"Bergen-Belsen," Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), vol. 4, pp. 610-612; Colonel Schmidt, the German officer who worked to alleviate conditions in Belsen during the final weeks and also arranged for the camp's surrender to the British, estimated that "altogether about 8,000 people" died in the camp. (This figure may, however, only include victims of the final chaotic weeks under German control.) Source: Signed report by Oberst a.D. Hanns Schmidt to Kurt Mehner and Lt. Colonel Bechtold, Braunschweig, March 3, 1981. (Cited above.) Photocopy in author's possession.
But if the 10,000 bodies found in the camp by the British liberators weren't victims of mass gassing, how did so many die in such a short time? It was easy for viewers of the British documentary film, made immediately after the liberation, to believe that the emaciated corpses were those of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death by the evil Nazis, especially because the film made no mention of epidemics in the overcrowded camp, or that the camp was right in the middle of a war zone and had even been hit in an Allied bombing attack.
Dachau was the first and most important camp at which German doctors and scientists set up laboratories using inmates as involuntary guinea pigs for such experiments as determining the effects on human beings of sudden increases and decreases in atmospheric pressure, studying the effects of freezing on warm-blooded creatures, infecting prisoners with malaria and treating them with various drugs with unknown effects, and testing the effects of drinking seawater or going without food or water. Continued throughout World War II, such experiments and the harsh living conditions made Dachau one of the most notorious of camps. After the war, the scientists and doctors from this and other camps were tried at Nürnberg in the “Doctors’ Trial”; seven were sentenced to death. (See Nürnberg trials.)
With this police infrastructure in place, opponents of the Nazis were terrorized, beaten, or sent to one of the concentration camps the Germans built to incarcerate them. Dachau, just outside of Munich, was the first such camp built for political prisoners. Dachau's purpose changed over time and eventually became another brutal concentration camp for Jews.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
Historians increasingly view the Holocaust as a pan-European phenomenon, or a series of holocausts impossible to conduct without the help of local collaborators. Over 200,000 people are estimated to have been Holocaust perpetrators; without them, the Germans would not have been able to extend the Holocaust across most of Europe. Some Christian churches tried to defend the Jews by declaring that converted Jews were "part of the flock," according to Saul Friedländer, "but even then only up to a point". Otherwise, Friedländer writes, "[n]ot one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews."
As the Red Army drew nearer in July 1944, the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and evacuating the remaining prisoners westward to Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Göth's personal secretary, Mietek Pemper, alerted Schindler to the Nazis' plans to close all factories not directly involved in the war effort, including Schindler's enamelware facility. Pemper suggested to Schindler that production should be switched from cookware to anti-tank grenades in an effort to save the lives of the Jewish workers. Using bribery and his powers of persuasion, Schindler convinced Göth and the officials in Berlin to allow him to move his factory and his workers to Brünnlitz (Czech: Brněnec), in the Sudetenland, thus sparing them from certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Pemper compiled and typed the list of 1,200 Jews—1,000 of Schindler's workers and 200 inmates from Julius Madritsch's textiles factory—who were sent to Brünnlitz in October 1944.
After a day’s journey, we arrived at Bergen-Belsen. This concentration camp was hopelessly overcrowded and we were not accepted. The right hand no longer knew what the left hand was doing, so we were sent to an adjoining Wehrmacht compound. As the soldiers of the Wehrmacht marched out, we moved in. The confusion was unbelievable; this time it was disorder with German perfection. We were moved into clean barracks, equipped for human beings with excellent bathrooms and clean beds stacked three on top of each other. After all we had experienced in the preceding year, this was sheer luxury. There was no mention of the usual camp rituals, no roll calls and no work, but also no food.
Polish authorities protested against a scene in which soldiers dressed in Polish uniforms executed Jewish prisoners. The poles didn't have any "Quisling army" during the war. The scene was trimmed and now shows the rifles and the arms of the soldiers in question. Even so, both versions apparently remained in circulation as Danish TV originally showed the original version, and Swedish TV the trimmed version within weeks of each other. See more »
On May 5, 1945, Dutch resistance fighter Pim Boellaard was interviewed about his ordeal during his three years of captivity. As a resistance fighter, who continued to fight after the surrender of the Netherlands, he did not have the same protection as a POW under the Geneva Convention of 1929. He was one of 60 Dutch Nacht und Nebel prisoners who were transferred from the Natzweiler camp to Dachau in September 1944. Click here to see the video of his interview. Boellaard was a member of the International Committee of Dachau, representing approximately 500 Dutch prisoners at Dachau.
