On April 15, 1945, British troops entered Bergen Belsen. They liberated some 60,000 prisoners, many of whom were on the verge of death. During the first weeks after liberation, close to 500 people in Bergen Belsen died every day. From liberation day until June 20, an estimated 14,000 people died from the terrible conditions that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis during the war.
At first a single barrack accommodated only 180 persons, but later the overcrowding became intolerable, and bunks filled all available space. At the north end of Dachau stood the disinfection buildings and an Angora rabbit farm. The camp had a unique feature, the Dachau museum, containing plaster-images of prisoners marked by bodily defects or other strange characteristics.
Before the outbreak of war, Poland had been a relative haven for European Jews - Krakow's Jewish population numbered over 50,000. But when Germany invaded, destruction began immediately and it was merciless. Jews were herded into crowded ghettos, randomly beaten and humiliated, capriciously killed. Jewish property and businesses were summarily destroyed, or appropriated by the SS and 'sold' to Nazi 'investors', one of whom was the fast talking, womanizing, money hungry Schindler.
Most of the prisoners in the sub-camps of Dachau were Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had been brought on trains to Germany in January 1945 after a 50-kilometer death march out of the camp. By the time that the survivors staggered into the Dachau main camp in the last weeks of April, they were emaciated, sick and exhausted. Other Jews at Dachau in 1945 had been brought from the three Lithuanian ghettos in the Summer of 1944 to work in the Dachau sub-camps. The American liberators got most of their information about the Dachau camp from these Jews who had only recently arrived and were eager to tell their stories about abuse at the hands of the Nazis.
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
The first thing that the American liberators saw at Dachau was the "death train" filled with the dead bodies of prisoners who had been evacuated three weeks before from Buchenwald; the train had been strafed by American planes, but the soldiers assumed that these prisoners had been machine-gunned to death by the guards after the train arrived. After the war, Hans Merbach, the German soldier who was in charge of this train was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau.
The death marches served a dual purpose for the Nazis. On one hand, the Nazis intended for large numbers of Jewish prisoners to die on death marches. Indeed, about 250,000 prisoners, many of whom were Jews, died on death marches. On the other hand, the death marches were also an attempt to move concentration camp prisoners into Germany's borders, so that the Nazis could continue to exploit them for slave labor. Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany, such as Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Mauthausen.
Testimony of Commandant Kramer in: Raymond Phillips, ed., Trial of Josef Kramer and Forty-Four Others (The Belsen Trial) (London: William Hodge, 1949), p. 160; "Bergen-Belsen," Encyclopaedia Judaica (New York and Jerusalem: Macmillan and Keter, 1971), Vol. 4, p. 610. According to this source, one group of 136 of these "exchange Jews" was deported from Belsen during the war to neutral Switzerland, and another group of 222 was transferred to Palestine.; According to an Israeli newspaper report, a group of 222 "exchange" Jews reportedly left Bergen-Belsen on June 29, 1944, and, by way of Istanbul, arrived in Palestine on July 10. (Israel Nachrichten, quoted in: D. National-Zeitung, Munich, Sept. 23, 1994, p. 5)
In the fall of that year the Płaszów work camp opened nearby, and by February 1943 it was under the command of the notoriously sadistic SS officer Amon Göth, who would be executed after the war. Capitalizing on the officer’s appetite for drink and other luxury items available mainly on the black market, Schindler cultivated his friendship by ensuring a constant stream of them to the villa from which he oversaw the camp. Schindler thus managed to prevail upon Göth to create a separate camp for his Jewish workers, where they were free of the abuses suffered at Płaszów. Though Schindler’s motivations prior to this point are unclear, many scholars interpret his efforts to extricate his workers from Płaszów as indication that his concern for them was not purely financial.
After Germany’s loss in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles punished Germany by placing tough restrictions on the country. The treaty made Germany take full responsibility for the war, reduced the extent of German territory, severely limited the size and placement of their armed forces, and forced Germany to pay the allied powers reparations. These restrictions not only increased social unrest but, combined with the start of the Great Depression, collapsed the German economy as inflation rose alongside unemployment.
After the takeover of Bavaria on 9 March 1933, Heinrich Himmler, then Chief of Police in Munich, began to speak with the administration of an unused gunpowder and munitions factory. He toured the site to see if it could be used for quartering protective-custody prisoners. The Concentration Camp at Dachau was opened 22 March 1933, with the arrival of about 200 prisoners from Stadelheim Prison in Munich and the Landsberg fortress (where Hitler had written Mein Kampf during his imprisonment). Himmler announced in the Münchner Neuesten Nachrichten newspaper that the camp could hold up to 5,000 people, and described it as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners" to be used to restore calm to Germany. It became the first regular concentration camp established by the coalition government of the National Socialist German Worker's Party (Nazi Party) and the German National People's Party (dissolved on 6 July 1933).
According to a newspaper article by Mark Muckenfuss in The Press-Enterprise, Cecil Davis was a B17 pilot who was shot down during a bombing raid, and subsequently sent to a POW camp. He was with a group of American Prisoners of War who got lost while marching through the German countryside in late April 1945; the lost POWs were picked up by a patrol and dropped off at the Dachau "death camp" for three or four days. Davis was assigned to work in the crematorium where he saw the bodies of children that were being burned in "gas ovens."
German communists, socialists and trade unionists were among the earliest opponents of the Nazis and among the first to be sent to concentration camps. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler issued the Commissar Order, which ordered the execution of all political commissars and Communist Party members captured. Nacht und Nebel ("Night and Fog") was a directive of Hitler in December 1941, resulting in the disappearance of political activists throughout the German-occupied territories.
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
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.
When the British and Canadians advanced on Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the German army negotiated a truce and exclusion zone around the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. On April 11, 1945 Heinrich Himmler (the Reichsführer SS) agreed to have the camp handed over without a fight. SS guards ordered prisoners to bury some of the dead. The next day, Wehrmacht representatives approached the British and were brought to VIII Corps. At around 1 a.m. on April 13, an agreement was signed, designating an area of 48 square kilometers (19 square miles) around the camp as a neutral zone. Most of the SS were allowed to leave. Only a small number of SS men and women, including the camp commandant Kramer, remained to "uphold order inside the camp". The outside was guarded by Hungarian and regular German troops. Due to heavy fighting near Winsen and Walle, the British were unable to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 14, as originally planned. The camp was liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945.:253 The first two to reach the camp were a British Special Air Service officer, Lieutenant John Randall, and his jeep driver, who were on a reconnaissance mission and discovered the camp by chance.