If you're Jewish or have friends who are Jewish, you might know that today is Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah, or Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. Informally known as Yom HaShoah or Holocaust Day, it's a national memorial day in Israel that commemorates the approximately six million Jews who died in the Holocaust.
One of the most tragic and terrible events in all of human history, the Holocaust began in 1933 when the Nazi party came to power in Germany. It lasted until the end of World War II, when Germany was finally defeated in 1945.
The Holocaust got its start with the discriminatory policies of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Hitler hated Jews. He blamed them for Germany losing World War I and considered them an inferior race. In his book, Mein Kampf, he promised to rid Germany of all the Jews when he ruled the country.
No one really believed Hitler would do the things he said, but he began working toward his goal as soon as he became Chancellor of Germany. He created new laws that discriminated against Jews, robbing them of their rights.
Hitler also organized attacks against Jews and their businesses. For example, on November 9, 1938, many Jewish businesses and homes were vandalized or burnt during what has become known as Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass."
After the start of World War II, Hitler's persecution of Jews became increasingly more violent. As Nazi forces overtook most of Europe, Jewish people were forced to live in cramped quarters in ghettos surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Living conditions were miserable, as very little in the way of food or medicine was available.
Eventually, large numbers of Jews were moved to concentration camps, which were like prison camps where they were forced to perform hard labor with little food or water. Many people died from diseases and starvation.
Many concentration camps had gas chambers in which large groups of Jews would be murdered with poison gas and then burned as part of Hitler's “Final Solution." The word “Holocaust" comes from the Greek words meaning “sacrifice by fire." By the end of World War II, the Nazis had killed about six million Jews. Of this number, experts believe over one million were children.
Jews were not the sole victims of Hitler's atrocities, though. Hitler believed that all races other than his own Aryan race were inferior and should be eliminated. In addition to the Jews, millions of people from other groups were also killed, including Polish, Russian, Serbian, and Roma people.
The Nazis also targeted Catholics, the mentally and physically handicapped, and political dissidents. Historians have debated the total death toll from the Holocaust. Some experts estimate that the Nazis murdered about 12 million innocent people, while others believe the total could approach 20 million people.