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WHEN DID HOLOCAUST BEGIN?

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A recent article in The New York Times reports that newly declassified documents establish that Great Britain had knowledge of the Holocaust as early as September 1941 and did nothing about it.

The evidence: coded German messages that were deciphered by the British. Among those messages were specific communications listing the number of Jews shot by the Nazis - 1,153 on July 18, 1941, allegedly for looting; 4,200 on Aug. 17 by a special police battalion of 320 men, and so on.This, claims one of a group of scholars who recovered the documents through the Freedom of Information Act, would have signaled the start of what we have come to know as the Holocaust.

Marking the beginning of the Holocaust is, of course, a subjective matter. Should the beginning of the Holocaust - defined in dictionary as "the systematic destruction of over 6 million European Jews" - be marked when the number of Jews shot or otherwise destroyed reached into the thousands, or was it an intensifying crime against humanity that began with one, then two, then tens, then hundreds?

From the Watergate scandal grew the now oft-used term: What did you know and when did you know it? It is applicable, also, to the Holocaust.

The British, the United States and most of the world knew of escalating Nazi atrocities against Jews well before the September 1941 messages. Proof of that would be in a document released in 1939 by the British government titled "Papers concerning the Treatment of German Nationals in Germany, 1938-1939."

Publicly sold for three pence, this document contains letters and eyewitness accounts of what certainly sounds like a systematic destruction of German Jews through arrests, mistreatments, beatings and killings. It is clear, through reports by British diplomats in Germany, that the Hitler regime was in the process of ridding the country of its Jews then.

On Oct. 28, 1938, the British communicated the statement of a released prisoner from the Buchenwald concentration camp in which he cited horror enough: "A man with heart trouble who cannot walk is dragged along by the feet by other prisoners. (SS men do not touch Jews.) The flesh is torn from his face. He is so disfigured as to be unrecognizable."

On Jan. 5, 1939, the British consul general in Munich reported on a place called Dachau, summarizing: "Accounts of brutal treatment at the hands of the guards are too consistent to have been mere fabrications."

Included in an eyewitness report communicated to the British Foreign Office on Feb. 18, 1939: "Out of the 2,000 Jewish prisoners that arrived in the 15th June, 80 died in the first four weeks and 30 more in the fifth week. The authorities did all in their power to hush up these figures."

That same report described how weakened Jewish prisoners working in a stone quarry were separated from the others and shot, described by the guards as a result of the Jews trying to escape. That report detailed other deaths and said that coffins for the victims were made by fellow prisoners and then taken to the Weimar crematorium "and burnt."

It was there for all to read about in 1939 for but three pence.

In the 1967 book "While Six Million Died," it was recounted that the Associated Press reported from Berlin on Jan. 30, 1940, that 465 urns containing the ashes of Jews had been shipped from Buchenwald to Berlin.

So when did it begin? What was it that signaled the start of the Holocaust? How many Jews had to have their families severed, to lose their homes, businesses, possessions and lives before scholars determined that the Holocaust indeed had begun?

Did the number of killings really have to exceed 1,000 on a given day to qualify?