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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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Star of David and Smoke First the Nazis came for the Communists; and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews; and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. When they came for the trade unionists I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a trade unionist. And when they came for the Catholics I didn’t 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 Holocaust.

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 life.

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 1920’s were an age of experimentation in the life-styles, art, and literature—and 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 death.

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.


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