Section: Life in Nazi-controlled Europe

Nazi occupation

German troops invading Wenceslas Square in Prague
German troops invading Wenceslas Square in Prague

Courtesy of The Wiener Library

On 12 March 1938 the Nazis annexed Austria. Later that year they marched into the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia, and on 15 March 1939 the German army invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. This brought over half a million Jews under German control.

The German invasion of Western Poland on 1 September 1939 led to the start of the Second World War. Between 1939 and June 1941 the German army invaded and occupied many countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Greece, Norway and Western Poland. By this stage of the war many millions of Jews were living in territories under German control.

The experience of Jews in countries that were invaded and occupied by the Nazis was in some ways quite similar to that of the Jews within Germany. However, one thing that was different was the speed at which the Nazis brought in anti-Jewish measures.

This section will highlight the key events and features of the Jewish experience in countries that were occupied by the Nazis.

Nazi occupation case studies

Map showing the extent of German occupation, 1942.
Map showing the extent of German occupation, 1942.

The following section provides a detailed overview of the events that followed the German invasion or control of a number of countries. These countries are:

  • France – Invaded by Germany on 10th May 1940.
  • The Netherlands – Invaded by Germany on 10th May 1940.
  • Poland – Invaded by Germany on 1st September 1939.
  • Romania – Allied to Germany from 5th July 1940.


German invasion of Poland

The German Army attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. Poland was defeated by the 28 September 1939. The Polish government fled to France, then, in May 1940, to London, after the German invasion of France.

The Nazi-Soviet Pact, agreed and signed in August 1939, paved the way for Germany and the Soviet Union to divide Poland between them. The western area, containing 600,000 Jews, was annexed into ‘Greater Germany’. The Soviet Union took the eastern section, adding 1.2 million Jews to its population. On 23 October 1939, the area not annexed to Germany or the Soviet Union, containing around 1.5 million Jews, was placed under the control of a German administration; the General Government.

Whilst the majority of the Polish population were brutally suppressed, two million Poles of German blood (Volksdeustche) were given special privileges. Many Poles were forced to move in order to make room for ethnic Germans. Thousands of Polish leaders and resisters were killed or captured.

Attacks on Polish Jews

Antisemitic attacks and measures began immediately. Around 300,000 Jews fled to Soviet controlled territories. On 21 September 1939, Reynhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, issued an order that the remaining 1.8 million Jews living within the area of Poland annexed to Germany should be expelled to the General Government. The Jews were to be concentrated in large cities near major railway junctions. Forced deportations began as early as 21 November 1939.

On 23 November 1939, Hans Frank head of the General Government decreed that all Jews residing in the General Government should wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. He had previously ordered that Jewish males be sent for forced labour. The Nazi regime began seizing Jewish owned businesses, whilst Jews were allowed only a small amount of money. From January 1940, Jews were forbidden to use trains, except by special permit. Jews were also ordered to register their property with the Nazi authorities.

The first ghetto was established on 8 October 1939, in Piotrakow Trybunalski, 16 miles south of the central Polish town of Lodz. The first large ghetto, was established at Lodz during February 1940. Throughout 1940 and 1941, the Nazis established hundreds of ghettos as the German armed forces invaded lands accross Europe.


Mass Slaughter

The Nazis continued developing their network of concentration and forced labour camps across Europe. Many of these were established within occupied Poland in order to exploit the Jews living within the General Government; most notably the 40 plus camps that made up the Auschwitz camp complex.

In June 1941, the German armed forces invaded eastern Poland in order to attack the Soviet Union. Whilst the German Army fought its way eastwards, mobile killing units, Einsatzgruppen carried out the mass extermination of Jews living in these newly conquered areas.

The expansion of the Holocaust

Very soon the Germans began their campaign of mass slaughter within occupied Poland. On 20th January 1942, the Nazis held a secret conference at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, to discuss the logistics of exterminating the entire Jewish population of Europe.

