Only about 10% of Polish Jewry survived the Holocaust, the majority in the Soviet Union. The fate of the Jews of Western Europe varied depending upon the country. In some of the country’s, most of the Jews survived (in Italy and France about 25% of the Jews perished), in other countries the Jewish population was partially destroyed (in Belgium 45% of the Jews were murdered), while in others most of the Jews were killed (in Holland, about 80% of the Jews perished during the Holocaust). Most of the Jews of Slovakia, Hungary, Greece and Yugoslavia were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators, while almost 75% of the Jews living under Bulgarian rule survived.
Murder of the Jews of Poland
Jews lived in Poland for 800 years before the Nazi occupation. On the eve of the occupation 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland – more than any other country in Europe. Their percentage among the general population – about 10% – was also the highest in Europe.
After the conquest of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939, most of the Jews remaining within the area occupied by Germany – approximately 1.8 million – were imprisoned in ghettos. In June 1941, after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans began to imprison the rest of Polish Jewry in ghettos and to deport them to concentration and slave labour camps.
In December 1941, the murder of the Jews from the Lodz ghetto began in Chelmno with gas vans. Murder of Polish Jews in Auschwitz began in March 1942. After the basic guidelines for action were formulated at the Wannsee Conference, between March and July 1942 the Germans established three death camps in Poland (Operation Reinhard) close to main rail lines: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. With the arrival of the deportation trains, the victims – men, women, and children – were sent straight to their deaths in the gas chambers.
On July 22, 1942, on the eve of the Ninth of Av in the Jewish calendar, the Germans began the mass deportations from the Warsaw ghetto. By the time they ended on September 21, Yom Kippur, some 260,000 inhabitants of the ghetto had been deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Approximately 1,700,000 Jews, primarily from Poland, were murdered in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka by the end of 1943. Between September 1942 and the summer of 1944 tens of thousands of Jews, most from Poland, were murdered in Majdanek, outside of Lublin.
In the summer of 1944 the remaining 80,000 Jews from the Lodz ghetto were deported to be murdered. Most were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, while some were sent to the Chelmno murder site, which was reopened for this purpose. Approximately 300,000 Jews were murdered in Chelmno, mostly from Poland. The murders in Auschwitz and Chelmno continued until the Red Army liberated the camps in January 1945.
At the end of the war, approximately 380,000 Polish Jews were still alive in Poland, the Soviet Union, or in the concentration camps in Germany, Austria and the Czech territories.
Murder of the Jews of Western Europe
In spring 1942, the Nazis began to deport the Jews of Central and Western Europe to the extermination camps. The deportation operations were run by the Jewish Affairs Department of the SS, commanded by Adolf Eichmann. The procedure was similar in most locations, geared to misleading the victims. Under German command, the local police, such as the Dutch, French and Belgian forces, carried out the deportations.
As they set out to implement their anti-Jewish policy in Western Europe, the Germans acted cautiously, resorting to deceptions and ruses. It was not easy to identify Jews in this part of the continent; most were indistinguishable from the rest of the population in their appearance and way of life. In some western countries, civilians treated the Nazi policy as that of an invading occupier and, in some cases, overtly identified with the persecuted Jews.
By September 1939, when World War II began, only about half of the 500,000 Jews who had lived in Germany in 1933 remained there. Most of them were elderly. The closure of most Jewish organizations in Germany after the Kristallnacht pogrom dealt a fatal blow to the community’s social and cultural infrastructure. Those Jews who remained were rendered almost penniless. Many had to leave their homes and were concentrated in ‘Jewish Houses’. In 1940, thousands of Jews were deported to Poland and France. By October 1941, Jews in Germany were forced to wear a yellow star, and deportations to ghettos and extermination sites in the east began. Approximately 34,000 German Jews living in the areas under Nazi control during the war survived the Holocaust.