The whole of Israel throughout the world is uniting to declare an economic and financial war on Germany. The appearance of the Swastika as the symbol of the new Germany has revived the old war symbol of Judas to new life. Fourteen million Jews scattered over the entire world are tight to each other as if one man, in order to declare war against the German persecutors of their fellow believers. The Jewish wholesaler will quit his house, the banker his stock exchange, the merchant his business, and the beggar his humble hut, in order to join the holy war against Hitler's people.
This and the rest of his evidence Mr. Le Drieullenac gave in a matter of fact way. This was the first time Kramer and his associates had faced one of the survivors of their camp, but for the first hour or so the Jersey man did not even look at them. Then, during the intervals for the translation of his evidence into German and Polish, he began looking at them with what seemed to be a puzzled air as if trying to find a link between his dreadful experience and the three rows of men and women in the dock and as if trying to realise that these were the people who had been the rulers of the camp where he had seen his best friend, a French colonel, dragged off to the burial pit to be thrown in while still alive.
While these massacres were happening, the Nazis elsewhere were laying plans for an overall 'solution to the Jewish question'. Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans, which were then driven to nearby sites where the bodies were plundered and burnt. 250,000 Jews were killed this way at Chelmno and 15,000 at Semlin.
These programmes are best seen as a series of linked genocides, each having its own history, background, purpose and significance in the Nazi scheme of things. The Holocaust was the biggest of the killing programmes and, in certain important ways, different from the others. The Jews figured in Nazi ideology as the arch-enemy of the 'Aryan race', and were targeted not merely for terror and repression but for complete extinction. The Nazis failed in this aim because they ran out of time, but they pursued it fanatically until their defeat in 1945. The Holocaust led to widespread public awareness of genocide and to modern efforts to prevent it, such as the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.
On April 17, 1945, two days after the first British soldiers arrived, British Medical units were at the scene. The first thing they did was to set up a hospital area in the barracks of the German Army training camp nearby. Also on that date, the British arrested the entire personnel of the SS Commandant's office, the 50 men and 30 women who had voluntarily stayed behind to help the British manage the catastrophe. A Jewish Camp Committee was organized by the survivors, under the leadership of Josef Rosensaft.
After this night, the German government supported dozens of laws and decrees that took away Jews property and livelihood. By the end of the year, Jews were prohibited from attending school. One billion reichsmarks of Jewish property was seized as collective punishment against the nation’s Jews for the murder of von Rath. Those able to flee the country did. In the year after Kristallnact, more than 100,000 Jews left Germany as the situation deteriorated.
In November 2008, Eva Olsson, who was born into a family of Hasidic Jews in Satu Mare, Hungary, told an audience of 550 delegates to the Upper Canada District School Board's ACT Now! Symposium in Cornwall that she was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp on May 19, 1944; she also mentioned the gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen where she was later transferred. Eva Olsson and her younger sister Fradel were the only members of her extended family of 89 people who survived the Holocaust, according to her story, published in a news article in the Seaway News on November 6, 2008.
In October 1939 Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" backdated to 1 September 1939 that authorized Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, the chief of Hitler's Chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, to carry out a program of involuntary "euthanasia"; after the war this program was named Aktion T4. It was named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, where the various organizations involved were headquartered. T4 was mainly directed at adults, but the "euthanasia" of children was also carried out. Between 1939 and 1941, 80,000 to 100,000 mentally ill adults in institutions were killed, as were 5,000 children and 1,000 Jews, also in institutions. In addition there were specialized killing centres, where the deaths were estimated at 20,000, according to Georg Renno, the deputy director of Schloss Hartheim, one of the "euthanasia" centers, or 400,000, according to Frank Zeireis, the commandant of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Overall, the number of mentally and physically handicapped murdered was about 150,000.
Oskar Schindler was born into a German Catholic family on April 28, 1908. After attending trade schools, he worked for his father’s farm machinery company. He worked for German intelligence and later joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime hero. During the war, however, he operated a factory that employed more than 1,000 Polish Jews, saving them from concentration camps and extermination. In 1993 his story was made into the Steven Spielberg feature film Schindler's List.
