This 1974 film series is considered by many to be the ultimate WWII documentary. Episode # 20 was the first film made to tell the story of the Holocaust.
Heinrich Himmler was the leader of the SS - the group responsible for carrying out much of the Holocaust. Like Hitler, he believed in the superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of the Jews. He joined the Nazi Party during the early 1920s and quickly rose in rank. Himmler became the leader of the SS in 1929 and aimed to put his ideas into practice. Originally, the SS was supposed to be Hitler's personal bodyguard. But Himmler wanted the SS to be an elite unit that would be trained to believe they were fighting a war to preserve the Aryan race. The Nazis believed in something called "Social Darwinism" - the idea that, like in nature, weaker and inferior peoples (Jews, Poles, Russians, etc.,) needed to be destroyed by the stronger, superior people (Germans).
In 1933, the Nazis took power in Germany. This event marks the beginning of the first phase of the Holocaust -- the Nazi persecution of the Jews living in Germany. On April 1, boycotts were organized against Jewish stores and businesses in cities across Germany. In 1935, the Nazis announced the Nuremburg Laws. These laws said Jews could no longer be German citizens since they were not "pure-blooded." In German schools, children were taught to hate and fear the Jews. Children's books portrayed Jews as ugly, scary, and dangerous.
In 1938, the Kristallnacht marked the first organized violence against Germany's Jews. Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues were damaged or burned all across Germany. 30,000 Jewish men were marched off to concentration camps. Around 1,000 Jews were killed in the streets.
Some Jews left Germany, but it was very difficult to do so after 1938. The Germans required anyone leaving to pay a lot of money and to give up their savings and property. Others refused or chose not to leave.
On September 1, 1939, the German army invaded Poland. The start of WWII also marks the beginning of the second phase of the Holocaust - the mass shootings of Jews in Poland and the establishment of the ghettos. Hitler warned in a speech shortly before the invasion that a new European war would mean the end of the Jewish race. Special squads of SS Action Commandos (Einsatzgruppen) followed the German army into Polish towns and villages where they rounded-up and shot many Jews and ordinary Polish citizens. Many Jews and Poles were hung to terrify and intimidate the local people.
In 1940, Jews in Poland were ordered to move into special ghettos created in the worst sections of Warsaw and other Polish cities. The ghettos were designed to be places where large numbers of Jews would die of starvation and disease while also being available as laborers for the Nazis. Eyewitnesses describe the misery of living in the Warsaw Ghetto. More than 350,000 people were forced to live in an area where only a fraction of that amount had lived before.
In June 1941, the German armies invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazis begin to simply round-up Jews and kill them in mass shootings carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.
In towns and villages, Jews were taken into forests, forced to undress, shot, and buried in mass graves. One survivor describes how she watched everyone in her family shot before her turn came. Miraculously, the killer only grazed her head and she managed to lay still in a pit full of bodies before crawling out and escaping that night.
More than 1.5 million Jews were shot and killed between 1939 and 1942. SS leader Heinrich Himmler visited a killing site near Minsk - in the Soviet Union. After witnessing executions, he encouraged his SS men to continue in their work.
In 1942, SS and Nazi government leaders met at Wannsee -- a suburb of Berlin - to discuss the "Final Solution" to the Jewish problem. According to the plan they came up with, all Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe would be shipped in trains to specially built "death camps" in Poland where they would be gassed to death. The death camps were located along railroad lines - to make it easier to transport people from all over Europe. Those capable of working would be used for labor until they were too weak to continue. Jews were to be told they were being taken for "resettlement" to work camps in the East. They made lists of the estimated number of Jews in Europe and begin to make preparations.
In the summer of 1942, the Nazis began the systematic deportations of Jews to the death camps. In the east, SS soldiers forced the Jews out of the ghettos and onto the trains. In the West, Jews were peacefully encouraged to board the trains for resettlement - some even paying railway fees for the journey!
One survivor describes the misery of the trip crammed into a cattle car with more than one hundred other Jews. It was so crowded that nobody could sit or lie down. No food or water were provided. Many died during the journey.
The largest of the death camps was Auschwitz-Birkenau -- located in Southwestern Poland along the railway line between Vienna and Krakow. Several survivors give their testimonies of what they saw upon arrival at Auschwitz. One woman recalls seeing a huge chimney with smoke "up to the sky" accompanied by the smell that she compares to "her mother frying a chicken." A Czechoslovakian Jew, Rudolph Vrba, describes the rows of guards with clubs and dogs waiting for them as the boxcar doors opened. Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, says how none of them had ever heard of Auschwitz and had no idea what they were in for.
Those deemed too weak to work were sent immediately to the gas chambers. Women with children, the elderly, and the handicapped were also marked for immediate extermination. A Hungarian Jew, Dov Paisikowic, describes his work as part of the Sonderkommando - the special units of prisoners forced to escort the Jews into the gas chambers and then burn the bodies. A former SS officer describes how he witnessed the gassings one night with a friend. The Jews - 2,000 or more at a time - were packed into the gas chamber while two SS men prepared to drop the Zyklon B (cyanide gas) crystals into the chamber through a small opening in the roof. The poison pellets were dropped in and the opening shut tight. The SS man describes the screams from the victims and the horrible mess in the chamber when it was opened.
In January 1945, soldiers of the Soviet Army found the first death camp at Majdanek. They filmed what they found as evidence of Nazi cruelty. The Germans succeeded in destroying and hiding the evidence of the camps at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. Surviving prisoners were killed or forced to undertake terrible "death marches" to camps in Germany. Many died or were murdered by SS guards on the way. In April and May, American and British troops found and liberated the camps in Germany itself. They filmed what they found as evidence of what the Nazis had done.