The Vichy government’s support for Germany was expressed by its passing of anti-Jewish laws in October 1940 and June 1941 that identified the Jews, isolated them from French society, denied them their livelihoods, incarcerated many of them and registered their names with the police. In July 1941, the Vichy regime began the massive confiscation of Jewish property, including businesses and buildings.
Between summer 1942 and summer 1944 the French government’s bureaucratic authority applied in practice to the entire country, even after the Germans took control over all of France in November 1942. The Germans received much assistance from the French in carrying out their plans. In April 1942 Pierre Laval was appointed the head of the government. Laval espoused complete cooperation with the Germans, and in May Louis Darquier de Pellepoix was appointed the head of the Office for Jewish Affairs in France. He worked together with the Nazis in deporting the Jews of France to the death camps. Between 1942 and summer 1944 approximately 76,000 of France’s 330,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, including many children.
In Belgium, the concentration of Jews began in July 1942 at the Malines (Mechelen) transit camp. “Asocial elements” and foreign nationals were rounded up first; they were deported to Auschwitz in August. The deportation of Jews who held Belgian citizenship was suspended for a year due to the intervention of Queen Mother Elizabeth and others. In September 1943, however, deportations to Auschwitz included Belgian-born Jews as well. The deportations continued even after the Allied landing in Normandy; one of those in the last transport, which left in the summer of 1944, was the German-born painter Felix Nussbaum. Approximately 29,000 out of 65,000 Jews in Belgium perished during the Holocaust.
At the end of 1941 the German authorities informed the Jewish Council (Joodse Raad) about the opening of labour camps to which the Jews would be sent in an attempt to mask the preparations for their deportation. In January 1942, the deportation of Dutch Jews from their homes began. They were primarily sent from the coastal strip to Amsterdam, to the Westerbork camp. From January 1943, the Dutch Jews were also deported to a new camp by the town of Vught. In July 1942, the deportation of Dutch Jews from Westerbork to Auschwitz began, under the cover of being sent to labour camps in Germany. Most of the Dutch municipal administration, rail workers and police assisted in the deportation of the Jews to their deaths. The final deportations from Holland departed in September 1944 with Jews bound for Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen. Approximately 107,000 out of 140,000 Jews in Holland perished – about 80% of all the Jews living in Holland at the time of the German occupation.
After the Italian surrender in September 1943, Italian Jews living in the areas occupied by the Germans were included in the scope of the racial laws. From September 1943 to January 1944 at least 3,110 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom 2,224 were murdered. Another 4,056 Jews were deported between February and December 1944. Approximately 12,000 of the 44,500 Jews living in Italy at the time of the German occupation were deported to Auschwitz.
Some 1,700 Jews were living in Norway when the Germans invaded in April 1940. In June 1941, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, many Jews were arrested in Northern Norway. In October 1942 mass arrests of all Norwegian Jewry began. 763 Norwegian Jews were sent to the death camps, of whom 739 were murdered, primarily in Auschwitz. Another 23 Norwegian Jews perished in Norway itself. Approximately 900 Jews escaped to Sweden with the assistance of the Norwegian underground.
Approximately 8,000 Jews were living in Denmark when the Germans invaded in April 1940; approximately 1,500 were foreign immigrants not possessing Danish citizenship. The Germans delayed the implementation of the Final Solution in Denmark, both to maintain their relations with the Danish government and due to the small number of Jews living in Denmark. On October 1, 1943, the Germans began arresting Jews. Many Danes from all sectors of society helped the Jews to hide and escape by boat to Sweden. Within three weeks some 7,200 Jews had been transferred to Sweden. Almost 500 Jews were caught and deported to Theresienstadt. Thanks to pressure from the Danish government the Jews of Denmark were not deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, and were returned to Denmark before the end of the war. The Danes’ resistance to the discrimination and confinement of the Jews, the rescue of the Jews by smuggling them to Sweden, and the protection of those deported to Theresienstadt are all expressions of exceptional civic and moral responsibility during the Holocaust.