The names of the Nazis who are mainly responsible for the cruelty toward and murder of the prisoners are the following: Weckerle, Erpsmüller, Dr. Frank, Steinbrenner, Heini Straus, Hofmann and Kantschuster. The great majority of the Storm Troopers did not take part in the torturing of the prisoners. Some of the guards even had the courage openly to oppose the torturing and murdering of prisoners. They were placed in “protective custody.” Several of the Special Police sympathized with the prisoners, so that every third week the guard had to be changed, and only the most brutal were kept permanently at the camp.
Adolf Eichmann, the RSHA expert on Jewish affairs spent some time in Dachau, and in 1939 when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, and Eichmann in discussion with Dr Kafka, the President of the Prague Community Council demanded the emigration of 70,000 Jews within a year. Dr Kafka protested that the funds of the Council had been blocked. Eichmann threatened to take 300 Jews a day, street by street, and send them to Dachau and Merkelsgrun, “where they will become very keen on emigration.”
Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag building, seat of the German parliament, burnt down. Communists were blamed for setting the fire and Hindenburg declared a state of emergency, passing the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended basic rights like trial by jury. The German Communist Party was suspended and over 4,000 members were detained without trial. The next month, Hitler’s cabinet passed the Enabling Act which allowed him to enact laws without the consent of the parliament for four years, effectively transforming the German government into a de facto Nazi dictatorship.
The industrialization and scale of the murder was unprecedented. Killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of occupied Europe—more than 20 occupied countries. Close to three million Jews in occupied Poland and between 700,000 and 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union were killed. Hundreds of thousands more died in the rest of Europe. Victims were transported in sealed freight trains from all over Europe to extermination camps equipped with gas chambers. The stationary facilities grew out of Nazi experiments with poison gas during the Aktion T4 mass murder ("euthanasia") programme against the disabled and mentally ill, which began in 1939. The Germans set up six extermination camps in Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau (established October 1941); Majdanek (October 1941); Chełmno (December 1941); and the three Operation Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, in 1942. A seventh death camp, Maly Trostenets, was established near Minsk in Belarus, then part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Discussions at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 made it clear that the German "final solution of the Jewish question" was intended eventually to include Britain and all the neutral states in Europe, including Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.
Dachau is 20 km (12 mi) northwest of Munich. It is 482 meters above sea level by the river Amper, with a boundary demarcated by lateral moraines formed during the last ice age and the Amper glacial valley. It is also close to a large marshy area called Dachauer Moos. Highest elevation of the district is the so-called "Schlossberg", the lowest point is near the neighborhood of Prittlbach, at the border to the next community of Hebertshausen. The bordering communities are Bergkirchen to the west, Schwabhausen to the northwest, Röhrmoos to the north, Hebertshausen to the northeast, and Karlsfeld to the south. To the east the greater district Dachau borders on the greater district of Munich with the community of Oberschleißheim.
Hundreds of prisoners suffered and died, or were executed in medical experiments conducted at KZ Dachau, for which Sigmund Rascher was in charge. Hypothermia experiments involved exposure to vats of icy water or being strapped down naked outdoors in freezing temperatures. Attempts at reviving the subjects included scalding baths, and forcing naked women to copulate with the unconscious victim. Nearly 100 prisoners died during these experiments. The original records of the experiments were destroyed "in an attempt to conceal the atrocities".[a]
To prosecute the leaders of the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg was formed in 1946. The U.S., the UK, the Soviet Union and France each supplied two judges (a primary and an alternate) and a prosecution team for the trial. Twelve leading Nazi officials were sentenced to death for the crimes they had committed, while three received life sentences in prison, and four had prison terms for up to twenty years.
