Background: Life Before the Holocaust

Survivors in this section talk about life before the Holocaust. They encounter anti-Semitic prejudice and discrimination. They talk about the loss of various rights once anti-Jewish decrees are established. Some speak of their childhood memories, such as having to leave their homes in Germany to travel to England on the Kindertransport . Jack Kagan describes occupation and the arrival of the Einatzkommando in his town, as violence towards the Jews escalates.


  • The Nazis used propaganda campaigns to promote the party's virulent hatred of Jews. This attitude towards Jews is known as anti-Semitism. It can take different forms - institutional, physical or verbal.
  • The Nazis wanted to portray the Jews as sub-human, inferior beings who were interested primarily in their own economic gain or in communism. The Nazis built upon the negative myths of the Jewish race which had existed for centuries.

Anti-Jewish Decrees:

During the early 1930s, at the time of the Nazi rise to power, Germany was experiencing great economic and social hardship. The country:

  • had to pay enormous compensation to the Allies as a result of losing WWI
  • had to adhere to the Treaty of Versailles, whereby they could no longer have a large army and had to give up land
  • experienced severe inflation and economic instability
  • experienced great unemployment

Hitler used the Jews as a scapegoat, blaming them for Germany's economic and social problems. The Nazi party promised to resolve these issues, and in 1932 won 37% of the vote.

The persecution of the Jews began systematically, shortly after Hitler came to power. The Nazis introduced anti-Jewish decrees, which gradually eliminated the rights of Jewish citizens. Jews were regularly persecuted and humiliated. Many members of the German public were bystanders and did nothing to condemn the Nazi racial policies. This may have been due to the fact that they were content with other Nazi policies, which appeared to improve the disastrous financial and economic conditions in Germany. People were also afraid to speak out, as they were terrified of the brutality of the Nazis.

All Jews and non-Aryans were excluded from Germany society. They could no longer hold government jobs, own property or run their own businesses. In 1935, when the government passed the Nuremberg Laws that declared that only Aryans could be German citizens. The Nazis believed that the 'pure-blooded' German was racially superior, and that a struggle for survival existed between the German race and those races considered to be inferior. They saw Jews, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), black people and the disabled as a serious biological threat to the purity of the German-Aryan race, which they called the 'Master Race'. The Nazis idea of a perfect Aryan was someone with Nordic feature such as being tall or having blonde hair or blue-eyes.

The German Jewish community had contributed a great deal to German society culturally, economically and socially. Many Jews were patriotic Germans, and had sacrificed their lives for their country in WWI. For example, survivor Trude Levi's father fought for Germany during the 1914-1918 conflict and was granted medals for serving the country. In her oral testimony in Topic 1 she describes how her father was told to return his medals and that his Hungarian citizenship had been revoked.

Getting out:

  • There were those who managed to leave the country as refugees - these people usually needed money and a permit to allow them to emigrate to other countries.
  • A conference was held in Evian, France, in July 1935. 32 countries, including Great Britain, met to discuss the refugee crisis. Most countries refused to accept more Jewish refugees. They claimed admitting more refugees would lead to over population, unemployment and further anti-Semitism.
  • Great Britain insisted that those Jews wanting to emigrate had first to prove they had a job to go to in the host country, or that they had sufficient funds to live on.
  • In 1938 a special scheme was established called the Kindertransport (children's transport). It allowed 10,000 Jewish children and children of other Nazi victims into Great Britain. Many countries had strict quotas and, although many Jews escaped before the start of the war, some Jews were sent back to Nazi Europe. A survivor, Anon, in Topic 1 describes preparing for arrival in England and discusses how she was received by her foster family. Most of the 9,354 Kindertransport children never saw their parents again.


  • The German occupation of Europe began in March 1938 with the annexation of Austria (Anschluss). The occupation of Poland on September 1st 1939 was the trigger for the start of WWII.
  • As other countries were occupied, the Nazis quickly established the anti-Jewish decrees. These included compulsory wearing of yellow stars and the establishment of the ghettos.
  • In June 1941, Hitler broke his pact (10 years of non-aggression) with the Soviet Union and ordered an invasion using overwhelming force.
  • 2000 SS, Gestapo and German police were joined by Romanians, Ukranians, Latvians and Lithuanians who followed the German army of 5.5 million men.They formed mobile killing squads called Einsatzgruppen and were responsible for the murder of approximately 2 million Jews and thousands of Roma and Sinti( Gypsies). This was the start of the Holocaust.