Jewish Life before WWII
Even before Hitler came into power in Eastern Europe Jewish people were still treated as a separate community, they spoke their own language and lived in predominantly Jewish towns or villages, called shtetls.
They read Yiddish books, and attended Yiddish theater and movies. Although many younger Jews in larger towns were beginning to adopt modern ways and dress, older people often dressed traditionally, the men wearing hats or caps, and the women modestly covering their hair with wigs or kerchiefs.
In comparison, the Jews in western Europe -- Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium -- made up much less of the population and tended to adopt the culture of their non-Jewish neighbors.
They dressed and talked like everyone else, and traditional religious practices and Yiddish culture played a less important part in their lives. They tended to have better education than eastern European Jews and to live in towns or cities.
Jews could be found in all walks of life, as farmers, tailors, seamstresses, factory hands, accountants, doctors, teachers, and small-business owners. Some families were wealthy; many more were poor.
Jewish Life during the WWII
As early as 1933, the Nazis had been sending people to concentration camps. Initially, these camps were located in Germany (like Dachau and Bergen-Belsen) and were used for "undesirable" people. To the Nazis, these undesirable people included Communists, Democrats, Socialists, political prisoners, homosexuals, and Jews.
As the Nazi control spread through Europe, the deportation of Jews to concentration camps and death camps grew. Between 1939 and 1941, Austria, Hungary, and even France (led by the Vichy government) deported Jews.
The ghettos of Poland were another Nazi creation. To get the Lebensraum he wanted from Poland, Hitler needed to clear the Jews from the Polish countryside. To do this, the Nazis forced the Jewish population to sections of cities, which they were then forbidden to leave. Often, walls surrounded these areas, which were patrolled by heavily armed guards, trapping the people within.
Each ghetto had a Jewish council (the Judenrat), which was responsible for ensuring that people followed Nazi policies. The council, made up of rabbis and other leaders in the Jewish community, was also responsible for distributing food, policing the ghetto, and taking care of the health and welfare (such that it was) of the people.
The living conditions in the ghettos were horrible. Deprived of food (the people in the ghetto were to receive the leftovers from the general population, but not more than was needed for bare sustenance), medical care, many of the basic necessities of life, and used extensively as slave labor, many Jews died of malnutrition, disease, and starvation. Several Jews were also executed for alleged crimes.
During the years that Hitler ruled Germany; over 100 concentration camps appeared all over Europe. Although not used strictly for extermination purposes, the living conditions at the concentration camps were brutal and the death rates high.
The function of the prisoners in the concentration camps was to work, but their lives were worthless to the guards, the camp commanders, and the ever-present SS. Anyone who couldn't work was killed, and those who could work were usually worked to death.
The death camps, like Auschwitz, Birkenau, Chelmno, Treblinka, and Sobibor, were unique in that they were simply temporary holding areas for the murder of people. Jews were unloaded from train cars and in many cases headed directly to gas chambers or firing squads. Those who escaped immediate death were often used as slave laborers at the camp itself.
The bodies of the victims were stripped of any remaining valuables, such as gold from their teeth and rings, and then burned in ovens built especially for this purpose. When the ovens gave out, as they did in some death camps...