From 1945 until 1950, when it was finally shut down, the British maintained Belsen as a camp for displaced European Jews. During this period it achieved new notoriety as a major European black market center. The "uncrowned king" of Belsen's 10,000 Jews was Yossl (Josef) Rosensaft, who amassed tremendous profits from the illegal trading. Rosensaft had been interned in various camps, including Auschwitz, before arriving in Belsen in early April 1945. /42
As far as we could trace the developments back, some kind of a group or clique seems to have first formed in 1937 under an Austrian Socialist by the name of Brenner. The "Brenner Group" in the Labor Office included both German and Austrian Socialists. After the release of Brenner, it was superseded by a combination of German Socialists and Communists under a certain Kuno Rieke (Socialist) and a certain Julius Schaetzle (Communist). This combination and their staff were in control of the Labor Office until June 1944, when Schaetzle was suspected of conspiratorial activities and shipped off in a transport. A temporary regime succeeded the Rieke-Schaetzle group until September 1944, when a new regime gradually took over, eliminating all Germans from positions of influence in the Labor Office. This last group, composed of Alsatians, Lorrainers, French, Luxembourgers, Belgians and Poles, is still in charge of the Labor Office today.
In his book From Belsen to Buckingham Palace Paul Oppenheimer tells of the events leading up to the internment of his whole family at the camp and their incarceration there between February 1944 and April 1945, when he was aged 14–15. Following publication of the book, Oppenheimer personally talked to many groups and schools about the events he witnessed. This work is now continued by his brother Rudi, who shared the experiences.
"In the spring of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II and the liberation of the infamous German concentration camps, a child was born in Bergen Belsen, the place where only a short time earlier tens of thousands had perished. This child was the first of over two thousand who were born in and around Bergen Belsen, of parents who had survived the Holocaust.
The secretary of the Communist party, Deputy Joseph Goetz, was frequently taken out for a cross-examination. He always returned to his cell covered with wounds, and the orderly at the barracks refused to dress them. Every night at 10 o’clock, Steinbrenner, one of the overseers, entered the cell with five other special policemen equipped with long oxtails. They beat him into unconsciousness. The mattress, drenched with blood, was put out to dry in the sun every second day. After having gone through this torture for more than two weeks, Goetz was killed in his cell. His coffin was made in the cabinet-makers’ workshop by his former friends. In the meantime, his corpse lay in a coal cellar, the bleeding head wrapped in newspapers.
The Commander enters the room where prisoners are mending boots and reads aloud an article on the situation in the concentration camp in Dachau, taken from the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung. The paper states the prisoners are beaten with oxtails and shot “when caught in the attempt to escape” or are found “hanging in their cells.” Every prisoner knows that the report is true. The Commander asks: “Are you now convinced of the lies published by this Marxist Jewish press?” No one answers.
There was "practically no resistance" in the ghettos in Poland by the end of 1942, according to Peter Longerich. Raul Hilberg accounted for this by evoking the history of Jewish persecution: as had been the case before, appealing to their oppressors and complying with orders might avoid inflaming the situation until the onslaught abated. Henri Michel argued that resistance consisted not only of physical opposition but of any activity that gave the Jews humanity in inhumane conditions, while Yehuda Bauer defined resistance as actions that in any way opposed the German directives, laws, or conduct. Hilberg cautioned against overstating the extent of Jewish resistance, arguing that turning isolated incidents into resistance elevates the slaughter of innocent people into some kind of battle, diminishes the heroism of those who took active measures to resist, and deflects questions about the survival strategies and leadership of the Jewish community. Timothy Snyder noted that it was only during the three months after the deportations of July–September 1942 that agreement on the need for armed resistance was reached.
Some former inmates and a few historians have claimed that Jews were put to death in gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. For example, an "authoritative" work published shortly after the end of the war, A History of World War II, informed readers: "In Belsen, [Commandant] Kramer kept an orchestra to play him Viennese music while he watched children torn from their mothers to be burned alive. Gas chambers disposed of thousands of persons daily." /31
Construction on Baracke X began in July 1942, using the labor of the Catholic priests who were the only prisoners not forced to work in the factories at Dachau. The building was finished in 1943, but a sign that was put in the gas chamber in 1965 inexplicably informed tourists that this room was never used for gassing people. By May 2003, the sign was gone and a poster on the wall of the undressing room next to the gas chamber said that the gas chamber "could have been used" to kill prisoners.
The first prisoners arrived in Dachau on March 22, 1933, two days after the acting Munich Chief of Police and Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler announced the camp’s creation. Many of the initial prisoners were Social Democrats and German Communists, the latter group having been blamed for the February 27 fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht, or the “night of broken glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested. From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.