Chelmno, the first of six extermination camps was established in Poland on 7 December 1941. In the spring of 1942, three other extermination camps at Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were established as part of Aktion Reinhard, the plan to liquidate all Jews in the General Government. The Concentration Camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek were also expanded and developed into extermination centers.

Jews who had previously been held in ghettos within occupied Poland were transported to their fate in the death camps. The ghettos within the General Governement were liquidated. By the summer of 1944 only the Lodz ghetto remained.

By the time Heinrich Himmler ordered a halt to the murders in Auschwitz, 90 per cent of Polish Jewry, three million people, had been murdered by the Nazis. In addition, three million non-Jewish Poles had died at the hands of the Germans.

Jews from the Lodz ghetto being loaded onto cattle trucks before being taken to their deaths at Chelmno extermination camp.


Invasion of France

The German army invaded France on 10 May 1940. On 22 June 1940, the French surrendered and signed an armistice with the Nazis. France was then divided in two zones. Northern France was occupied and controlled by Germany. The unoccupied southern zone came under the control of a new French Government led by Marshal Philippe Petain, a World War I hero. Established in the spa town of Vichy, the government and area became known as the Vichy France.

General Charles de Gaulle, who opposed Petain’s surrender to the Germans, fled to Great Britain and set up a French Government-in-exile. Many other Frenchmen who wanted to free France from the Germans also supported de Gaulle and fought with the British.

Anti-Jewish laws

In the summer of 1940, 350,000 Jews were living in France. More than half the Jewish population were not French citizens. Many were Jews who had emigrated to France from eastern Europe after World War I. In addition, many more were Jewish refugees fleeing antisemitism within Nazi Germany and other areas occupied by the Nazis.

Almost immediately after the German invasion, Jews living in the occupied zone, and in Vichy France, were subjected to various anti-Jewish measures. In the controlled zone, Jews were dismissed from their jobs and their freedom of movement was restricted. Many Jews were arrested.


The Vichy Government began to persecute Jews. In October 1940, they passed a set of anti-Jewish laws, defining who was a Jew and limiting their involvement in French society. In March 1941 the Vichy authorities, under pressure from the Germans, set up an Office for Jewish Affairs. Jewish property and businesses were confiscated under Aryanisation laws. Initially, the Vichy Government’s anti-Jewish measures were directed against Jews who were of non-French citizensip.

Many thousands were sent to forced labour camps or imprisoned. However, at the end of April 1942, Pierre Laval joined the Vichy Government as prime minister. Laval said Vichy should collaborate fully with the Nazis. From then on the Vichy regime began to persecute all Jews, irrespective of their citizenship.

Deportations from France

In June 1942, the Germans forced the Jews in the occupied zone to wear the Star of David. Throughout the summer of 1942, they arrested Jews for deportation, and restricted the movements of the remaining community. These ‘roundups’ were usually carried by French police who collaborated with the Nazis.

In one aktion which took place in Paris on 16-17 July 1942, 12,000 were rounded up. Around 7,000 of them were crammed into the Velodrome d’Hiver sports stadium for several days; with no food, water, or sanitation. Many thousands more Jews were sent by cattle car to Drancy transit camp in a suburb of Paris. From there they were deported to the east. The Vichy authorities also arrested and deported Jews from their zone.

During the war approximately 80,000 Jews were deported from France. Of these, 70,000 were sent to Auschwitz. The remainder were sent to Majdanek, Sobibor and Buchenwald. By the end of the war just 2,000 of those who were deported had survived.



Protecting French Jews

During November 1942, German and Italian forces took over the administration of the Vichy zone. The Italians were assigned control of a small area of southeast France. They sought to protect the Jews who fled there seeking refuge from the German and Vichy authorities. They also refused to implement any anti-Jewish laws in the Italian controlled zone. However, in September 1943, Italy attempted to surrender to the Allies. The German authorities then took over the Italian part of France, arresting the Jews who had found shelter there

Some Jews tried to escape southward to Spain or eastward to Switzerland. However, the journey to those countries was extremely dangerous, and very few Jews made it successfully.

