A WALK TO REMEMBER

A walkable exhibit through Holocaust history. Learn, share, remember. 

Before the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Germany had largely assimilated or even converted to Christianity. Anti-Semitism, or the racially-justified hatred of Jewish people, persisted from early modern superstition, but took on a new character in the twentieth-century, bolstered by "eugenic" science.

 

After the Great War, Germany underwent some major changes: they democratized under the "Weimar Republic," expanded the social welfare state, and modernized -- all after being forced to bear the responsibility for WWI, and having to pay huge reparations to countries like France. The Great Depression hit Germany particularly hard, with an already inflating Deutsche mark bottoming out, unemployment skyrocketing, and the liberal government seemingly unable to get things under control.

 

During this time the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP, or Nazis) gained popularity by peddling "internal enemies" like Germany's Jews as the cause for all of Germany's problems, and the failures of the liberals and traditional power-holders to save Germany. The party gained popularity in part because of party leader Adolf Hitler’s promises to return Germany to its former glory, and in 1933 the Nazis won enough seats in the German parliament to form a government. Almost immediately once in power, they encouraged anti-Semitic riots, boycotts, and book burnings, and passed laws to disenfranchise the Jewish community. In 1935, the German parliament passed the Nuremberg Race Laws to help separate who was Jewish and who was not.

 

Building on their racial rhetoric and promises of returning Germany to greatness, the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. Under the cover of war, the Nazis also pursued a vicious campaign to rid Germany and Europe of racial "undesirables" - Jews, Roma, Germans with disabilities, Slavs, and so-called "asocials". 

In the course of the war, the German government exacted a genocide, what we now call the Holocaust. The Germans murdered over 17 million people in total. Of those killed, six million were Jews, accounting for ⅔ of the European Jewish population at the time. The Nazi Regime targeted not only Jews but homosexuals, the disabled, criminals, Sinti and Roma (derogatorily "gypsies"), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, communists, prisoners of war, political opponents, and those they considered “asocials.” At the start of the war, Nazis created ghettos for the Jews to live in segregated from the rest of society. There were three different types of ghettos: closed ghettos, which were fenced in; open ghettos, which had restrictions on movement but no walls; and destruction ghettos, which were tightly closed until the Nazis deported or killed the Jewish occupants. Major ghettos were located in Poland, with the biggest one being Warsaw, however Jewish ghettos expanded all across Eastern Europe. The Nazis created the first concentration camp, Dachau, in 1933 as the model camp for future camps. Not only did the Nazis construct concentration camps, but also labor camps, prisoner of war camps, transit camps, and death camps. Auschwitz, which served as one of the leading concentration and death camps, was responsible for the death of 1.1 million innocent prisoners. Shooting squads and gas chambers were the most common killing methods. Hitler never once visited a single concentration or extermination camp.

The Holocaust clearly had a lasting impact on the world.  Perhaps most notably, there were tens of thousands of survivors who suddenly found themselves liberated yet homeless and at a loss for what to do.  Due to lasting antisemitism throughout Europe and, of course, the considerable trauma they had suffered, most Jewish survivors were afraid to return to their former homes.   Jewish and non-Jewish survivors alike suffered from starvation and disease, and the prospect of rebuilding their lives was incredibly daunting.  There were few possibilities for emigration, though many survivors migrated westward to other European territories that had been liberated by the Allies.  Hundreds of refugee centers and displaced persons (DP) camps were developed to house survivors as they began the difficult process of rebuilding their lives and tracking down family members.  Some DP camps were established in liberated concentration camps, causing many survivors to remain in the same location as their persecution.  Others were developed in confiscated German homes, resulting in makeshift DP camps among German communities.  These camps were developed and operated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the occupying armies of the United States, Great Britain, and France.  A large variety of Jewish agencies also tried to help Jewish displaced persons by working to provide things like food, clothing, vocational training, and emigration opportunities.

The end of the Holocaust also left Europe in a state of chaos.  With DP camps throughout Allied-occupied Germany, there was a great deal of tension and animosity between local Germans and Jewish displaced persons.  DP camps were intended to be temporary while Jewish survivors waited to be admitted to places like the United States, South Africa, or Palestine.  Unfortunately, the challenges presented by the end of the war caused these camps to be needed much longer than anticipated, and the last one (Föhrenwald) was not fully shut down until 1957.  

 

Initially, most countries continued their old immigration policies and greatly limited the number of refugees they would accept.  The British government controlled Palestine, where many Jewish survivors hoped to immigrate, and refused to let large numbers of Jews in.  Eventually, Palestine was divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel in May of 1948 and allowed hundreds of thousands of Jewish displaced persons and refugees to immigrate to Israel.  Many survivors also immigrated to the United States.  In December of 1945, President Harry Truman issued a directive that loosened immigration restrictions in the U.S., which allowed more than 41,000 displaced persons to immigrate to the United States, approximately 28,000 of them Jewish.  Then in 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which provided approximately 400,000 displaced persons with U.S. immigration visas between January of 1949 and December of 1952, with roughly 68,000 of those visas going to Jewish DPs.

While many Jewish survivors were eventually able to rebuild their lives in their new homes, many non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust continued to be persecuted in Germany for many years.  Laws discriminating against Roma remained in effect until 1970 in some parts of the country, and the law allowing for the imprisonment of homosexuals remained in effect until 1969.

Written by Libby Jones, Julia Wrest, and Mary Cousins; edited by Dr. Averill Earls

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