Murder of the Jews of the Balkans and Slovakia
On March 4, 1943, the Bulgarian government, which had annexed Thrace from Greece and Macedonia from Yugoslavia, arrested all the Jews in these districts and sent them to two detention camps. Shortly afterwards, the Thracian Jews were transported in cattle cars with a Bulgarian police escort to the port town of Lom on the Danube River and handed over to the Germans. The Jews were loaded onto four small boats and arrived in Vienna ten days later. From there, they were sent to Treblinka to be murdered. The Jews of Macedonia were deported to Treblinka by land. In all, 11,370 Jews were deported.
Concurrently, the Bulgarian government was preparing for the first deportation of Bulgarian Jews from Plovdiv and Kyustendil. Once knowledge of the deportation plans began to spread, a group of members of Parliament, heads of the Church and public figures worked together to put pressure on the King and his government to stop the deportations. On May 24, 1943, the plan to deport Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews was cancelled.
The Jews of Greece were deported in several phases. The expulsion from Thrace and Macedonia in March 1943 was followed in March-May by deportations from Salonika and the vicinity, which were under German control. The Jews of Salonika were demeaned, marked, dispossessed, and – ahead of the deportation – briefly ghettoized. In the summer of 1944, Jews living in the areas that Germany seized after the surrender of Italy were deported. Nearly 60,000 of the 77,000 Greek Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, most in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Germans conquered Serbia, which was part of Yugoslavia, in April 1941. In July a popular uprising broke out. The local German government executed the Jewish males who had been interned in camps. Most were murdered between September-December 1941. Approximately 8,000 women and children were incarcerated in the Sajmiste camp near Belgrade and murdered in March-May 1942 in gas vans.
Ante Pavelic’s independent state in Croatia murdered thousands of Serbs and opponents of the regime. In June 1941, the deportation of the Jews of Zagreb to the concentration camps began. The Jews of Bosnia and Herzegovina were deported in August. Most of the deportees were murdered shortly thereafter. In August 1941, Jasenovac, the largest of the concentration camps in the country, was opened. In addition to the 25,000 Jews murdered there, hundreds of thousands of Serbs, thousands of gypsies and opponents of the regime were also murdered there. The camp was liquidated at the end of April 1945. Approximately 66,000 of Yugoslavia’s 80,000 Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
Slovakia, a Nazi satellite state, expressed no opposition to the program of deportations to the east. Slovakian Jews were the first to be murdered in Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The “Working Group” in Slovakia – a semi-underground group of Jews, under the leadership of Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel – sought to save Jews, both from Slovakia and other countries, by paying ransoms for them. Their attempts succeeded only to a very small degree.
During 1942, 58,000 Slovakian Jews were sent to the extermination camps. The deportations were halted late that year but resumed at the end of the Slovakian Uprising (August-October 1944). Approximately 100,000 Slovakian Jews perished during the Holocaust. Between 25,000-35,000 Slovakian Jews survived.
Murder of Hungarian Jewry
The Fascist elements in Hungary enjoyed broad popular support and Miklos Horthy’s dictatorial government concluded an alliance with Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitic legislation was passed and more than 100,000 Jewish men were mobilized for forced labour, in which approximately 40,000 perished.
When Hungary joined the war against the Allies, nearly 20,000 Jews from Kamenetz-Podolsk who held Polish or Soviet citizenship were turned over to the Germans and murdered. However, the extermination phase in Hungary only began later, after the Nazi invasion in March 1944. Until then Horthy refused to succumb to Hitler’s pressure to hand over the Jews. At this time, there were more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary, as a result of annexations of regions from Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. In May 1944, the deportations to Auschwitz began. In just eight weeks, some 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After October 1944, when the Arrow Cross party came to power, thousands of Jews from Budapest were murdered on the banks of the Danube and tens of thousands were marched hundreds of miles towards the Austrian border. In all, some 565,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered.