Holocaust Stories

JNS.org offers Holocaust stories, news and analysis from the Second World War and the Nazi era. Particularly, every year JNS.org covers the annual International Holocaust Commemoration Day on January 27 and Israel’s Yom Hashoah every spring. To select another topic, choose from the other content “categories” in our navigation bar.

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Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds never spoke about his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Roddie survived an arduous march through frozen terrain and was interned for nearly 100 days at Stalag IXA, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. “Son, there are some things I’d rather not talk about,” Roddie would tell his boys, Kim and Chris Edmonds, when they were young. When Roddie died in 1985, Chris, now a Baptist pastor, inherited his father’s war diaries. Now that his father’s wartime stories are known, Chris said his life has been “turned upside down.” The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies non-Jewish rescuers of Holocaust survivors and pays tribute to their courage, honored Roddie’s memory Nov. 28 with the Yehi Ohr Award during the foundation’s annual dinner at the New York City Public Library. 

A Ukrainian legislator from the city of Kharkiv, Oleksandr Feldman, discovered that Facebook deleted one of his posts expressing criticism of his country’s lionization of Holocaust collaborators earlier this week.

A prominent Jewish figure in Kiev found his Facebook account suspended after a post detailing Ukrainian collaboration in the Holocaust was flagged as violating the social networking site’s terms of service. Experts say freedom of speech is restricted in Ukraine.

Some may think anti-Semitism ended decades ago, when the horror of the Holocaust was exposed. But the new anti-Semitism is expressed by those who are anti-Israel, masquerading behind humanitarian relief, nongovernmental organizations and so-called “reconciliation” ministries, according to Carla Brewington, a Christian volunteer with the organization StandWithUs.

The story of two of these honored heroes, American minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, is brought to life in the new Ken Burns film, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” airing Sept. 20 on PBS stations nationwide.

The Sharps' grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, co-directed the compelling new documentary with Burns, which sheds light on how the couple saved refugees from Nazi persecution while the war raged on in Europe.

The compelling life story of retired Green Beret Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow, the only Holocaust survivor who became an American general, is driving his effort to collect signatures from other U.S. generals and admirals on an open letter of endorsement for Donald Trump.  

At a memorial in Rwanda to the victims of the 1994 genocide, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week wrote in the visitors’ book that he was “reminded of the haunting similarities to the genocide of our own people.” Certainly all instances of genocide have some characteristics in common. But perhaps the most compelling analogy between the Holocaust and the Rwandan slaughter concerns the international community’s apathetic response to the news of those genocides, writes historian Rafael Medoff.

A German court recently sentenced 94-year-old Reinhold Hanning, a former Nazi, to five years in prison for being an accessory to the murder of 170,000 Jews between January 1942 and June 1944, when he served as an SS guard at the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Both of Nathan Moskowitz's parents survived Auschwitz during Hanning’s “service” and assisted prosecutor Thomas Walther with Hanning’s trial. In the aftermath of the Hanning sentencing, Moskowitz—the author of “Kuzmino Cronicles: Memoirs of Teenage Holocaust Survival”—reflects on the significance of labeling the evils of the past and the present.

More than a dozen years ago in Worcester, Mass., Prof. Deborah Dwork got a letter from a man in Switzerland she’d never heard of. Ulrich Luz told her about something he’d discovered packed away in a suitcase among his late aunt’s belongings that might be of interest to Dwork. Indeed it was—so much so that she is now writing a book about it. The nephew had heard about Dwork's work for the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University. So when he discovered more than 1,000 letters his aunt Elisabeth Luz had sent back and forth between hidden children and their parents from the time of the Holocaust, he had a hunch Dwork might find the collection to be of value. He began sending Dwork packets of the letters—and then Dwork began the long process of scanning, sorting, transcribing, and translating them. The letters had gone from parents in Greater Germany to their children hidden in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and England. Several-hundred families are represented in the collection.

When it comes to Iran’s latest Holocaust cartoon contest, JNS.org columnist Ben Cohen confesses to being more bored than shocked. Such imagery is hardly new, as the contest submissions’ depictions of Jews come straight out of Nazi propaganda. The Islamists who run Iran may be many things, but creators of pathbreaking art they are definitely not. As fashionable as it is in President Barack Obama’s circle to pretend that the Iranian regime is in the throes of dramatic change, with a surging “moderate” wing that wants to engage the West, the cartoon contest demonstrates that the mullahs’ cannot kick their enduring pathology: striking a blow at the global Jewish conspiracy by wiping Israel off the map. Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the regime can be simply bifurcated into “moderates” and “hardliners,” those Iranian leaders identified in the West as “moderates” come out of this latest cartoon scandal looking far shabbier than their “hardline” rivals, writes Cohen.

In our current age of constant Holocaust analogies, Jacob Kamaras admits that he has been guilty of “Holocaust fatigue.” But he doesn’t want to feel that way. His late grandparents on his mother’s side survived the Holocaust. For a grandchild of survivors, the Holocaust should be consistently meaningful. Therefore, beyond his professional duties of covering the annual March of the Living walk from Auschwitz to Birkenau as a journalist, he hoped that the event would help cure his “Holocaust fatigue” and desensitization to news stories of all varieties. He wasn’t cured in a day, but fittingly, what might have put him on the path to being cured was others’ desensitization. At March of the Living, Kamaras writes, he shared young participants' experience of taking important steps in the journey toward learning how to emotionally connect, learning how to feel, and learning how to live.

Why should the casual observer care about the seemingly obvious need to prosecute and convict Nazi war criminals, whether it be during the Nuremberg trials of the 1940s or similar proceedings in more recent years? “The Nuremberg trials only convicted the leaders and a relatively small number of people,” retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told JNS.org. “Even for the trials that occurred thereafter, we’re talking about just hundreds of people…and for years they were protected. And there’s no statute of limitations on genocide and war crimes. So it’s very important that everybody in the world who is contemplating committing genocide understand that they will never be able to live out their life without being held legally accountable.” Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler, renowned human rights attorneys and pro-Israel advocates, took center stage in the Polish city of Kraków on March 4 for a symposium held to mark the 80th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws and the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials. While the Nuremberg Laws were a precursor to the Holocaust, the Allied forces’ military trials of 13 prominent Nazi leaders served as a foundation for contemporary international humanitarian law. “We’ve learned that if you do not bring war criminals to justice, what you do is you not only encourage impunity, you embolden the war criminals and you encourage more war crimes,” Cotler told JNS.org.

Never forget. It’s a phrase that has become synonymous with the Holocaust. But what happens when survivors don’t want to remember the things we’re told to “never forget?” Putting together a six-part film series helped Sarah Kamaras realize that recognizing a survivor’s unwillingness to speak about his or her experiences bridges the gap between “universal” and “unique” when it comes to understanding the events of the Holocaust.

Jay Greenfield, an 83-year-old career lawyer, retired to devote his time to writing novels rather than legal briefs. Now he is releasing his debut novel, “Max’s Diamonds,” on May 1. A story that captures the pain of the Holocaust, while exploring the lives that grew out of the darkness, “Max’s Diamonds” enables the reader to relate to—and even get a glimpse into—the buried memories of the Shoah, writes Ronn Torossian. 

On the surface, it seems unlikely that an American composer—let alone a Southern Baptist from Alabama—would write a musical treatment about a largely unknown Holocaust hero. But for musical composer Neely Bruce, creating an oratorio depicting the life of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a Portuguese diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis during World War II, was a dive into history, politics, and musical exploration. Bruce, who was raised a Southern Baptist, considered converting to Judaism after a cousin married a Jew, and he was further exposed to the culture and theology. Though he didn’t, his strong interest in Judaism remained. What pulled him to the project though was the political backstory. “This wasn’t just one man doing a good thing. He was defying his government, which was not on the right side of history,” Bruce told JNS.org. New York City’s Center for Jewish History is hosting a Sousa Mendes exhibition, “Portugal, The Last Hope: Sousa Mendes’ Visas for Freedom,” from April 7-Sept. 9, 2016.

Marta Wise. Yosef Lefkowitz. Rena Quint. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Behind every Holocaust survivor’s name, there is a story. And for the roughly 240,000 survivors living in Israel today, each story’s ending bespeaks the most poetic of justices. “When I made aliyah in the middle of the war in Gaza in 2014, everyone asked if I was afraid to come,” says Lefkowitz. “But I told them, after everything I’ve been through, what will happen to all of Israel will happen to me. I’m not afraid.” For Lau, the chief rabbi of Israel from 1993-2003, Israel became home when he was still in the Buchenwald concentration camp. “I was 8 and inside the fence, and my brother, who was 11 years older, stood outside the fence,” Lau tells JNS.org. “‘If a miracle happens and you survive this terrible thing, there is only one place to go and that is Eretz Yisroel’ (the land of Israel), he told me. ‘Say it after me: ’Eretz Yisroel.’ I had never heard the words before, but I said them and I never forgot them.” While most of the rest of their family members were killed, the two Lau brothers in June 1945 were among the first group of Holocaust survivors to arrive in what would soon become the State of Israel.

In April 1944, a bean farmer in Colorado sent a check for $100 to the Washington, DC, headquarters of the War Refugee Board. He explained that the donation was intended to help the Board stop the Germans “from exterminating the Jews” and to “feed, clothe, and share with them an earthly home.” In fact, the farmer wrote, he was ready to share his own home—he offered to personally take in five Jewish refugee families. It was not a small sum in those days. Adjusted for inflation, $100 was the equivalent of $1,359 today. What would motivate a Baptist farmer in the Rocky Mountains to take such a strong interest in the plight of Jews in Nazi Europe? The answer to that question reveals a great deal about the complexities surrounding America’s response to the Holocaust, writes historian Rafael Medoff.

The Eastern European countryside is haunted by the ghosts of countless shtetls whose surviving residents have long since scattered. For the most part, those landsmen and their descendants tend to remain scattered. But on March 22 at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, hundreds of Holocaust survivors and their descendants from one particular locale, Drohobych-Boryslav, gathered to connect with their shared history. “The story of this exhibition is our story,” said Daniela Mavor, the gathering’s principal organizer, standing in front of a semicircle of vertical black banners, each displaying a snippet of the town’s Jewish past. In lieu of the town’s annual gathering of survivors and descendants, normally a no-frills event drawing a small number of participants, the exhibition doubled as a chance to reconnect with old friends and trace out long-forgotten branches of family trees.

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and remember another notorious event that would come nearly 50 years after the Holocaust, the Baku International Center for Multiculturalism and Baku Slavic University recently organized a high-level round table event titled, “The Holocaust and Khojaly Through the Eyes of Contemporaries.” An event dedicated to the study and remembrance of the Holocaust held in Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority nation? Azerbaijan is located at the crossroads of many cultures and has played a seminal role in many aspects and scenes of history, giving the country the responsibility to ensure that the past is recounted accurately. Hence, in Azerbaijan, past is prologue, writes Arye Gut.

While millions of people around the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, an Iranian government-sponsored Holocaust cartoon contest was in the works. This year’s competition is not the first of its kind, but carries added significance in the aftermath of last summer’s nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 nations. “What’s different this year—and most alarming—is that policy makers in the U.S. and Europe view the Iranian regime as a stabilizing force in the imploding Middle East. This is a horrific mistake,” said Charles A. Small, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy.