Holocaust Vocabulary


Aktion - any non-military campaign conducted to further Nazi ideals of race, but most often referred to the assembly and deportation of Jews to concentration or death camps.

Allies - The 49 nations who fought against Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan during World War II; primarily the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union.

anschluss - "Joining together," annexation.  On March 12, 1938, Hitler annexed Austria to Germany

antisemitism - Systematic prejudice against Jews.  Notice the absence of a hyphen; there has never been any such thing as "Semitism." The term "antisemitism" is, properly one word.

Aryan race - a term originally applied to people who spoke any Indo-European language. The Nazis, however, primarily applied the term to people of Northern European racial background. Their aim was to avoid what they considered the "worst of the German race" and to preserve the purity of European blood.

Assimilation- process of becoming incorporated into mainstream society. Strict observance of Jewish laws and customs pertaining to dress, food, and religious holidays tends to keep Jewish people separate and distinct from the culture of the country within which they are living. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), a German Jew, was one of the key people working for the assimilation of the Jews in the German cultural community.

Auschwitz - Concentration and extermination camp in upper Silesia, Poland, 37 miles west of Krakow. Established in 1940 as a concentration camp, it became an extermination camp in early 1942. Eventually, it consisted of three sections: Auschwitz I, the main camp; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp; Auschwitz III (Monowitz), the I.G. Farben labor camp, also known as Buna.
 In addition, Auschwitz had numerous sub-camps.

Axis - the Axis powers originally included Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan who signed a pact in Berlin on September 27, 1940. They were later joined by Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovakia.

Babi Yar - deep ravine outsize the Ukrainian city of Kiev, on the Dnieper River where the Einsatzgruppen (see below) killed and buried 34,000 Jews in a two-day period in September, 1941, in retaliation for the bombing of German administration buildings in Kiev.  
blitzkrieg - "lightning war," used to describe the speed, efficiency and intensity of Germany's military attack against their opponents.
Buchenwald - concentration camp established in 1937 between Frankfurt and Leipzig in Germany.  While primarily a work camp in the German concentration camp system and not a major extermination center, thousands died there from exposure, over-work 
and execution.

capos - Jews who worked inside the death camps.  Their tasks including transporting gassed victims to the crematoria, cleaning the gas chambers of human excrement and blood, removal of gold from the teeth of victims, shaving the heads of those going to the
 gas chambers.

commandant - a commanding officer of a military organization

concentration camps - Immediately upon their assumption of power on January 30, 1933, the Nazis established concentration camps for the imprisonment of all "enemies" of their regime: actual and potential political opponents (e.g., communists, socialists, monarchists), Jehovah's Witnesses, gypsies, homosexuals, and other "asocials." Beginning in 1938, Jews were targeted for internment solely because they were Jews. Before then, only Jews who fit one of the earlier categories were interned in camps. The first three concentration camps established were Dachau (near Munich), Buchenwald (near Weimar) and Sachsenhausen (near Berlin).

Death Marches - At the end of WWII, when it became cleart the German army was trapped between the Soviets to the east and the advancing Allied troops from the west, the Nazis, to thwart the liberation 
of camp inmates, forced them to march westward, resulting in the deaths of thousands. 

Diaspora: From the Greek for “dispersion,” the term dates back to 556 B.C.E. when King Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Judeans to Babylonia and refers to the Jewish communities outside Israel.

Displacement - The process, whether official or unofficial, of people being involuntarily moved from their homes because of war, government policies, or other societal actions, requiring them to find new places to live. Displacement is a recurring theme in the history of the Jewish people.

DP - Displaced Person. The upheavals of war left millions of soldiers and civilians far from home. Millions of DP’s had been Eastern European slave laborers for the Nazis. The Jewish survivors of Nazi camps either could not or did not want to return to their former homes in Germany or eastern Europe, and many lived in special DP camps while waiting to emigrate to America or Israel (then known as Palestine).

Displaced Persons Act of 1948 - law passed by U.S. Congress limiting the number of Jewish displaced persons who could emigrate to the United States. The law contained antisemitic elements, eventually eliminated in 1950.

Einsatzgruppen - mobile killing units ("task groups") under the command of Reinhard Heydrich which accompanied German Troops when theyinvaded Russia.  Their task was to dispose of, liquidate, 
undesirables who posed a threat to the Reich.

Euthanasia - Nazi euphemism for the deliberate killings of institutionalized physically, mentally, and emotionally handicapped people. The euthanasia program began in 1939, with German non-Jews as the first victims. The program was later extended to Jews.

Final Solution - The code name for the plan to destroy all of Europe’s Jews - the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." Starting in December 1941, Jews were rounded up and sent to extermination camps in the East. The program was deceptively disguised as "resettlement in the East."

genocide - The deliberate and systematic destruction of a religious, racial, national or cultural group.

Gestapo - Acronym for Geheime Staatspolizei, meaning Secret State Police. Prior to the outbreak of war, the Gestapo used brutal methods to investigate and suppress resistance to Nazi rule within Germany.

ghetto - The Nazis revived the medieval ghetto in creating their compulsory "Jewish Quarter" (Wohnbezirk). The ghetto was a section of a city where all Jews from the surrounding areas were forced to reside. Surrounded by barbed wire or walls, the ghettos were often sealed so that people were prevented from leaving or entering. Established mostly in Eastern Europe (e.g. Lodz, Warsaw, Vilna, Riga, Minsk), the ghettos were characterized by overcrowding, starvation and forced labor. All were eventually destroyed as the Jews were deported to death camps.

Holocaust - The destruction of some 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their followers in Europe between the years 1933-1945. Other individuals and groups were persecuted and suffered grievously during this period, but only the Jews were marked for complete and utter extinction. The term "Holocaust" – from the Hebrew meaning "a completely burned sacrifice" - tends to suggest a sacrificial connotation. The word “Shoah,” originally a Biblical term meaning “desolation,” is the modern Hebrew equivalent.

Judenrat - Jewish community authority, appointed by the Nazis for administration within the ghetto.

(Crystal Night) - A German word for "Night of the Broken Glass" (pronounced "crystal-knocked). A night of rioting in Germany, November 9, 1938, when Jewish property was destroyed – 8,000 Jewisih-oowned shops were ransacked -- and many Jews were killed. This was the beginning of the Nazi campaign to annihilate the Jews.

Lebensraum, one of Hitler's motivations for invading Poland and, later, the Soviet Union, was to acquire 
lebensraum, or additional "living space," to be colonized by German people.

Mein Kampf (My Struggle) - Autobiographical book written by Hitler when he was in prison in 1923.  In this book, Hitler propounds his ideas, beliefs, and plans for the future of Germany. Everything, including his foreign policy, is permeated by his "racial ideology." The Germans, belonging to the supposedly "superior" Aryan race, have a right to "living space" (Lebensraum) in the East, inhabited by the "inferior" Slavs. Throughout, he accuses Jews of being the source of all evil. Unfortunately, those people who read the book (except for his admirers) did not take it seriously but considered it the ravings of a maniac.

Mengele, Josef – Doctor at Auschwitz who conducted experiments, especially on twins.  He was obsessed with the nature vs. nurture debate, believing that heredity was everything.. Mengele also "selected" new arrivals by simply pointing to the right or the left, thus separating those considered able to work from those who were not. In fact, he was known for his arbitrary and brutal decisions. After the war, he lived for five years in Germany, then in South America. In June 1985, a skeleton was found which
forensic experts concluded was Mengele’s.

Musselman – term for a concentration camp prisoner who has given up fighting for his/her life. 

Nazis - Members of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party, which started in Germany and was based on hate, prejudice and rule
by threat of violence. From the German Nazionalsozialist.

Night and Fog decree
- Secret order issued by Hitler on December 7, 1941, to seize "persons endangering German security,"
who were to vanish without a trace into night and fog.

