What is Holocaust Memorial Day?
The day is an opportunity for everyone to remember the millions of people not only killed in the Holocaust but through Nazi Persecution of the disabled, gay and lesbian people, Slavs, Poles, Black people, Roma Gypsies, and political opponents. Subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur are also remembered. Holocaust Memorial Day honours the survivors of these regimes of hatred and is a demonstration of how the lessons of the past can inform our lives today and ensure that everyone works together to create a safer, better future.
Surrey Heritage commemorates the county’s connections with the many communities and individuals whose lives were affected by the Holocaust. Click here to find out more about ‘Surrey as a place of refuge’.
The Holocaust 1941-1945
Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis attempted to annihilate all of Europe’s Jews. This systematic and planned attempt is known as the Holocaust.
From the time the Nazis assumed power in 1933, they used propaganda, persecution, and legislation to deny human and civil rights to Jews. They used centuries of anti-semitism as their foundation. By 1941, Jews had been rounded up and forced to live in over-crowded ghettos. As part of the Final Solution, ghettos were liquidated and Jews were sent to camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those too weak or too old to work, including women and children, were sent straight to the gas chambers. Those strong enough were set to work in appalling conditions.
By the end of the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women and children had perished in ghettos, mass-shootings, in concentration camps and extermination camps.
The full extent of Nazi persecution
The Nazis persecuted people they believed threatened their idea of a ‘pure Aryan race’ of Germans. Extreme ideas associated with eugenics (the aim to improve the genetic composition of the population), were used to justify oppression. Hundreds of lives were destroyed or changed beyond recognition because of Nazi persecution and many groups did not receive acknowledgment of their suffering until years after 1945.
Culture and race: Poles, Black people and the LGB community
The Nazis viewed Poles and other Slavic peoples as Untermenschen or ‘sub-human’ and at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians were killed in concentration or labour camps between 1939-1945.
European and American Black residents were interned in the Nazi concentration camp system and as the war progressed many of the Black POWs were either worked until they died or were executed. Underlining Hitler’s obsession with racial purity, by 1937, every identified mixed-race child in the Rhineland had been forcibly sterilised.
Nazi conceptions of race, gender and eugenics dictated a hostile policy on Lesbian, Gay and Bi-sexual people (LGB). Most were exposed to inhumane treatment in police prisons. Gay men who were sent to the camps were assigned pink triangles and hundreds were exterminated at a time. Others died from exhaustion and many were castrated or subjected to gruesome medical experiments.
People with physical disabilities, mental health needs and chronic illnesses were targeted as part of the Nazi eugenics policy. They were deemed to be damaging to the common good and as a result 360,000 individuals were subjected to forced sterilisation between 1933 and1939. From 1939-1941, the killing of disabled children and adults began. Thousands of disabled patients were first killed in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms at Brandenberg. This model was later applied to Nazi concentration camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Social and Political opponents
The Nazis also targeted political opponents, namely communists, trade unionists and social democrats, along with those whose religious beliefs conflicted with Nazi ideology, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp, was built to imprison political opponents. Thousands of Freemasons were also persecuted by the Nazi regime and many were incarcerated in concentration camps, classed as political prisoners.
The Nazis used the terms ‘asocial’ and ‘workshy’ to categorise other groups of people who failed to conform to their social norms. This group included vagrants, beggars, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, nonconformists, and pacifists. ‘Asocials’ were forced to wear black triangles in concentration camps. Roma Gypsies were classed as ‘asocial’.
Gypsy and Roma oppression
Europe’s Roma and Sinti Gypsies were targeted by the Nazis for total destruction. About 200,000 were murdered or died as a result of starvation or disease. Many more were imprisoned, used as forced labour or subject to forced sterilisation and medical experimentation.
In June 1936, a central office to ‘Combat the Gypsy Nuisance’ opened in Munich. Gypsy homes were raided and as with Jewish children, Gypsy children were banned from public schools. In 1940, official statistics were collected about ‘Gypsies, mixed Gypsies and people with Gypsy style of life’ and all those who matched the categories were sent to labour camps.
In February 1943, the first Roma and Sinti men, women and children arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, which had a specific Gypsy camp, the Zieguenlager. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within this camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were murdered. The Zieguenlager was liquidated in August 1944, and 2,897 Roma and Sinti were exterminated in the gas chambers. Surviving prisoners were deported to Buchenwald and Ravensbruck concentration camps; here, many more died of starvation and maltreatment.
Despite the atrocities committed against the Gypsy community their suffering as part of the Holocaust was not fully recognised by the West German Government until 1981. More information can be found at the Roma and Sinti Documentation Centre in Heidelberg, Germany.
Read an article on the Gypsy Holocaust by GRT experts Mike Doherty and Robert Dawson in Travellers’ Times online at http://travellerstimes.org.uk/News/The-Gypsy-Holocaust.aspx
Modern day persecution
Holocaust Memorial Day also commemorates the millions of people who were victims of more recent genocides in Cambodia, 1975-1979, Rwanda, 1994, Bosnia, 1995, and Darfur, 2003-present day.
Find out more
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website: www.hmd.org.uk/holocaust
The Imperial War Museum has an online resource featuring all aspects of the Holocaust, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-holocaust
Ben Uri is an art museum that explores the work of artists of Jewish descent and examines their artistic and social contribution to our national heritage. Read the Ben Uri blog at http://benuri.org.uk/blog/genocide-is-a-personal-thing/