Despite the Vichy government’s commitment to collaborate with the Nazis, once the deportation of Jews began to include French citizens, some citizens of Vichy began to protest. In August 1943, Laval, Prime Minister of Vichy, refused to strip French Jews of their citizenship, which would have speeded up thier deportation. Despite this, the deportations continued through 1943 and into 1944.

Resistance in France

Throughout the war, the Maquis, a French resistance movement was active against the Nazis and the Vichy Government. The Maquis’ leader, Moulin, was the representative of General Charles de Gaulle.

Some Jews took part in the activities of the French Resistance, whilst many others joined Jewish resistance organizations, such as the Armee Juive. Some Jewish resistence organisations hid Jews, especially Jewish children, whilst others sought to enable their escape from France.

The Netherlands

Jewish children and adults in the Netherlands wearing yellow stars. The Nazis forced all Jews to wear such stars to identify themselves in public.
Jewish children and adults in the Netherlands wearing yellow stars. The Nazis forced all Jews to wear such stars to identify themselves in public.

Courtesy of The Wiener Library

After Hitler came to power many German Jews began to move to the Netherlands as they believed that its neutrality during WWI, would mean it would be a safe place to escape the Nazi’s antisemitic policies. Many of those who entered the country did so illegally. The Dutch governement set up a series internment camps including one in the north-east at Westerbork. After the outbreak of the Second World War Westerbork would play a significant role in the transportation of Dutch Jews to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor.

Invasion of the Netherlands

On 10 May 1940, the German Army invaded the Netherlands. Within four days, after witnessing the bombing of Rotterdam and receiving a threat of the same in Amsterdam, the Dutch army surrendered. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands fled to Great Britain, where she established a government-in-exile. Very soon, Hitler ordered the establishment of a German civil administration in the Netherlands under the command of the SS. Many Austrian-born Nazis supervised the work of the Dutch civil service.

The Dutch Jewish Council

The Netherlands had a Jewish population of 140,000, 75,000 of whom lived in Amsterdam. Many Jews attempted to escape the country. However, a series of anti-Jewish measures made this extremely difficult. In September 1940, Jewish newspapers were closed down. Then, during November, Jewish civil servants were sacked and the assets of all Jewish businesses were registered.

In December 1940, the Jewish community in the Netherlands established the Jewish Coordinating Committee as a defensive measure against the Nazis. Two months later, the Nazi regime set up a Judenrat; the Joodse Raad, to administer orders of the SS concerning the lives of Jews in the Netherlands.

In January 1941, all Jews living within the Netherlands were ordered to register. A total of 159,806 persons registered, including 19,561 born of mixed marriages. The total included some 25,000 Jewish refugees from the German Reich.

General strike in the Netherlands

A confrontation in a cafe between Jews and the German police resulted in 389 young people being sent to Buchenwald and Mauthausen concentration camps. Many Dutch citizens publicly criticized the Nazi measures. In response to the deportations, Dutch workers called a general strike on 25 February 1941. These strikes brought factories, public transport and public services to a standstill. However, the Germans brutally suppressed the strike within three days. Whilst Nazi policy hardened, they realised that it would not be easy to convert the whole of the Dutch population to Nazism.


Collaboration in the Netherlands

Whilst some opposed the Nazis, many sympathised and actively collaborated with their antisemitic policies. During the early 1930s, whilst the Nazi Party was gaining power in Germany, antisemitic, right-wing movements, were prominent in the Netherlands. These groups resented the influx of Jewish refugees. The Nazis drew on these groups for support. The German authorities and their Dutch collaborators soon began segregating Jews from the general population. Some 15,000 Jews were sent to forced-labour camps.

