Germany attacks and invades eastern Poland and the Soviet Union. Einsatzgruppen - armed militias forming mobile killing units - follow the troops and commit mass slaughter of Jews throughout eastern Europe (including the Baltic states) and in the western USSR. The Einsatzgruppen (increased from an initial 4,000 men to 40,000 within a year) target Jews and also Gypsies, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals and other minorities, all of whom will continue to be persecuted for the rest of the war. By the end of the year 440,000 Jews have been shot, many after first being forced to dig their own mass graves. Wearing a yellow Star of David is now compulsory for all Jews over the age of 6. German Jews are forbidden to use public transport or telephones. The German Head of Security is ordered to commence arrangements for the Endlösung, the Final Solution of 'the Jewish problem': it is understood that this means annihilation. Terezin, a town in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, is selected to become a ghetto town and renamed Theresienstadt. Jews are deported here from occupied Europe; most will be transferred to death camps from 1942, but many (over 33,500) will die here from starvation and disease, as is already happening in all the ghettos. Ghetto inhabitants are also being shot on the slightest pretext. The first discreet deportations of German Jews begin: these people are told that they are to be settled in the east as part of the new expansion of Germany, but in fact they are taken to ghettos, slave labour camps, or immediate death in Poland or German-occupied Russia. A site is set up at Chelmno in Poland specifically for exterminations; the first victims are Roma (231,800 Gypsies will be killed by 1945) and Russian prisoners of war, to be followed by Jews from the ghetto at Lodz. Mobile extermination vans using gas start to be used in Poland, Latvia and Serbia; the first gas chamber experiments are made on Jews interned at Auschwitz.
On January 20 SS chiefs meet at a private lakeside villa on the Wannsee near Berlin, to discuss co-ordination of the Final Solution on an industrial scale. 'Special treatment' is agreed, to intensify experiments with gas, set up more custom-built death camps, seek professional assistance in building and use of crematoria, rationalise the transport of Jews by rail from all over Europe, and recruit additional paramilitary teams: the overall watchword is efficiency (such as putting the fittest Jews to forced labour until they cease to be useful, and annihilating the rest with maximum speed and secrecy). Death camps are set up and opened in Poland at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. The existing camp at Majdanek, and also at Auschwitz (where a second camp equipped with huge crematoria and gas-chambers has been built), are adapted for slaughter. Here and at Chelmno most of Poland's 3m Jews begin to be sent to their deaths. An additional death camp is set up at Maly Trostinets, near Minsk in German-occupied USSR; most of the deportees from the Theresienstadt ghetto are brought here and murdered on the way from the railway station to the camp. Dutch, Belgian and Slovak Jews are rounded up and deported. There is some co-operation from local police in allied and occupied countries, who assist with deportation. As secrecy becomes less possible, Jewish councils and police are forced to supply daily quotas of ghetto inhabitants for transporting to death camps. A total of 2.7m Jews are killed in 1942.
The operation of the Final Solution extends to the Balkans, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Greece. Bulgaria and Hungary refuse to deport Jews. Most of the Jews in occupied Denmark are assisted by Danes to escape to neutral Sweden; other acts of resistance are occurring throughout the occupied countries of Europe. The Warsaw ghetto uprising is crushed. Liquidation of all Polish Jewish ghettos is ordered. Sobibor and Treblinka are closed after prisoners' rebellions. Berlin is declared 'Jew-free'. The Nazis launch an operation named Erntefest - harvest festival - to complete the extermination of Jews in Poland: 40,000 are shot in one day. In the east, as the Soviet army recaptures lost territory, orders are issued to destroy evidence of mass murder there: Kommando 1005 organises a Jewish slave labour force to dig up 2 million bodies, burn them and grind the bones to dust; after each clearance, the labourers are themselves murdered. This work takes a year to complete. A concentration and Jewish transit camp is set up at Bergen-Belsen, where 37,000 (Anne Frank among them) will die in appalling conditions from starvation, overwork and disease.
Germany occupies Hungary, to prevent this ally from defecting; at once over half of Hungary's 700,000 Jews are sent to the death camp at Auschwitz, with a few thousand selected for labour camps. Two Jews escape from Auschwitz to tell the West what is happening; one courier is told, 'I'm not saying you're lying, it's just that I can't believe it.' The last ghettos are 'liquidated' now that it looks likely that Germany will lose the war. On German territory, camps begin to be evacuated; hundreds of thousands of Jewish prisoners are forced to move on, often aimlessly and mainly on foot; on these frequent 'death marches' throughout eastern Europe, many are left by the roadside to die from weakness, hunger and illness, or are shot because they cannot keep up. There is a revolt of Jewish slave labourers at the Auschwitz crematoria; the destruction of the crematoria is ordered. Soviet troops liberate Majdanek, and the whole site is designated a permanent memorial and museum.
There is a prisoners' revolt at Chelmno. Soviet troops liberate Warsaw, a now almost empty Auschwitz, and Theresienstadt. (Most of the stores at Auschwitz have been burned down by the departing SS, but in the six that are left, the Russians find 836,255 dresses, 348,000 men's suits and 38,000 pairs of men's shoes.) American troops liberate Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen. British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen. Allied troops also liberate the surviving prisoners (15,000 out of 26,000) on a 12-day death march from the camp at Sachsenhausen. Hitler commits suicide. Germany surrenders.
Remaining chimney stack in Auswitsch