One of the toughest questions we are asked at the Holocaust History Project is when someone says "tell me everything you can about the Holocaust."
It is difficult because we know that this person wants to know about the Holocaust, but does not yet know enough to ask the right questions. There is so much information about the Holocaust that it is impossible to describe it all in a simple answer. We can, however, tell you what the Holocaust was and - most importantly - where you can read about it.
The Holocaust was the effort of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany to exterminate the Jews and other people that they considered to be inferior. As a result about 12,000,000 people - about half of them Jews - were murdered. The murders were done by every means imaginable but most of the victims perished as a result of shooting, starvation, disease, and poison gas. Others were tortured to death or died in horrible medical experiments.
Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 and almost immediately began the chain of events that led to the Holocaust. This first phase was the persecution of Jews in Germany and the other countries invaded by Hitler. It lasted until 1941. During this period, while Hitler built his power, Jews were persecuted and brutalized but there was no organized effort to systematically murder them.
In late 1939 Hitler invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War. In mid-1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. At about the same time - historians do not agree on exactly when - Hitler also decided that there should be a "Final Solution" to "the Jewish question."
The "Final Solution" was the murder of the Jews and was mainly carried out by a military group known as the SS and a security service known as the SD. The Gestapo was part of the SD. They arrested Jews and other victims, ran the concentration camps and organized the murder squads.
During the first part of this extermination 1,500,000 Jews and other people were murdered by military groups which rounded them up and shot them. Gradually the emphasis changed to concentration camps, where the prisoners were worked to death as slave laborers, and extermination camps, where they were murdered in the gas chambers. The most famous of these was Auschwitz, which was both a labor camp and an extermination camp. About 1,300,000 people perished at Auschwitz; approximately 1,000,000 of those died in the gas chambers.
The Nazis targeted many groups for persecution - among them Catholics, Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists - but only three groups were targeted for systematic extermination: Jews, the handicapped, and the Sinti and Roma (often known as Gypsies).
Sometime in 1944 it became obvious to most Nazi leaders (excepting Hitler) that they would soon be defeated and put on trial for what they had done. Several, including one of the worst of the criminals, Heinrich Himmler, tried to make deals with the Allies closing in on Nazi Germany. As a result the actual extermination stopped in November 1944, although thousands of people continued to die in the concentration camps. By that time most of the Jews who lived in Europe before the war, and millions of other innocent people, were dead. The war in Europe ended six months later, in May 1945.