Throughout 1941, the situation for Jews in the Netherlands deteriorated. As had been the case in Austria, Germany and the Czech lands, Reinhard Heydrich set up a Central Office for Jewish Emigration. Jews were banned from public places, subjected to nighttime curfews and travel restrictions. Jewish students were also thrown out of schools and universities. Then, during late 1941, the Joodse Raad was tasked with providing lists of workers as the Germans opened a number of forced labour camps.

During January 1942, the Germans ordered the concentration of Jews in Amsterdam. Foreign or stateless Jews were sent to Westerbork. Then, in March 1942, the German administration started confiscating Jewish property. A month later, on 29 April 1942, Jews were ordered to wear a yellow Star of David containing the word Joad (the Dutch word for Jew). Many non-Jews protested against this decree, and some wore yellow stars in solidarity.


A history of antisemitism

As a result of the treaties that followed the First World War the territory and population of Romania doubled. During the 1920s the country saw the birth of a number of antisemitic political parties.

A 1930 census recorded 728,115 Jews living in the country.

After the Nazis came to power in Germany, they encouraged right wing nationalist parties in other countries to foster anti-Jewish measures. In February 1938, King Carol II of Romania established an antisemitic dictatorship.

Throughout 1939 Romania developed close ties with Germany

In September 1940, the fascist General Ion Antonescu forced King Carol II to abdicate. Antonescu established a government that included members of the antisemitic Iron Guard. In November 1940, Romania joined the Axis alliance.

The Iron Guard led physical attacks against the Jews of Romania. In January 1941, anti-Jewish riots resulted in 127 deaths. Adolf Eichmann assisted the Romanian government in setting up a ‘National Romanianization Centre’ designed to exclude Jews from every aspect of Romanian life.


When, on 22 June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Romanian Army fought along side them.

The Romanian authorities collaborated with the Germans in the planned murder of the Jews. German and Romanian army units, carried out the extermination of 160,000 of Romania’s Jews. Local Romanians and Ukrainians assisted in the murders.


Antonescu’s government was overthrown

By the end of 1942, Antonescu was worried that Germany would lose the war and cancelled the deportation of 292,000 Jews to Belzec.

Instead, he agreed to the emigration of 70,000 Jews to Palestine in exchange for money. However, Eichmann blocked the plan.

By 23 August 1944, Antonescu’s government was overthrown by an antifascist group called the National Democratic Bloc. The new government signed an agreement with the Soviet Union that formally acknowledged that Romania was no longer allied with Germany.

Some 420,000 Jews who had previously lived in Romania died during the Holocaust.

Put on trial

After the war, Antonescu and officials from his regime were put on trial. Antonescu was convicted and executed.

However, most Romanian perpetrators were never brought to justice for the crimes they had committed against the Romanian Jews.


Ion Antonescu signs an Agreement with Hitler. Berlin, Germany, 23 November 1940.



Very soon after Hitler came to power in Germany, the Hungarian government attempted to build an alliance with Nazi Germany. In March 1938, Hungary began to issue anti-Jewish legislation. Jews were systematically removed from the economy and were distinguished as a racial group. During 1939, all Jewish men of military age were forced to join the Hungarian Labour Service.

In September 1938, following the German annexation of the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, a portion of the area was given to Hungary in order to build relations between the two nations. Over the next three years, as Germany invaded and controlled countries surrounding Hungary, Germany gave Hungary possession of other lands. In 1941 the Hungarian Government passed a law defining who was Jewish and by March of the same year the Jewish population in Hungarian controlled land had reached in excess of 725,000.


In June 1941, Hungary joined Germany in the war against the Soviet Union. After the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Hungarian government attempted to pull out of the alliance with Germany. During March 1944, German troops invaded Hungary. Hitler set up a new government faithful to Germany.