Nuremberg Laws - Two anti-Jewish statutes enacted in September 1935, during the Nazi party's national convention in Nuremberg, removed civil rights of Jews. The first, the Reich Citizenship Law, deprived German Jews of their citizenship and all
related rights. The second, the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor, outlawed marriages between Jews and non-Jews, forbade Jews from employing German females of childbearing age, and prohibited Jews from displaying the German flag. Many additional regulations were attached to the two main statutes, which basically removed Jews from all spheres of German political, social, and economic life. The Nuremberg Laws carefully established definitions of Jewishness based on bloodlines. Thus, many Germans of mixed ancestry, called "Mischlinge," faced antisemitic discrimination if they had one Jewish grandparent.

Partisans – irregular troops engaged in guerrilla warfare, often behind enemy lines. During WW II, this term applied to resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied countries.

pogrom An organized and often officially encouraged massacre of or attack on Jews. The word is derived from two Russian words that mean "thunder."

Protocols of the Elders of Zion - major piece of anti-Semitic propaganda, compiled at the turn of the 20th century by members of the Russian Secret Police. Basically adapted from a 19th-century French polemical satire directed against Emperor Napoleon III, substituting Jewish leaders, the Protocols maintained that Jews were plotting world dominion by setting Christian against Christian, corrupting Christian morals and attempting to destroy the economic and political viability of the West. It gained great popularity after World War I and was translated into many languages, encouraging anti-Semitism in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. Long repudiated as an absurd and hateful lie, the book currently has been reprinted and is widely distributed by Neo-Nazis and others who are committed to the destruction of the State of Israel. It has recently been accepted in Japan and Malaysia, to bolster the view that Jews are responsible for the downturn of various Asian economies.  You can read more about it on line

reich - German word for "empire." The Nazis hoped to establish a Greater German Reich that was “judenfrei” (“free of Jews”).

resistance – “underground" organizations working to help the Jews against Hitler/Nazi army

righteous gentiles - non-Jews who, at the risk of their own lives, saved Jews from their Nazi persecutors

Shoah – see Holocaust

SS - Abbreviation usually written with two lightning symbols for Schutzstaffel (Defense Protective Units). Originally organized as Hitler's personal bodyguard, the SS was transformed into a giant organization by Heinrich Himmler. Although various SS units fought on the battlefield, the organization is best known for carrying out the destruction of European Jewry.

Umschlagplatz- location in Warsaw where freight trains were loaded and unloaded. During the deportation from the Warsaw ghetto, it was used as an assembly point where Jews were loaded onto cattle cars to be taken to Treblinka. It literally means "transfer point."

Vichy, France - after the Nazis conquered France, a puppet government was set up here.
Wannsee conference - gathering held on January 20, 1942 beside Lake Wannsee in suburban Berlin.  It was here that Nazi officials devised the official policy that the total annihilation of European Jews was the only rational means of a "Final Solution" 
to the Jewish Question.

Warsaw ghetto - established in November 1940, it was surrounded by walls and contained nearly 500,000 Jews. About 45,000 Jews died there in 1941 alone, as a result of overcrowding, hard labor, lack of sanitation, insufficient food, disease and starvation.  During 1942, most of the ghetto residents were deported to Treblinka, leaving about 60,000 Jews in the ghetto. A revolt took place in April 1943 when the Germans tried to raze the ghetto and deport the remaining inhabitants to Treblinka. The defense forces, commanded by Mordecai Anielewicz, included all Jewish political parties. The fighting lasted 28 days and ended with the destruction of the ghetto.

Yad Vashem - museum in Jerusalem dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims.  The name of the Museum is taken from an Old Testament passage in Isaiah:  "I will build for them a name and a memorial." 
(Isaiah 56:5).
Zionism - Fervent desire of Jews of the Diaspora to return to their ancestral homeland, then called Palestine.  This ideal is at least 2,500 years old, dating to the Babylonian Captivity.  Its first
statement is found in Psalm 137:1, "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept as we remembered Zion." 
Zyklon B - hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas originally developed as a fumigation agent to remove pesticides.  In October, 1941, it was used experimentally on Soviet prisoners of war.  The success of  these experiments had 
devastating consequences for millions of Jews who were gassed in the Nazi death camps.