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Section: Responses to the Holocaust

How did organisations respond?

Catholic women join with Jewish New Yorkers to protest against the Nazis outside the German Consulate, New York. Why did the Catholic leadership not follow their example? Discover more by reading this section.
Catholic women join with Jewish New Yorkers to protest against the Nazis outside the German Consulate, New York. Why did the Catholic leadership not follow their example? Discover more by reading this section. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

From the late 1930s through to 1945, there were many calls, from Jewish communities and groups across the world, for diplomatic and military action to be taken to halt the activities of the Nazis and their accomplices.

However, as you will have seen in previous sections of The Holocaust Explained, governments across the world were far from supportive of the plight of the European Jews.

How did organisations respond?

By reading and looking at the resources within this current section, you will learn how a variety of non-governmental organisations responded to the atrocities that were being carried out by the Nazis and their accomplices. These groups include the International Red Cross and the Christian Churches within Germany and across Europe.

You will also learn how the actions of a group of Christians known as the Quakers, in addition to those of the Jewish community of Shanghai, China, helped many thousands of Jews escape from Nazi occupied Europe.

You might want to consider:

  • Why did some groups and organisations make a positive choice to help the Jews?
  • Why did some organisations simply choose to stand by and watch the Nazis carryout their plans to wipe out the Jews of Europe?
  • Why did some groups initially show support for the Nazis, but then change their mind and oppose some of their policies and actions?

How did Protestant churches respond?

The German Protestant church was split in its dealings with the Nazis. Nazi supporters became known as the German Christians, whereas opponents broke away and became known as the Confessing Church.

While the ‘Confessing Church’ opposed the Nazis, they did not challenge the passing of anti-Jewish legislation. Some members tried to encourage Jews to convert to Christianity, but a small group of the Confessing Christians did help Jews by hiding them or assisting them to escape from Germany.

Initially, many leading Protestants supported the Nazis; however, when Nazi policy grew more extreme, they changed their minds.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an interesting example. In the beginning he had supported Nazi actions against the Jews. However, he spoke out against the persecution of Jewish converts to Christianity. For this he and his brother were arrested in 1943 and he was executed in April 1945.

Pastor Martin Niemoller also supported the Nazis and Hitler’s racial views. However, when Hitler appointed a Nazi as head of the Protestant Church, Niemoller protested and became head of the ‘Confessing Church’. He then began to condemn those who were bystanders and allowed evil to happen. He was imprisoned but did survive the war.

They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
— Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892 – 1984)

There were certain individuals and groups who did not stand by and do nothing. One example is the French village of Le Chambon-Sur-Lignon. Encouraged by their priest, the villagers saved and protected some 3,000 Jews. The Scandinavian churches were also strong in their opposition to the Nazis.

How did the Catholic Church respond?

After the Nazis came to power in Germany, they signed an agreement (Concordat) with the Catholic Church whereby the Vatican would accept the Nazi government in return for the Nazis not interfering with the Catholic Church.

In 1939 Eugenio Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII. As head of the Catholic Church during the war years, he signed the Concordat with Nazi Germany. The Catholic Church, as an organisation, did not protest against any of the anti-Jewish policies of the Nazi state.

The Pope believed that primarily it was his duty to save and look after Catholics. Nevertheless, in 1939, he did obtain 3,000 visas to Brazil for Jews who had been baptised in the belief that these people were now Christian. But the Nazis defined Jews racially, even though they had converted, and believed they were still Jews.

The Vatican knew of the murder of the Jews very early on, as they had religious representatives in all of the occupied countries. Certain individual priests saved Jews but the Church, as an official body, did nothing significant to save the Jews of Europe.

How did the Quakers respond?

The Quakers are a sect within Christianity. They believe that love is at the heart of existence and all human beings are equal in the eyes of God. They work to change systems that cause injustice. Being pacifists, Quakers refuse military service.

Quakers become involved in peace activities in areas affected by violent conflict. They seek to develop alternatives to violence. They also work with people who are suffering from injustice, such as prisoners, refugees and asylum seekers.

During the Holocaust, Quaker organisations and individuals in the United States and within Europe provided practical help to victims of Nazi persecution. The Quakers rescued many Jews of all ages.

How did the Red Cross respond?

The Red Cross was founded in 1863 as a neutral organisation in times of war.

By the spring of 1942, the Red Cross knew of the ‘’. However, it neither publicly condemned the Nazi atrocities, nor did it challenge the German government to respect human rights.

In an attempt to dispel the rumours of the mass murder of Jews, the Nazi authorities invited a Red Cross delegation to visit the Theresienstadt camp on 23 June 1943. In order to deceive the Red Cross, the Nazis adapted the camp into a model Jewish town.

They covered up the gruesome conditions of life in the camp. They planted trees and established gardens and set up play areas for children. There was even a bank and a cafe. However, there was no food in the cafe; nor was there any money in the bank. A film was made showing cultural life in the camp including wonderful concerts.

Following the visit, the delegation of the Red Cross reported that it had been impressed by the condition of the Jews in Theresienstadt. The reality was that, after the Red Cross left, the people who had participated in the film were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered. The Nazis had succeeded in their deception.

In March 1944 the Germans invaded their former ally, Hungary, and began to plan the deportation of the Hungarian Jewish community. On this occasion the Red Cross did attempt to intervene. In early 1945 the Red Cross further attempted to negotiate with the German authorities to exchange civilian prisoners. Unfortunately this came far too late because a large majority of Jews had already been murdered.

The Jews of Shanghai

Before World War Two, Shanghai was China’s largest port and a city with over 4 million people including 100,000 foreigners. It was the only place in the world where one could land without a visa; consequently it became a haven for Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Poland.

In the weeks that followed Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938, many Jewish refugees fled to Shanghai. They were helped by the Jewish community already living in the city and housed in five refugee camps.

In these camps the refugees were able to develop a social, religious, and cultural life. They set up schools, theatres, newspapers and religious institutions.

In February 1943 the Germans forced the Japanese to establish a ghetto in which to concentrate the Jews of Shanghai. Despite the conditions being poor, they were not as bad as those of the European ghettos.

After liberation in 1945, most of the refugees left Shanghai for Palestine or emigrated to other Western countries.

Ruth’s father went to Shanghai

Ruth was born in 1935 in Berlin, Germany to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. As a result, the Nazis classed Ruth as Jewish.

After Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 the situation for Jewish families across Germany became increasingly dangerous. Ruth’s family decided that she and her brother, Martin, should be sent to Britain on the kindertransport.

As her mother was non-Jewish, she and Ruth’s father had to part company. He made the long journey to safety in Shanghai, China.

Watch this video clip to hear Ruth’s explanation of what happened to her father in Shanghai. Also, learn what happened to Ruth’s mother.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

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How did the Quakers respond?

How did the Quakers respond?

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