The beginning of World War II, on September 1, 1939, marked a new phase in German policy toward the Jews.
After the conquest of Poland, the Jews of Eastern Europe were concentrated in ghettos, while in Western Europe the Jews were registered and dispossessed of their property. Anti-Semitic racial legislation was passed in North Africa too. In South-Eastern European countries Jews were drafted into forced labour by collaborationist governments and tens of thousands of Jews there perished.
World War II transformed the face of Europe and the entire world, and resulted in the killing of millions of civilians of different nationalities and the evolution of a satanic scheme of genocide.
The Conquest of Poland and the Beginnings of Jewish Persecution
On September 17, 1939, while the Poles were still attempting to stave off the German offensive, the Soviets invaded Poland and occupied the eastern part of the country, under the terms of an agreement concluded between the Soviet Foreign Minister, Molotov, and his German counterpart, Ribbentrop. Within three weeks the Germans had defeated Poland and divided it into three regions: the western and northern provinces of the former Polish state, including the country’s second-largest city, Lodz, were annexed to the Reich; eastern districts were annexed to the Soviet Union and Lithuania; and an enclave in central Poland was converted into the Generalgouvernement (general government) – an area whose political future was undefined during the initial phase of occupation. Approximately 1.8 million Jews were trapped in the German-occupied zone of Poland, and more than a million Polish Jews in the eastern areas of Poland came under Soviet rule.
Following the onset of the war, the Germans freed themselves of many of the restraints they had maintained in peacetime. Circumstances no longer required them to bow to public opinion or political considerations. Unhesitatingly, they terrorised the Polish people, arrested and murdered its leaders and intellectual elites, and defined Poles as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, as servants of the “master race”.
Since anti-Jewish policy and the solutions to the Jewish question were presented as part of the attempt to eliminate the damage caused by the Jews to the German nation and government, the police and SS were authorised to be the executive force in dealing with the Jews. On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Security Police sent a directive, the Schnellbrief, explaining the procedures and approach that would be invoked against the Jews in the Polish occupation zones. According to the Schnellbrief, Jews living in towns and villages were to be transferred to ghettos, and Jewish councils – Judenräte – would be established to carry out the German authorities’ orders.
Heydrich’s instructions distinguished between a transitional phase in solving the “Jewish problem” and the “final aim”. It should not be presumed, however, that the term “Final Solution” had been defined by then or that the overall murder scheme had been planned. What existed at the time, apparently, were vague plans and a general and indefinite wish to solve the Jewish problem in some rapid and radical way. During this phase, the idea to deport the Jews from the Reich was still dominant.
As they marched into the towns of Poland, Germans preyed on the Jews they encountered, subjecting them to humiliation and beatings, shearing the beards of the Orthodox and organising public hangings to terrorise the population. The perpetrators were members of special SS units who accompanied the regular military units. They torched synagogues and Jewish homes, and abducted Jews on the street for forced labour to repair the damage from the battles. After receiving enormous monetary fines for having “caused” the World War and its attendant devastation, Jewish leaders were inundated by decrees, such as registration of a Jewish labour force and the imposition of compulsory labour. The Jews were steadily dispossessed of their possessions and deprived of their sources of livelihood. Throughout the occupied areas, the Germans restored the medieval practice of requiring Jews to wear a badge of shame – armbands with the Star of David or yellow Stars of David on their lapels – in order to identify them as Jews.
Expansion of German Conquest and Policy Towards Jews
In less than two years – from the onset of their offensive against Poland in September 1939 to the beginning of the campaign against the Soviet Union in June 1941 – the Germans managed to conquer most of Europe. Norway, Denmark, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia and Greece fell after only brief military operations.
After completing their immensely successful military campaign in the west, the Germans tightened their grip on European Jewry. South-Eastern Europe – Italy, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – willingly accepted the German dictate and was incorporated into the Nazi sphere of influence. In the vastness of continental Europe, which the Germans considered the domain of their “new order”, the Jews had come under the Nazis’ thumb.
Though Nazi ideology prescribed the same fate for all of European Jewry, different methods of implementation of anti-Jewish policy were employed in the conquered countries. It was clear to the Nazis that in Western Europe anti-Semitism lacked the intensity and popularity of the Eastern European version and that much of the local population viewed the Jewish populace as an integral part of society. Thus, in terms of the implementation of their anti-Jewish policy, they had to be more considerate of the local populations and of the governments that had been left with some measure of self-rule.
In Western Europe, the Nazis did not “ghettoise” the Jews, whereas in Eastern Europe the Germans placed the Jews in severely congested ghettos. The Jews there were doomed to humiliation, poverty, decline and death. In Western Europe, the Nazis applied their anti-Jewish policy gradually. They enforced racial legislation and introduced policies of Aryanisation (forced expropriation of their property) and discrimination. Despite these differences, the Germans’ overall goal with regard to the Jews was identical: to remove them from the realms of German conquest by expulsion or death resulting from their worsening conditions.
