Australasian Union of Jewish Students

European Jewry

European Jewry

At Yom HaShoah, we remember and reflect on the suffering and loss of European Jewry during the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, and the staggering effect it continues to have today on the survivors, the families and friends of survivors, the Jewish community, and Jewish identity.

The European Jewish population stood at 9 million before the Holocaust. Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Jewish citizens of countries in Western Europe (Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium) had assimilated into these countries.

Jews experienced a period of ostensible legal equality from 1848 until the rise of Nazi Germany. According to historian Fritz Stern, by the end of the 19th Century, a Jewish-German symbiosis had emerged, where German Jews had merged elements of German and Jewish culture into a unique new one. Marriages between Jews and non-Jews became somewhat common.

It is interesting to note that a higher percentage of German Jews fought in World War I for Germany than that of any other ethnic, religious or political group in Germany. Some 12,000 died for their country between 1914 and 1918.

Latent anti-Semitism did still exist at this time. For example, there was little chance of a Jewish German receiving a judgeship. This underlying anti-Semitic sentiment was bolstered by Hitler to demonise the Jewish population, blaming them for Germany’s economic problems and political instability following World War I. In 1933, persecution of the Jews became an active Nazi policy.

The Jewish people were seen as the racial enemies of the Third Reich. Nazis believed the Jews were racially inferior and the Final Solution was their plan to systematically “cleanse” Europe of its “Jewish problem”. Jews were expelled from schools and universities and fired from their jobs. They also lost the right to vote.  The Nuremberg Laws codified anti-Jewish statutes into German law in 1935.

The night of 9th-10th November, 1938 became known as Kristallnacht, or “the Night of the Broken Glass”. This was a violent, anti-Jewish pogrom across Germany, including the killing of over 100 Jews, the deportation of 30,000 Jewish men to Nazi concentration camps, and the vandalisation of Jewish synagogues, homes and businesses.


Subsequently, Jewish communities in Nazi occupied areas were forced out of their homes into ghettos. The ghettos were formed and closed off from the outside world. As the Nazi regime conquered further parts of Europe-France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and others, their anti-Jewish policies were quickly enacted and enforced. 

The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 380,000 people; the Łódź Ghetto was next in size, holding 160,000.  Movement of the ghetto residents was strictly controlled by Nazi guards stationed at any entrance or exit.  In two years in the Warsaw Ghetto, nearly 83,000 Jews died of starvation and disease.  Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were “resettled” in the East. But this promised resettling never occurred. Instead, the ghettos' inhabitants were sent to extermination camps.

The first ghetto uprising occurred in September, 1942 in the small town of Łachwa in southeast Poland. It was followed by a number of armed resistance attempts in the larger ghettos in 1943, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Białystok Ghetto Uprising. In every case they failed against the overwhelming Nazi military force, and the remaining Jews were either killed or deported to the death camps. Prisoners were transported in inhumane conditions by rail freight cars, in which many died before reaching their destination.

Over 15,000 Nazi camps were established across occupied Europe. Many of the prisoners died in the concentration camps through deliberate maltreatment, disease, starvation, and overwork, or were executed as unfit for labour.

Extermination camps, or death camps, were designed and built by Nazi Germany to systematically kill millions, primarily by gassing. The corpses were later burned in crematoria specifically built for this purpose.

During the Holocaust, 6 million European Jews were murdered – two-thirds of the total population of European Jewry.  Among them, 1.5 million children were killed.

The Victim

Some one mentioned the 'Holocaust' the old Jewish man said 'no'

Such word i do not wish to hear that happened years ago

Then he slowly folded up his sleeve and numbers etched in blue

Told of the sufferings he'd known and all he had been through.


A silence fell o'er one and all across the club room floor

And in his presence 'Holocaust' not mentioned any more

We had amongst us in the flesh one who had lived through hell

But i wish that he could have spoke of sufferings he could tell.

Don't mention 'Holocaust' to me with one wave of his hand

A silence fell o'er one and all how could we understand?

The agony he had been through, the torture and the pain

We did not mention 'Holocaust' no not to him again.


My heart went to that Jewish man who sought no sympathy

He wanted to block out his past as a bad memory

Don't mention 'Holocaust' to me and little else he said

But i could picture living soul whose thoughts were with the dead.


That night i did not sleep too well i had recurring dream

I watched the hungry slowly die, i heard the tortured scream

I saw a gray haired Jewish man the sorrow on his face

And i was in another time a dark and a sadder place.


I woke and when i went to sleep the dream returned to me

Of Jewish man with tragic past who sought no sympathy

I see a young man in his prime with a hunger wasted frame

With numbers branded on his hand 'they'd robbed him of his name'.


Some one mentioned the 'Holocaust' the old Jewish man said 'no'

Such word i do not wish to hear that happened years ago

Then he slowly folded up his sleeve and numbers etched in blue

Told of the sufferings he'd known and all he had been through.

- Francis Duggan