The horrors of the Holocaust

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2007, 12:00am

The Holocaust, defined by historians as the genocide of the Jewish people during the second world war, remains a searing wound in the collective psyche of humans. More than 6 million European Jews were killed in the catastrophe.

Countless innocent civilians were subjected to starvation, forced labour and chemical experiments at concentration camps across Europe, while others faced gruesome deaths in gas chambers.

The notorious Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where as many as 2.5 million people were believed to have perished, remains a harrowing reminder of the horrors of war. 'Arbeit macht frei' (work will set you free) was the motto inscribed on the gates of the compound. Instead of being freed after their back-breaking work, the inmates continued to toil until their last breath. Those who were strong enough to survive until the last stages of the war when the Soviet army was advancing towards Poland were sent on a death march by the retreating Germans.

When the Russians finally liberated Auschwitz in 1945, only about 7,600 prisoners were found alive. Chilling pictures of piles of human bones and stick-thin prisoners languishing inside squalid cells will always be a reminder of the evil deeds that can be committed by humans.

In 1970, former German chancellor Willy Brandt knelt down at a memorial for wartime victims in Poland, seeking forgiveness for the horrific crimes committed by his countrymen. While Germany has outlawed Nazism and repented for its ignominious past, the question is why such terrible deeds were ever allowed to happen.


Anti-semitism - the discrimination and hostility directed at Jews - dates back to ancient times. According to the New Testament, Judas, the Jewish disciple of Jesus, was responsible for the death of the son of God. Jews were massacred and exiled from their homes during the Middle Ages.

The Jews also became scapegoats for the Black Death, the pandemic which killed an estimated 75 million people worldwide in the mid-14th century. Rumours had it that the Jews caused the plague by deliberately poisoning wells.

Anti-semitism reached fever pitch in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, culminating in the Holocaust during the second world war.

Hatred of Jews

While anti-Semitism was mostly religious before the 19th century, the Nazis added a racial dimension to the issue. Nazi Germany portrayed Jews as inferior to the Aryan race to which all 'true' Germans belonged.

In Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which was published in 1925 after Hitler's release from jail, the ruthless dictator portrayed the Jews as an evil race conspiring to dominate the world.

Nazi persecution

An all-out assault against the Jews began after Hitler came to power in 1933. A boycott of Jewish businesses was issued.

All Jews were dismissed from the civil service. Books written by Jewish scholars were burned. Moreover, all Jews were required to wear a yellow star on their arms to highlight their inferior status.

After the war broke out in 1939, Nazis began to build concentration camps across Europe. Jews were rounded up and sent to the filthy compounds. Once they arrived there, men and women were separated, never to see each other again.

Inmates were forced to strip naked to be disinfected. Their heads were shaved and a number was tattooed on their arms. The frail and the weak unfit for labour were sent directly to the gas chambers.

The aftermath

Towards the end of the war, the Nazis dismantled concentration camps in an attempt to hide the evidence of mass murder.

Gas chambers and crematoria used to burn bodies were razed, and mass graves dug up and corpses buried.

Surviving inmates were sent on death marches to Germany until the final weeks of the war. Those who lagged behind or collapsed from illness or exhaustion were shot. Around 100,000 Jews died during those marches. When the Soviets liberated Auschwitz in 1945, they were met by inmates who could hardly move.

In 1947, the Polish government set up a museum at Auschwitz.

It has since become a symbol of terror and genocide, reminding future generations of the evils of human greed and hatred.