Expropriation of Jewish property was an essential element of Nazi anti-Jewish policy. The Nazis systematically plundered land and property throughout Europe that had been obtained through hard work and creativity for hundreds of years and which were an important part of Jewish economic and cultural activity. Already from the beginning of the Nazi regime they began the gradual removal of Jews from economic life. In 1938, this plunder received legal backing and approval. With the outbreak of the war the Nazis implemented these policies in the areas under their control. According to Nazi directives, apartments and real estate, factories and industries, small businesses, and cultural and artistic treasures were seized.
In Eastern Europe, the thievery also took place in the ghettos. After the Jews were deported to the death camps, the local population, under protection of the Germans, took control of Jewish homes and property. Trains regularly left the death camps for Germany carrying the possessions of the murdered victims.
The Germans invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. Although Queen Wilhelmina and her government fled to Britain, the bureaucracy continued to function under the occupying regime. At the time, there were approximately 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands, including refugees from Germany (most famously Anne Frank and her family), Austria, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (Western region of Czechoslovakia). Anti-Jewish policy in the Netherlands evolved gradually, starting with the purge of Jews from the civil service in September 1940. This was followed by the compulsory registration of Jewish-owned corporations and the registration by name of all Dutch Jews under racial laws, thus dispossessing the Jews and restricting their movement. In February 1941, the Germans demanded the establishment of the “Joodse Raad”, a Judenrat that would carry out their directives and organise internal life. From then on, the policy took an increasingly radical turn. Jews were made to wear the Star of David and preparations for their deportations to the camps began.
On Saturday, February 22, 1941, a general curfew was placed on the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam and a hunt for Jewish youth took place. The 389 individuals arrested were transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and within three months approximately 50 had perished. The 340 that remained were sent to Mauthausen concentration camp. Only one individual who had hidden in the infirmary in Buchenwald survived. 200 additional Jews were arrested in June and others were arrested in September 1941. All those arrested were sent to Mauthausen.
When the Germans occupied France in June 1940, some 330,000 Jews were living there – half of them veteran residents and the others immigrants and refugees. France was divided into two areas of control; the north came under German military rule; in the south, and anti-Semitic nationalist French state was set up under Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain in the spa town of Vichy. The regime collaborated with the Germans, and it was the French police that carried out the anti-Jewish actions.
On October 4, 1940, the enactment of the “Statut des Juifs” deprived French Jews of their civil rights. Concurrently, registration and dispossession of the Jews were also instituted. Thousands of Jews, mostly refugees and immigrants – including German Jews who had been deported from various parts of Germany – were sent to detention camps in Southern France, such as Gurs, Le Milles and Saint-Cyprien. The main detention camp was in Drancy, a short distance from Paris. Approximately 3,000 Jews perished in these camps, the first victims of the Holocaust in France. In the summer of 1942, in preparation for their deportation to the camps, the Jews were forced to wear the yellow star.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Belgium and within three weeks defeated its armed forces. The Belgian administrative mechanisms continued to operate under a German military administration. In the first two years of the occupation, until the deportations, the Jews were removed from their professions, their businesses were systematically liquidated and their property was expropriated. They were placed under a night-time curfew, Jewish children were expelled from school, a law was passed allowing for their enlistment in forced labour and they were forced to wear the yellow star.
Racial anti-Jewish laws were passed in Italy already in 1938. However, until the German conquest of Italy in September 1943, the Italian fascist dictator Mussolini refused to succumb to Hitler’s demand for the deportation of the Jews under his control. Due to Italian commanders in Albania, Croatia, and Southern France, Jews in many cases received some form of protection.
When World War II broke out, approximately 500,000 Jews lived in Hungary. Anti-Semitic legislation had been passed in Hungary even before the outbreak of the war, and beginning in 1939, tens of thousands of Jewish men were enlisted in forced labour battalions, where 42,000 perished.
The Fascist elements in Hungary enjoyed broad popular support and the dictatorial government of Miklos Horthy concluded an alliance with Nazi Germany. In the summer of 1941, some 18,000 Jews randomly designated by the Hungarian authorities as “Jewish foreign nationals” were expelled from their homes and deported to Kamenets-Podolski in the Ukraine, where most were murdered in cold blood. In Hungary, itself mass murder of the Jews only began after the German invasion of the country in March 1944. Until then, Horthy had refused to succumb to Hitler’s demands for deportation of the Jews. At that time, there were approximately 800,000 Jews living in Hungary, including Jews living in regions annexed by Hungary from Slovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
Extreme anti-Semitic tendencies, long evident in Romania, escalated on the eve of World War II. Romania had a Jewish population of about 757,000 at the outbreak of the war. Anti-Semitic legislation was passed by the Romanian government in 1937 that gradually stripped most Romanian Jews of their citizenship and led to the seizure of their property. In the summer of 1940, after Romania was forced to hand over the regions of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union, hundreds of Jews were murdered in northern Romania by Romanian troops and villagers.
50,000 Jews lived in Bulgaria on the eve of World War II. Bulgaria instituted laws in 1941 that denied the Jews their civil rights, forbade intermarriage between Jews and Bulgarians, and removed them from public positions and educational institutions. The Jews were forced to identify themselves and their homes with the Star of David. Much of their property was expropriated and their economic activity was severely limited. All males between the ages of 20-42 were taken for forced labour.
Yugoslavia had a Jewish population of approximately 80,000 when the Germans conquered it in April 1941. Yugoslavia was divided between Germany, Hungary, Italy and Bulgaria, and in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina an “Independent Croatian State” was established under the leadership of the Fascist leader, Ante Pavelic, head of the Ustasa party. Pavelic’s administration operated under Hitler’s patronage and passed anti-Semitic laws and decrees.
Greece had a Jewish population of approximately 77,000 in May 1941 when the Germans conquered the country. Greece was partitioned into three occupation zones: a Bulgarian-occupied zone, a German zone of occupation including Salonika, and an Italian zone including the Ionian islands and much of central and Southern Greece, including Athens, the capital. The Germans stripped all of occupied Greece of its agricultural produce and industrial resources, plunging the country into a serious famine. On July 11, 1942, 9,000 Salonikan Jewish males aged eighteen to forty-five were humiliated and later assigned to forced labour where many of them died. The Jews were forced to pay a large ransom for the survivors of the forced labour, some of which was covered by the Jewish communities of Salonika and Athens. The rest came from the transfer of the Jewish cemetery in Salonika to the city’s municipality, which used the stones of the 500-year-old cemetery for building materials. Eventually, a university was built over the cemetery’s ruins.
North Africa and the Middle East
The occupation of France and the establishment of the anti-Semitic Vichy regime brought 415,000 North African Jews – most of the Jews on the subcontinent – into the orbit of persecution. Marshall Petain’s Nazi regime worsened the status of the Jews of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, after Vichy-style anti-Semitic legislation was imposed in those countries.
In Morocco, where Jews had civil rights, anti-Jewish laws were not formally enacted, but the French bureaucracy introduced a set of anti-Jewish regulations.
The Jews of Algeria, who held French citizenship, were stripped of their rights, required to wear an identifying mark, and subjected to admission quotas, even in primary schools.
In Libya, where the Italians had been applying racial laws since 1938, the bureaucracy stepped up its depredations, marking Jews’ passports, restricting their cultural activities, and banishing thousands to concentration camps – foremost Giado – where hundreds died of starvation and disease. Hundreds of Jews with foreign citizenship were sent to concentration camps in Europe.
In November 1942, after the Allies invaded North Africa, the German army entered Tunisia, along with a SS unit tasked with applying the anti-Jewish policy. After a brief pause to consolidate their affairs, the Germans began to expropriate the Jews’ belongings and mobilized many Jews for the construction of fortifications. German decrees primarily affected the Jews of the capital, Tunis, but in other communities, such as Djerba, they were also mistreated and sent for forced labour. The Jews of the capital were forced to establish a local Judenrat, which was ordered to select 5,000 to 6,000 Jews, some of whom were sent to labour camps. In early May 1943, military developments forced the Germans to retreat.
From November 1942, the Allies began to liberate North Africa. Thus, the Jews of North Africa were spared from the fate of their brethren in Europe.
The Jews of Iraq
In 1934, under the influence of the German ambassador, the Iraqi nationalist government enacted anti-Jewish laws and, in 1936, pogroms took place. In April 1941, a pro-German government was appointed, which did not prevent attacks against Jews. When British forces occupied Baghdad in May 1941, riots broke out in which 179 Jews were killed and hundreds injured. Although the new government restored order, relations between Muslims and Jews remained tense. Many Iraqi Jews chose to immigrate to China, settling in Shanghai.
The Nazi Threat to the Middle East
Hajj Amin Al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, expressed support for the Nazi regime as early as 1933. In October 1937, he fled to Iraq, where he was central in organizing the pro-Nazi insurrection in April 1941. After the insurrection was quashed, he exiled himself to Germany and served the Axis countries (Nazi Germany and her allies) in their war against the Allies. Husseini disseminated venomous anti-Jewish propaganda and tried to persuade the Axis powers to extend their extermination plans to the Middle East and North Africa. In spring 1943 he mobilized and organized Bosnian Muslim units in Croatia that fought under SS auspices.
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