first was the belief that new immigrants would take already scant jobs, especially during the Great Depression. Second, to differing degrees, negative attitudes and stereotypes about Jews made Jewish immigrants even more unwelcome than others. In the United States in particular, in the period following two huge waves of immigration between the 1880s and the early 1920s, a surge of isolationism, hatred of strangers, and anti-immigration attitudes swept the country. This resulted in quotas for all immigrants and limitation of certain groups considered ethnically or racially undesirable based on country of origin from entering the country. In 1938, at the Evian Conference, President Roosevelt convened representatives of other nations of the world to address the issue of the rising numbers of Jewish refugees. During the conference it became clear that neither the United States nor any other country but one would volunteer to open its doors widely. Only the tiny Dominican Republic agreed to do so, in exchange for large sums of money.
|5||Did people who lived near ghettos and camps know what was going on? Why didn’t they do anything to stop what was happening, were they afraid?
Yes, many people knew what was happening, often in quite a bit of detail. Even after the Nazis and their collaborators implemented the “Final Solution” and tried to obscure their brutal activities, many people even far from the scene of murder still had access to quite a bit of information―through letters, soldiers home on leave, business people and others who had been to the areas where murder was happening, etc. It is true that some people made an effort not to understand and willingly chose to ignore what was happening. The frequently uttered mantra “we didn’t know” by Germans and others after the war was more of an attempt to avoid responsibility than it was a statement of fact. The totalitarian nature of the Nazi regime meant that fear of punishment may have been a factor. However, it is important to remember that even in the most oppressive regimes, individuals retain the ability to make decisions about how they will behave. There may not have been much that could have been done to stop the “Final Solution” as a phenomenon; however, it was still possible to help on an individual basis in certain situations. Nothing is a more striking example of this than those people across Europe who, at great peril, chose to risk their lives to aid Jews. To date, 26,973 of these individuals and groups have been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for their efforts. Since each ghetto was different, the possibilities of giving help also varied. Help was much less possible for Jews already interned in labor or concentration camps, except by camp personnel.
|6||When did the United States realize what was happening to Jews in Europe and what was the response?
Information about the mass murders of Jews began to reach the US (and the rest of the world) soon after these actions began in the Soviet Union in late June, 1941. There were news stories in many American newspapers, though reports about incidents of persecution were generally placed on the back pages of these papers for various reasons, including skepticism about the reliability of the reports. By the winter of 1942, the US and the Allies had enough information to issue a proclamation condemning the “extermination” of the Jewish people in Europe and declaring that they would punish the perpetrators. Notwithstanding this, it remains unclear to what extent Allied and neutral leaders understood the full import of their information. The shock of senior Allied commanders who liberated camps at the end of the war may indicate that this understanding was not necessarily complete.
|7||What was the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust?
It is not easy to assess the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust because the Church itself is multifaceted. There were different responses at different times and in different places by Pope Pius XII, the leadership in the Vatican, cardinals, bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people. It could be said that in Nazi-dominated Europe, Church leaders’ first priority was to keep the Church as fully intact as possible. The Vatican faced a threat from the Nazis as well as from Communism. It sought to protect itself from Nazism by reaching official agreement with the Reich by which the Vatican recognized the political legitimacy of Nazi Germany, in exchange for a guarantee that the Nazis would not interfere with Catholic institutions. The issue of the persecution of Jews, therefore, was not the Vatican’s first priority, and speaking out clearly about it was apparently considered to be very risky. There were examples of priests who played a central role in the murder of the Jews, yet there were also members of the clergy who opposed the persecution of the Jews, some vocally and some by their rescue actions. For example, quite a few convents became places of refuge for Jews in hiding, especially children.
|8||Why didn’t the Jews fight back?
Many Jews did fight back; some with weapons, some by doing whatever they could to stay alive or by helping others stay alive, and some fought back by maintaining their human dignity. In many ghettos, Jewish organizations did their best to distribute food and medicines. In many places, Jews organized cultural, educational, and religious activities, which were expressions of their human spirit. Many also tried to flee or hide beyond the ghetto borders, often with false papers as non-Jews. All these actions are forms of resistance. Please see the Echoes & Reflections unit on Jewish Resistance
for additional discussion.
As Jews became aware of the fact that the Nazis were out to annihilate them, armed underground organizations came into being. In more than 100 ghettos, groups prepared for armed resistance against the Nazis. Armed resistance is discussed specifically here
. The longest armed uprising occurred during three weeks in the spring of 1943 in the Warsaw ghetto. Some Jews escaped from ghettos that were relatively near to forests, mountains, or swamps—areas more suitable for hiding and for partisan activities. Partisan activities are elaborated on here
. In several Nazi camps, Jews, sometimes with other prisoners, engaged in armed uprisings. In three of the six extermination camps—Treblinka, Sobibor, and Auschwitz-Birkenau—Jewish prisoners fought back. Jews also escaped from many camps.
|9||Why were Jews singled out for mass murder; why did people hate them so much?
The answer to this question goes back to the long history of Jew-hatred in Western Civilization. Living in many countries as a minority, Jews continued to practice their own religion, Judaism, which was different from their neighbors’ religions. Jews were kept apart and not allowed to integrate into society until the modern period. Over centuries, many negative stereotypes about them took root. Jews became the ultimate “other.” For example, one of the most incendiary accusations made against the Jews was that they had killed Jesus and deserved to be eternally punished. This accusation was officially rejected by the Catholic Church in Nostra Aetate,
passed during the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (known as Vatican II), in 1965. The Nazis, in particular, had a racial view of the world, and saw Jewishness as a race more than a religion. They adopted the idea that the Jewish “race” was the cause of all the world’s ills (especially communism, modernization, and capitalism) and their foremost enemy. They believed the Jews sought to dominate the world and enslave and destroy the Nordic Aryan race (the Germans). The Nazis believed that they had to get rid of this “Jewish Problem”; their “Final Solution” was murder. For more on the historical basis for antisemitism, see the Echoes & Reflections unit, Antisemitism
, and more particularly, the Summary of Antisemitism
|10||How were the Nazis able to identify who was Jewish, especially in places where they were assimilated?
Nazis were able to identify Jews throughout Europe, whether or not they were assimilated. They used records such as tax returns, membership lists in synagogues (or parish lists for converted Jews), police registration forms, and census information. Information was also provided by people who knew their neighbors were Jewish. This was true especially in occupied territories during the war. The Nazis employed local intelligence networks and individuals who were willing to identify Jews because they received rewards for doing so. These people may not always have personally known the Jews they betrayed to the Nazis, so they also used outward appearances, accents in their speech, and other clues to identify those they suspected of being Jewish. In addition, Jewish men were physically marked by circumcision, and as such could be easily identified.
|11||Did some Jews collaborate with the Nazis?
We must be careful in using the word “collaboration” too broadly since every Jew was under a death sentence once the Nazis had adopted the policy of the “Final Solution.” The word “collaboration,” with its negative moral connotation, does not fit many of the “choiceless choices” made by Jews out of fear and terror, hoping to save their own lives or the lives of their families, or to improve impossible conditions (in a ghetto or camp). There is a great difference between this type of cooperation and collaborating with the Nazis out of ideology, greed or profit motive, a choice made by those who collaborated as bureaucrats, informants, hunters of Jews in hiding, and even hands-on murderers. There were cases where Jews collaborated, but these black-and-white cases are rare; more frequently Jews cooperated or submitted in a very gray area, facing the threat of death.