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

In remarks he made to 14 senior Nazis at a top-secret con­fer­ence in the fashion­able Berlin suburb of Wann­see on Janu­ary 22, 1942, 38-year-old SS-Ober­gruppen­fuehrer Rein­hard Hey­drich, chief of the Reich Security Head [or Main] Office as also 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.” Six in Hey­drich’s audience were fellow SS offi­cers who, like the speaker, already knew a thing or two about the “Jewish prob­lem.” Other atten­dees were state secre­taries and under­sec­retaries of the German Foreign Office, the minis­tries of the Interior, Justice, and Econo­mics, and the so-called General Govern­ment in Nazi-occupied Poland. Eight of the dignitaries held doctorates.

The minutes of the hour-and-a-half meeting, as recorded by SS-Ober­sturm­bann­fuehrer Adolf Eich­mann and edited by Hey­drich him­self, con­tained the expres­sion “evacuation of Jews to the East” (“Eva­kuie­rung der Juden nach dem Osten”), a euphe­mism, as Eich­mann later testified, that meant the geno­cidal killing of all Euro­pean Jews that fell under Nazi domi­na­tion. Europe, Hey­drich told his listeners, would be “combed” of Jews from west to east. “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 Wannsee minutes.

As the year wore on, the body of experi­ence Hey­drich referred to 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 German indus­trial giant I.G. Farben’s cya­nide-based Zyklon B or simply car­bon mono­xide destroyed millions of Jewish lives.

On this date, December 17, 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.

The 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-Birkenau Gas 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 right before finishing the building in June or July 1943.

Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) at Auschwitz Hungarian Jews sent to Birkenau’s 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 1944 Undressed 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)