A Special unit under the orders of Adolf Eichmann, began implementing the “” within Hungary. Anti-Jewish decrees were passed. Judenraeteete were established across Hungary. A separate one was set up for Budapest, the capital.

Jews had to wear a Star of David and their movement was restricted. Telephones and radios were confiscated, whilst Jewish property and businesses were seized. During April the Jews of Hungary were forced into ghettos. Very soon, the Jews of each ghetto were put on trains and deported. Between 15 May and 9 July 1944, approximately 430,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, mainly to Auschwitz. The majority of them were gassed on arrival; many more died with the camp over the next few months.

By early July 1944, when the deportations were halted, apart from Budapest, the capital, Hungary was . Throughout the spring of 1944, the Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest began negotiating with the SS to save lives. Many Jews were able to flee Hungary.

The Arrow Cross

Between July and October 1944, the Jews within Budapest lived in relative safety. However, when, on 15 October, the Hungarian government announced they were going to make peace with the Allies, the Germans toppled the government. They gave power to Ferenc Szalasi and his fascist, and antisemitic, Arrow Cross Party. The Arrow Cross began a reign of terror across the city. Almost 80,000 Jews were killed. Many victims were shot on the banks of the Danube River and their bodies thrown in the river. In addition, many thousands were forced on death marches to the Austrian border.

In December 1944, whilst the Soviet Army laid siege to Budapest, around 70,000 Jews were forced into a ghetto. Many thousands died of cold, disease, and starvation.


Rescue in Budapest

Despite the brutality of the Arrow Cross reign of terror, many thousands of Jews in Budapest were saved by the Relief and Rescue Committee. Other Jewish activists, such as Zionist youth movement members, forged identity documents and provided them with food. Foreign diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg, from Sweden, and Carl Lutz, from Switzerland, helped Jews achieve safety through international protection.

Hungary was liberated by the Soviet army during April 1945. However, by this time 568,000 Hungarian Jews had perished during the Holocaust.


How did the Nazis treat Jews in occupied countries?

After invasion, the Jews of each country were subjected to various anti-Jewish measures. (see above for examples of regulations established by the Nazis in Poland.)

Jews were dismissed from employment; especially those in positions of influence. In addition, Jewish-owned property, businesses and assets were confiscated. Jewish students were dismissed from school and universities.Freedom of movement was severely restricted. Jews were banned from visiting public places, subjected to nightime curfews and travel restrictions.In many countries, especially in the east, Jews were forced to live in certain areas of towns or cities, known as ghettos.Many Jews were arrested and used for forced labour. Many thousands of Jews were the victims of  random punishments that resulted in their deaths.Despite the fact that they might have previously been friends or colleagues, local citizens often took part in attacks and killings against their Jewish neighbours.


Survivors reflect on Nazi invasions

By the early 1940s many millions of Jews were living in territories under German control.

The experience of Jews in countries that were invaded and occupied by the Nazis was often quite similar to that of the Jews within Germany. However, what was different was the speed at which the Nazis enacted anti-Jewish measures. Watch the videos on this page to gain an understanding of life through the eyes of a Survivor.


Freddie was an Austrian Jewish boy born in Vienna, Austria in 1921. In this video he talks about what happened when the Nazis marched into Vienna during early 1938. He also talks about what he witnessed on Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938.



In this video Jack remembers the German invasion of Novogrudek. Jack was only 12 years old, when the Nazis invaded, but remembers vividly how the Nazis established anti-Jewish laws. He also remembers the terrible atrocities committed by the Nazis and their accomplices.


In this video Joan talks about what happened to her family under Nazi occupation. Watch and learn how the family managed to move from Belgium to France.

What happened to Joan’s father?


In 1939 Radyviliv was invaded by the Soviet Union. Life didn’t change too much under the Russians. However, in 1941 the German army invaded the area. Life changed dramatically for the Jewish population.

Watch Simon’s testimony and learn what happened when the Nazis invaded.

What happened in April