Holocaust is the term used to refer to the attempted annihilation of European Jewry and the brutal persecution of an extended “mosaic of victims” by German Nazis.

When Did The Holocaust Occur And How Did It Unfold?

The persecution of Jews began soon after Adolph Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Between that date and November 9, 1938 (the date of Kristallnacht or “night of broken glass” during which there were state-sanctioned assaults on Jewish persons and property throughout Germany), the rights of Jews were continuously defrayed. Social, political, and psychological separation from German society was succeeded by physical attacks and incarceration in German concentration camps. During these years, many Jews tried to emigrate from Germany, but most countries of the world refused to accept them.

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By the outbreak of World War II, Nazi rule extended to Austria and Czechoslovakia, and by 1941, most of Europe fell under Nazi domination, including the millions of Jews who resided in these countries. At this point, Jewish emigration to nonoccupied areas of the world—which was difficult before—became virtually impossible. Fueled by an “ideology of death,” Nazi leadership began to generate a series of “solutions to the Jewish problem” (the excess number of Jews living in areas that the Nazis wished to clear for repopulation by their own citizens). An early plan was to deport and concentrate all Jews on the French island of Madagascar, off the coast of southwest Africa. However, this plan became technically impossible once the Germans lost the Battle of Britain. The Nazis next confined Jews in ghettos and forced labor and concentration camps. In 1941, as Germany prepared to invade the Soviet Union, Nazi policies toward the Jews changed once again. It became clear that efforts to rid Nazi-occupied lands of Jews required more extreme measures. Thus “the final solution to the Jewish question” was set in motion: complete and total annihilation of the Jewish people, whereby every Jewish man, woman, and child was to be killed. Several strategies were implemented to achieve this end: massacres were perpetrated by killing squads (the Einsatzgruppen); and systematic murder by asphyxiation was conducted first in mobile gas vans and then in stationary “death factories,” the extermination camps.

By the end of World War II, approximately 6 million Jews (one third of the Jewish population in Europe before the war) had perished. An additional 5 million people, representing different victim groups, also succumbed to the Nazi onslaught: “victims by birth” (Gypsies, the mentally and physically handicapped), “victims by belief” (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholic priests), and “victims by behavior” (Communists, political dissidents, homosexuals). However, the Jews were the main focus of the German “ideology of death.” For this reason, the Hebrew word Shoah (whirlwind) is often used to distinguish the Jewish experience from the experience of other victim groups.

Holocaust Versus Genocide And Ethnic Cleansing

The word genocide had not yet been invented when the Holocaust began. Indeed, it was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who managed to find refuge in the United States in 1941. Derived from the Greek word geno (race or tribe) and the Latin word cide from  caedere  (killing),  Lemkin  defined  genocide  as “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” He further identified two patterns of genocide: (1) destruction of the oppressed group, and (2) imposition of “the national pattern of the oppressor” onto the oppressed population. Implied in this second pattern is that members of the oppressed group might be allowed to remain, but their leadership, language, culture, and religion would all be subsumed into the “colonizing culture.” The distinction between these two patterns of genocide makes it possible to differentiate the Holocaust (exemplar of Lemkin’s first definition) from other incidents of genocide. Indeed, for many, the word Holocaust itself has evolved into the generic name for an ideologically motivated, planned total murder of a whole people.

Ethnic cleansing, in contrast, was defined by the United Nations in 1993 as “rendering an area wholly homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups” manifested “by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extrajudicial military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property.” Thus, while ethnic cleansing can occur through murder, it is not necessarily the total murder of a whole people.

Psychological Effects Of The Holocaust

The Holocaust experience was one of extreme stress: there were pervasive hostile forces; death was imminent. In addition, the concentration camps and ghettos were closed systems where inmates could exercise only limited control over their environment, were frequently separated from their loved ones, and were often forced to violate their belief systems in the process of surviving or to helplessly watch while others were murdered. Understandably, after the war, many survivors manifested a variety of seemingly “abnormal” behavioral and psychological symptoms. Collectively, these symptoms have come to be identified as the “survivor syndrome”: chronic anxiety, fear of renewed persecution, depression, recurring nightmares, psychosomatic disorders, social withdrawal, fatigue, hypochondria, distractibility, irritability, a hostile attitude toward the world, and—in the extreme— hallucinations and depersonalization. Identification of this syndrome was based on work with those survivors who sought psychiatric assistance and was initially generalized to all survivors, despite the fact that most Holocaust survivors never sought professional psychiatric or psychological help. This early “skewed picture” of survivors then most likely was an artifact of the fact that in order to receive reparations from the West German government, survivors had to “prove” that they were sufficiently psychologically disabled to warrant assistance and that these disabilities were a product of their treatment during the war. Thus, the most negative symptoms were emphasized within the early psychological literature.

An often highlighted symptom in this literature is “survivor guilt,” or the expression of self-recrimination because one survived and others did not. This was identified primarily among those who were the sole surviving member of their family, were unable to protect their children or other loved ones from harm (they survived but their children/parents/siblings did not), and felt that they were less worthy than those who had perished. This guilt often kept survivors “locked in the past,” but it has also served as motivation to bear witness to the Holocaust and to keep alive the memory of those who perished.

More recent research has focused on the resiliency of Holocaust survivors—their ability to move on, to create new families, and to make significant contributions to society. The heterogeneity of the survivor community has also come to be emphasized. Not all survivors are alike. Their postwar adaptation may be seen as a function of their age at the time of the Holocaust, sex, country of origin (how long they lived under persecution), placement during the war (ghetto, forced labor camp, extermination camp, in hiding, engaged in active resistance), familial circumstances of survival (e.g., lone surviving member of their family or community), and pre-Holocaust family life and personality.

Another aspect of behavior that has received new focus is the kinds of resistance victims used to maintain their sense of self in a situation designed to render them “life unworthy of life.” Circumstances delimited the degree of armed resistance that could occur, although there are some notable examples (e.g., the Warsaw ghetto uprising). More frequently used were spiritual resistance where Jews continued to observe holidays, say prayers, and maintain religious practices even in the most dire circumstances; artistic resistance, which has left a legacy of visual art pieces, musical compositions, and written poems, stories, and essays; interpersonal resistance, whereby victims helped each other survive in whatever ways they could; and psychological resistance, whereby victims refused to be reduced to subhumans. The use of “gallows humor” by adults enabled many to put themselves in a psychologically superior place; play served the same function for children.

Although the Holocaust ended 60 years ago, the effects of the Holocaust continue to live on within individual survivors as well as their children. Survivors continue to feel vulnerable and may communicate this sense of vulnerability to their children. Survivors and their children often experience role reversal, whereby the children take on the caretaking role. Conversely, and sometimes at the same time, parent survivors try to compensate for their inability to protect loved ones during the war by overprotecting their children. Again, the early literature on the second generation focused on the pathological aspects of the relationships with their survivor parents. More recent research, however, has shifted to explore the special strengths of children of survivors, most notably their capacity for empathy.


The Holocaust was a unique event in human history, the thrust of which was to annihilate the Jewish people. About one third of the Jewish population of Europe did indeed perish. Of those who survived, many have incurred deep psychological scars. They also demonstrate the amazing resilience people are able to muster in the face of extreme traumatic experiences.


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