First the Nazis came for the Communists;
and I didnt speak up because I wasnt a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews; and I didnt speak up because
I wasnt a Jew. When they came for the trade unionists I
didnt speak up, because I wasnt a trade unionist.
And when they came for the Catholics I didnt speak up because
I was a Protestant. Then they came for me... and by that time
there was no one left to speak for anyone.
Attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoeller
People everywhere fervently hoped that the First World War would
be "the war to end all wars." However, that conflict
merely served to inaugurate thirty years of turmoil that culminated
in yet another war, the most destructive and horrifying in history.
Before World War II was over, European Jewry was dealt the severest
blow it had ever endured: six million Jews were murdered in the
The end of World War I paved the way for major political transformations
in Western Europe. In 1918, the German Empire collapsed and Kaiser
Wilhelm fled. The Weimar Republic, an experiment in liberal democracy,
was born. In Russia in November 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin
and Trotsky, established a new regime, the Soviet Union, and implemented
revolutionary social and economic reforms. Jewish communities
from the Rhine to the Volga were swept up in the sudden political
changes. The Russian Revolution brought Jews emancipation, while
the Weimar Republic allowed them full participation in German
In Eastern Europe, a new political map was drawn. From the ruins
of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires rose Austria, Poland,
Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Their independence was guaranteed by the Versailles Peace Conference
of 1919. In these new states, however, Jews found that discrimination
and anti-Semitism persisted.
The year 1917 was also critical in the history of the Zionist
movement. The British government issued the Balfour Declaration,
which sanctioned "the establishment in Palestine of a national
home for the Jewish people."
The 1920s were an age of experimentation in the life-styles,
art, and literatureand a time of deep discontent. The painting,
architecture, music, fiction, and theater of this era express
excitement and hope, as well as anxiety and pessimism.
In Germany, the promise of the Weimar era was foreclosed by economic
depression. Through demagoguery and violence, Hitler transformed
the anti-Semitic Nazi movement from a fringe element to the ruling
party. Upon coming to power, the Nazis made anti-Semitism official
state policy by enacting discriminatory laws, instigating violence
against the Jews, and spreading racist propaganda.
In 1938, world leaders acquiesced when Hitler annexed Austria
and occupied much of Czechoslovakia. When Germany invaded Poland
in 1939, however, Britain and France declared war.
Upon invading Poland, the Nazis took their anti-Semitic campaign
further. Before the outbreak of war, their main efforts centered
on isolating Jews through legislation and sporadic acts of violence,
restricting Jewish livelihoods, confiscating Jewish property,
and encouraging emigration. In Poland, they were confronted with
the largest Jewish population in Europe. The Nazis forcibly segregated
the Jews into sealed ghettos, where many died of starvation and
disease. In 1941, when Hitler abrogated a non-aggression pact
with Stalin and invaded Russia, the Nazis began a systematic program
of genocide. Via mass executions, they murdered hundreds of thousands
of Jews in the formerly Soviet-held territories. By 1942, they
had devised a more efficient means of annihilation: the death
camp. Millions of Jews and other people from all over Europe were
brought to six industrial killing centers in Poland, where most
were murdered in gas chambers and others worked and starved to
On May 9, 1945, after six devastating years, Great Britain and
the United States proclaimed victory in Europe. The total number
of World War II fatalities was estimated at a staggering thirty
million. Six million of them were Jews. Nearly two-thirds of the
entire Jewish population of Europe had been murdered.
Many of the Jewish survivors hoped to leave Europe and reconstruct
their lives in Palestine. But restrictions on immigration, promulgated
by the British White Paper of 1939, prevented their entry. They
had to wait in displaced persons camps until the creation of the
state of Israel in 1948. During this period, Jewry moved from
the verge of annihilation to the threshold of national independence.