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.

Jewish Holocaust: Main entrance "Gate of Death" to Auschwitz-Birkenau Jewish Holocaust: 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.

Jewish Holocaust: "Judenrampe" (Jewish ramp) at Auschwitz Jewish Holocaust: 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.

Jewish Holocaust: Children and elderly woman on way to Birkenau gas chamber, May 1944 Jewish Holocaust: 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)