World War II began on September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. France and England responded by declaring war on Germany two days later. Before too long, most of Europe and Asia was involved in the horrific battle. By the time the war had ended six years later, tens of millions of people had been killed or died of war-related starvation and disease. The casualties included about six million Jews intentionally murdered by the Nazis, as well as about four hundred thousand U.S. soldiers who fought against the Germans and their allies. World War II is considered the deadliest conflict in human history, and the extermination of the Jews, known as the Holocaust, is the largest act of genocide ever undertaken.
Already several months before the war broke out, Adolf Hitler proclaimed an anti-Semitic speech to the German Reichstag or parliament: “If international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and with it the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
It was not Hitler’s real or imagined enemies who began the war, but Hitler himself. After obtaining the secret agreement of his communist enemy Josef Stalin, Hitler attacked Poland. Unable to defend itself, Poland surrendered on September 28, 1939, and the country was partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. Accompanying the invading Nazi soldiers were special armed forces called Einsatzgruppen, acting as mobile killing squads, seeking out and murdering tens of thousands of Polish Catholic intellectuals and political leaders as well as Jews.
Poland’s 3.3 million Jews felt the full brunt of Nazi brutality, as Hitler’s extermination plan went into effect. Within weeks, the Nazis began preparing to move all Jews from the country into a few over-crowded ghettos. Jews were forced to wear yellow stars for easy identification by Nazi authorities. Homes and businesses were abandoned, as Jews were forced to move into the segregated, crowded ghettos. Resisters were summarily executed. But the ghettos were merely an awful prelude to the extermination and work-to-death camps that followed.