Documenting Numbers of Victims
of the Holocaust & Nazi Persecution
by Mitchell Bard
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) notes,
Calculating the numbers of individuals who were killed as the result of Nazi policies is a difficult task. There is no single wartime document created by Nazi officials that spells out how many people were killed in the Holocaust or World War II. To accurately estimate the extent of human losses, scholars, Jewish organizations, and governmental agencies since the 1940s have relied on a variety of different records, such as census reports, postwar investigations and captured German and Axis archives to compile these statistics. As more documents come to light or as scholars arrive at a more precise understanding of the Holocaust, estimates of human losses may change.
Yad Vashem has been collecting names of victims in an effort to document the number of victims and now has about 4.8 million in its database. Though the Nazis kept detailed records for deportations, gassings and other murders starting in 1942, their record-keeping became inconsistent late in the war and they destroyed some of the documentation in its chaotic final days. Thousands of Jews were murdered outside of cities or camps and buried by the roadside or in pits. Many of their names will never be known.
Historians have made various estimates, some comparing pre-war census data with post-war estimates. Since many survivors never returned to their homes after the war, or hid their identities as Jews, these are not wholly reliable. Historian Raul Hilberg published the figure 5.1 million in The Destruction of the European Jews in 1961. Another eminent historian, Lucy Dawidowicz, arrived at the figure o 5,933,900 in her book, The War Against the Jews. Wolfgang Benz, a German scholar was less prescise, citing a range from 5.3 to 6.2 million.
A Polish Jew’s Revelation
The commonly used number of six million Jewish victims may have first been raised in a “Statement of Eliezer Ungar at a Meeting of all of the Pioneer Organizations – January 19, 1944.” Ungar was a leader of the HaShomer HaDati religious movement in Poland who had escaped to Palestine after the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He told the attendees, “Polish Jewry is extinct and no longer exists.”
Ungar said he had heard Stephen Wise on the underground radio in April 1943 say that two million Polish Jews had been murdered. “Didn’t the world know,” Ungar said, “that the number of the nation’s dead has already reached six million?”
Israeli newspapers reported on January 21 that Ungar told a meeting of the United Kibbutz Movement, “Six million martyrs are no longer.” That day Haaretz, published a story with no byline headlined, “Six million Jewish victims.” The report said, “Six million – that’s the calculation made by two young men in a meeting with members of their party organizations in Palestine.” The story continued, “With pencil in hand they counted the number of victims in each country and reached an astonishing number – 6 million Jews were murdered and killed and died in Nazi-occupied countries in death camps, concentration camps, labor camps and the various ghettos.”
One of the men was Ungar and the other was his friend Yosef Komiansky but neither name was mentioned. The article appeared on the front page, according to a 2020 article in Haaretz, “in a marginal spot on the page, between other items and adjacent to congratulatory messages and an ad for a hotel that offered ‘direct bus service to the Tiberias Host Springs.’”
The Ungar story was discovered by historian Joel Rappel who surmised that Ungar came up with the number based on the estimated Jewish population of Europe. Rappel says Ungar’s revelation did not have much impact. Rappel’s father, Rabbi Dov Rappel, knew Ungar and told his son how he “went from one synagogue to another, mounted the dais, with and without permission, and cried out on behalf of the Jews who still remained alive in Europe.” Ungar’s message was unwelcome and he was thrown out of the synagogue, Rappel recalled.
Another possible source for the number of Jewish victims is Dr. Wilhelm Hoettl, a historian who served in the SS. In testimony for the prosecution in the Nuremberg trials and the Adolf Eichmann case, he said that he had a conversation with Eichmann in August 1944 in which Eichmann told him “six million Jews had perished until then – four million in extermination camps and the remaining two million through shooting by the operations units and other causes, such as disease, etc.”
One early American reference to six million Jewish victims appears in a letter to President Truman written on June 20, 1946, by Senator Robert Wagner and eight other senators calling on the president to support the “immediate admission into Palestine of 100,000 Jews who have been the victims of Nazi persecution.” The letter says, “In Hitler’s concentration and extermination camps, 6,000,000 Jews were tortured, gassed or burned to death.”
The following are the USHMM’s best estimates of civilians and captured soldiers killed by the Nazis and their collaborators.
Number of Deaths
Jews: 6 million
Soviet civilians: around 7 million (including 1.3 Soviet Jewish civilians, who are included in the 6 million figure for Jews)
Soviet prisoners of war: around 3 million (including about 50,000 Jewish soldiers)
Non-Jewish Polish civilians: around 1.8 million (including between 50,000 and 100,000 members of the Polish elites)
Serb civilians (on the territory of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina): 312,000
People with disabilities living in institutions: up to 250,000
Roma: up to 250,000
Jehovah's Witnesses: around 1,900
Repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials: at least 70,000
German political opponents and resistance activists in Axis-occupied territory: undetermined
Homosexuals: hundreds, possibly thousands (possibly also counted in part under the 70,000 repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials noted above)
Jewish Loss by Location of Death
Auschwitz complex (including Birkenau, Monowitz, and subcamps): approximately 1 million
Treblinka: approximately 925,000
Sobibor: at least 167,000
Shooting operations at various locations in central and southern German-occupied Poland (the so-called Government General): at least 200,000
Shooting operations in German-annexed western Poland (District Wartheland): at least 20,000
Deaths in other facilities that the Germans designated as concentration camps: at least 150,000
Shooting operations and gas wagons at hundreds of locations in the German-occupied Soviet Union: at least 1.3 million
Shooting operations in the Soviet Union (German, Austrian, Czech Jews deported to the Soviet Union): approximately 55,000
Shooting operations and gas wagons in Serbia: at least 15,088
Shot or tortured to death in Croatia under the Ustaša regime: 23,000–25,000
Deaths in ghettos: at least 800,000
Other*: at least 500,000
Other includes, for example, persons killed in shooting operations in Poland in 1939–1940; as partisans in Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, France or Belgium; in labor battalions in Hungary; during antisemitic actions in Germany and Austria before the war; by the Iron Guard in Romania, 1940–1941; and on evacuation marches from concentration camps and labor camps in the last six months of World War II. It also includes people caught in hiding and killed in Poland, Serbia, and elsewhere in German-occupied Europe.
Polish and Soviet Civilian Figures
With regard to the Polish and Soviet civilian figures, the USHMM says historians are unable to distinguish between:
2) persons actually or believed to be active in underground resistance
3) persons killed in reprisal for some actual or perceived resistance activity carried out by someone else
4) losses due to so-called collateral damage in actual military operations
The USHMM does conclude,
Virtually all deaths of Soviet, Polish, and Serb civilians during the course of military and anti-partisan operations had, however, a racist component. German units conducted those operations with an ideologically driven and willful disregard for civilian life.
Documenting Numbers of Victims of the Holocaust & Nazi Persecution, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum;
“Holocaust Facts: Where Does the Figure of 6 Million Victims Come From?” Haaretz, (January 26, 2020);
Ofer Aderet, “Nazis Boasted About Six Million Holocaust Victims. But It Was a Jew Who First Cited That Figure,” Haaretz, (April 21, 2020);
Joel Rappel, “Six million victims,” Jerusalem Report, (May 4, 2020).