The "Holocaust" is the name commonly given to the state-sponsored program of mass murder by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. The term derives from the Greek words holos, meaning "completely," and kaustos, a burnt sacrificial offering. Many Jews prefer the Hebrew word "Sho'ah" (which means "catastrophic upheaval" or "calamity").
The Nazi Party, officially named the National Socialist German Workers Party, came to power in 1933 when German President Paul Von Hindenburg appointed rival Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany. After Von Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler assumed the powers of the presidency and created a dictatorship.
The Nuremberg race laws of 1935 deprived Jews of citizenship under the Third Reich, the name given to the German empire. The racism of the Nazi regime included boycotts of Jewish businesses, as well as legislation limiting the rights of Jews and other targeted groups. Using anti-Semitic propaganda, the Nazi government promoted the idea that Jews were "subhuman" enemies of the German state. The Nazis also declared as "inferior" Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles, Russians, those with disabilities, and others, for their behavior, ethnicity, or political affiliation.
Based on the ideology of German racial superiority, the Nazi Party began to fulfill Hitler's ambition of acquiring more territory in Europe. World War II began September 1, 1939, when German forces invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada followed suit but, by the end of September, the Polish army lay defeated, the country's land divided between Nazi Germany and their temporary ally, the Soviet Union. Over the next two years Germany defeated and occupied Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece.
At first, Jews and other Nazi "enemies" were imprisoned in ghettos, transit centers, forced labor camps, and concentration camps. The Nazis used the rail system to transport Jews from their homes all over Europe to these facilities. Many died of exposure, exhaustion, and starvation.
By 1941, the Nazis had decided to implement "The Final Solution," the complete extermination of all European Jews. Extermination camps designed for effective mass murder were constructed primarily in Poland, the country with the largest Jewish population. While concentration camps served as labor camps and detention sites, extermination camps were death centers with gas chambers intended to make killing both efficient and impersonal. Victims killed in the death camps were usually incinerated in massive ovens constructed to dispose of the bodies, and with them the evidence of the Nazis' elaborate system of genocide.
"When I had my store I used to 'meet the public,' and I wanted to tell everybody—not only our story, but other stories as well. Nobody knew anything. This amazed me, that nobody remembered what happened only a little while ago. They didn't remember because they didn't know."
—Rosa Lublin in The Shawl