That February 28 decree had been used by the 50,000 brown-shirted SA storm troopers and black-coated SS men sworn in as auxiliary police to justify mass arrests of political opponents during Hitler's seizure of power. There were so many people in custody in the spring of 1933 that Germany's conventional prisons were quickly swamped. As a result, 'wild' prison camps sprang up like mushrooms.
This classroom activity explores the transformation of Bergen Belsen from a concentration camp to a Displaced Persons' camp. It focuses particularly on how Holocaust survivors grappled with loneliness and despair by getting married and starting families shortly after liberation. Through the lens of Bergen Belsen, we see how Holocaust survivors displayed courage and determination in generating life after the Holocaust.
Dachau served as a prototype and model for other Nazi concentration camps that followed. Its basic organization, camp layout as well as the plan for the buildings were developed by Kommandant Theodor Eicke and were applied to all later camps. He had a separate secure camp near the command center, which consisted of living quarters, administration, and army camps. Eicke himself became the chief inspector for all concentration camps, responsible for molding the others according to his model.
The first Jewish prisoners came as known political opponents of the Nazis. At Dachau, as elsewhere, they received even worse treatment than the other prisoners. Gradually, more and more groups were arrested and brought to Dachau, Jehovah’s Witness, Gypsies, who like the Jews were classified as racially inferior, Clergymen who resisted the Nazi coercion of the churches and Homosexuals and many others who had been denounced for making critical remarks against the Nazi regime.
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
In March 1933, SS leader Heinrich Himmler became chief of the Munich police and decided to establish an SS-run concentration camp at an unused munitions factory in the town of Dachau, 12 miles northwest of Munich. The first commandant, Hilmar Wäckerle, ran the place so badly that it damaged the reputation of the SS. Himmler fired him in June and chose as his replacement the fanatical SS man, Theodor Eicke.
Over the years of its operation, from 1933 to 1945, thousands of Dachau prisoners died of disease, malnutrition and overwork. Thousands more were executed for infractions of camp rules. Starting in 1941, thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were sent to Dachau then shot to death at a nearby rifle range. In 1942, construction began at Dachau on Barrack X, a crematorium that eventually consisted of four sizeable ovens used to incinerate corpses. With the implementation in 1942 of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to systematically eradicate all European Jews, thousands of Dachau detainees were moved to Nazi extermination camps in Poland, where they died in gas chambers.
Bergen-Belsen SS-women. On the right the notorious Herta Bothe, after the war charged with having committed war crimes. She had a good time shooting at weak female prisoners carrying food containers from the kitchen to the block with her pistol. And she often beat sick girls with a wooden stick. At the Bergen-Belsen Trial she got imprisonment for 10 years.
At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims died immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed, gold fillings in their teeth were extracted, and women's hair was cut. The work was done by the Sonderkommando, work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
The name 'Belsen' invokes tremor in Jews' hearts. Belsen is engraved in the Jewish consciousness as one of the most cursed places in Germany, where the bones of tens of thousands of Jewish victims are buried. The Belsen camp is, in Jews' memories and in the memories of all people in the world, a camp of starvation, and unbelievable filth which caused diseases and plagues. Belsen has become a symbol of man's inhumanity to man.
A final and complete deterioration of the prisoners living conditions set in when tens of thousands of prisoners poured in – survivors of the death marches who had been evacuated from the camps in the east. These included 20,000 women prisoners from the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps who had passed through the Gross- Rosen concentration camp on the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
When the Nazi’s rose to power they built facilities to hold and, eventually kill, their enemies. When the first concentration camps were built in 1933, this primarily meant political dissidents and opponents of the Nazi government, such as German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats but would grow to include asocial groups – Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the homeless, the mentally ill and homosexuals. It was not until Kristallnacht that the prisoners became primarily Jewish.
The first known documentation of Dachau occurs in a medieval deed issued by the Noble Erchana of Dahauua to the prince-bishop of Freising, both descendants of the lineage of the Aribonids. With this deed, dated to August 15, 805 A.D. (the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary), she donated her entire property in Dachau, including five so-called Colonenhöfe and some serfs and bondsman, to devolve to the Bishop of the Diocese of Freising after her death.
These outdoor 'wild' camps were little more than improvised barbed-wire stockades where prisoners were subjected to military-style drills and random beatings. The storm troopers soon discovered that desperate family members would gather up whatever money they could find to ransom their loved ones out of the place. Thus began a lucrative practice of hauling off prisoners simply to hold them until sufficient ransom was received.
The workers who constructed the original buildings were housed in camps near Fallingbostel and Bergen, the latter being the so-called Bergen-Belsen Army Construction Camp. Once the military complex was completed in 1938/39, the workers' camp fell into disuse. However, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht began using the huts as a prisoner of war (POW) camp.