Washington, D.C. and London, England · December 17, 1942

In remarks he made to senior Nazis at a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wann­see on Janu­ary 22, 1942, SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer Rein­hard Hey­drich, chief of the Reich Security Head Office and head of the Ger­man secret police apparatus, spoke of “prac­tical experi­ence” that was being col­lected “in rela­tion to the future Final Solu­tion of the Jewish prob­lem.” The minutes of the con­ference, as recorded by SS-Ober­sturm­bann­fuehrer Adolf Eich­mann and edited by Hey­drich, con­tained the expres­sion “evacuation of Jews to the East” (“Eva­kuie­rung der Juden nach dem Osten”), a euphe­mism that came to mean the geno­cidal killing of all Euro­pean Jews that fell under Nazi domi­na­tion. “Approx­i­mately 11 mil­lion Jews will be in­volved in the final solution of the European Jewish question (Im Zuge dieser End­lösung der euro­päischen Juden­frage kom­men rund 11 Mil­lionen Juden in Be­tracht),” read the minutes.

As the year wore on, the experi­ence learned was put to prac­tical use in six major killing centers that oper­ated in Ger­man-occupied Poland: Beł­żec, Sobi­bór, Treb­linka, Majda­nek, Au­schwitz-Birke­nau, and Chełmno. At these places gas cham­bers using car­bon mono­xide or cya­nide-based Zyklon B destroyed millions of Jewish lives.

On this date in 1942 Allied govern­ments issued a for­mal con­dem­nation of the “Ger­man Policy of Exter­mi­nation of the Jewish Race.” This decla­ra­tion became impera­tive because of cred­i­ble reports since mid-1942 that Ger­mans had turned from per­se­cuting and “resettling” Jews in the East to sys­tem­atically mur­dering them on an indus­trial scale. The Allies’ decla­ra­tion was a stark recog­ni­tion that it was Nazi Ger­many’s “inten­tion to exter­mi­nate the Jewish people in Europe.” The Allies con­demned “in the strongest pos­sible terms this bes­tial policy of cold-blooded exter­mi­na­tion” and affirmed that the per­pe­tra­tors “shall not escape retri­bu­tion.” The state­ment was the first and the strongest public con­dem­nation of atroc­i­ties against Euro­pean Jews that the Allies issued during World War II. Not­with­standing their govern­ment’s con­clu­sion, most Ameri­cans as late as 1943 either believed that the reports of mass killings in East­ern Europe were greatly exag­ger­ated or had no opin­ion about their accu­racy. But the fact remains—1942 was the most lethal year in Jewish his­tory: 2.7 mil­lion Jews lost their lives, a little less than half the number killed during the entire war.

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Holocaust in Eastern Europe

Map of Nazi Death Camps in Eastern Europe

Above: The estimated total number of people killed in the exter­mination camps in the East is over three million: Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland), 1,100,000; Bełżec (Poland), 600,000; Chełmno (Poland), 320,000; Majdanek (Poland), 360,000; Sobi­bór (Poland), 250,000; Treblinka (Poland), 700,000–800,000; Maly Trostenets (Belarus), 65,000; and Jasenovac (Croatia), 85,000–600,000.

Main entrance "Gate of Death" to Auschwitz-BirkenauGas ovens in Birkenau crematory II

Left: Photo of Birkenau (the extermination camp at Auschwitz) following the camp’s libera­tion on Janu­ary 27, 1945. In the foreground amid the rubble is the unloading ramp (the so-called Judenrampe) and in the dis­tance Birke­nau’s main gate called the “Gate of Death.” In the most sys­tematic, sus­tained geno­cide in his­tory, trans­port trains from spring 1942 until fall 1944 delivered Jews from all over Nazi-occu­pied Europe to the gas cham­bers of Auschwitz-Birke­nau. Beginning in 1942, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest of the Nazis’ death camps.

Right: Gas ovens in Birkenau crematory II. The picture was taken by the SS (Schutz­staffel) right before finishing the building in June or July 1943.

"Judenrampe" (Jewish ramp) at AuschwitzHungarian Jews sent to gas chambers

Left: Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe in Auschwitz-Birkenau after dis­embarking from transport trains. Being directed rechts! (to the right) meant camp labor. Sent links! (to the left) meant the gas chambers at Birkenau.

Right: Hungarian Jewish mothers, children, elderly, and infirm sent links (to the left) after “selection,” May 1944. They would be murdered in Birkenau’s gas chambers soon thereafter.

Children and elderly woman on way to Birkenau gas chamber, May 1944Undressed women prisoners on way to Birkenau gas chamber, August 1944

Left: Hungarian Jewish children and an elderly woman on their way to the Birkenau gas cham­bers, May 1944. Many of the very young and very old were mur­dered imme­diately upon arrival and were never registered by camp officials.

Right: In August 1944 members of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonder­kom­mando managed to secretly photo­graph the exter­mi­na­tion pro­cess of undressed women pri­soners. Sonder­kom­mandos were work units of death camp pri­soners, com­posed almost entirely of Jews, who were forced on threat of their own deaths to aid in the disposal of gas chamber victims.

History Channel Documentary: Auschwitz, the Forgotten History (Part 3, To the Gas Chambers)