As Lise described the meeting, across barbed wire when the guard was occupied elsewhere, Anne told her that she had no one. She believed her father and mother were dead; her sister was very ill. Lise remembered, "After her sister died, she was just without hope. But she didn't know [that her father was alive], and so she had really nothing to live for."
According to Marcus J. Smith, a US military doctor who was assigned to Dachau after it was liberated, there was an "experimental farm, the Plantage" just outside the concentration camp. Smith wrote in his book "The Harrowing of Hell" that "When the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) inspected, he seemed particularly interested in the Plantage, discoursing enthusiastically on the medicinal value of herbs."
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them:
Until late 1944 conditions were generally better than in other concentration camps. Marika Frank Abrams, a Jewish woman from Hungary, was transferred from Auschwitz in 1944. Years later she recalled her arrival at Belsen: "... We were each given two blankets and a dish. There was running water and latrines. We were given food that was edible and didn't have to stand for hours to be counted. The conditions were so superior to Auschwitz we felt we were practically in a sanitarium." /3
Several books published after the war maintained that there was a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen. For example, in a book entitled "Jews, God and History," Jewish historian Max Dimont mentioned gassings at Bergen-Belsen. Another book, entitled "A History of World War II" claimed that "In Belsen, 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." (Josef Kramer was the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen from 2 December 1944 until the camp was liberated.)
Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate. Machine-gun fire burst from the center watchtower, the very one which since morning had been flying the white flag! The jeeps turned about and an armored tank came on. With a few bursts, it silenced the fire from the watchtower. The body of an SS man fell off the platform and came crashing loudly to the asphalt of the little square.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
The camp included an administration building that contained offices for the Gestapo trial commissioner, SS authorities, the camp leader and his deputies. These administration offices consisted of large storage rooms for the personal belongings of prisoners, the bunker, roll-call square where guards would also inflict punishment on prisoners (especially those who tried to escape), the canteen where prisoners served SS men with cigarettes and food, the museum containing plaster images of prisoners who suffered from bodily defects, the camp office, the library, the barracks, and the infirmary, which was staffed by prisoners who had previously held occupations such as physicians or army surgeons.
The stench had become intolerable; wrapped in my cloak, a priceless possession, I went out in search of air, to stretch out, to sleep in the open. The ground was muddy and cold, so I kept walking. In front of me, a pile of corpses balanced carefully on one another, rose geometrically like a haystack. There was no more room in the crematoria so they piled up the corpses out here.
But the personalities and characteristics of human beings cannot be spliced. Sometimes character flaws, such as hubris, also lead to great achievements through a willingness to attempt something most people never would. Oskar’s espionage activities on behalf of Germany, while regrettable to enemies of Germany, later put him in a position to save many lives.
An Inspector General report resulting from a US Army investigation conducted between 3 and 8 May 1945 and titled, "American Army Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau," found that 21 plus "a number" of presumed SS men were killed with others being wounded after their surrender had been accepted. In addition, 25 to 50 SS guards were estimated to have been killed by the liberated prisoners. Lee Miller visited the camp just after liberation, and photographed several guards who were killed by soldiers or prisoners.
The word “Holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Since 1945, the word has taken on a new and horrible meaning: the mass murder of some 6 million European Jews (as well as millions of others, including Gypsies and homosexuals) by the German Nazi regime during the Second World War. To the anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Jews were an inferior race, an alien threat to German racial purity and community. After years of Nazi rule in Germany, during which Jews were consistently persecuted, Hitler’s “final solution”–now known as the Holocaust–came to fruition under the cover of world war, with mass killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland.
Some 28,000 prisoners died of disease and other causes in the weeks after the British army liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. The British were forced to bury thousands of corpses in mass graves hastily excavated on the site. Bergen-Belsen was the first major Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by the Western Allies, and its horrors gained instant notoriety. Forty-eight members of the camp staff were tried and 11 of them, including SS commandant Josef Kramer, the “Beast of Belsen,” were sentenced to death by a British military court and hanged. After the war, Bergen-Belsen became the largest displaced-person camp in Germany. Most of its residents later immigrated to Israel.
On April 29, 1945, SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker surrendered the camp to the 42nd Rainbow Division of the US Seventh Army, which had found the camp on its way to take the city of Munich, 18 kilometers to the south. Accompanied by Red Cross representative Victor Maurer, 2nd Lt. Wicker surrendered the Dachau concentration camp to Brigadier General Henning Linden, commander of the 42nd Rainbow Division, under a white flag of truce. The 45th Thunderbird Division of the US Seventh Army also participated in the liberation of Dachau, arriving at the nearby SS garrison before the 42nd Division approached the installations's main entrance on the south side of the Dachau complex where 2nd Lt. Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp.
Behind the furnace was the execution chamber, a windowless cell twenty feet square with gas nozzles every few feet across the ceiling. Outside, in addition to the huge mound of charred bone fragments, were the carefully sorted and stacked clothes of the victims - which obviously numbered in the thousands. Although I stood there looking at it, I couldn't believe it. The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it will ever on you.
From late 1944 to April, 1945, thousands of prisoners-many of them suffering from exposure and starvation from forced marches-flooded Bergen-Belsen from the East. Conditions, never good, deteriorated rapidly. Sanitary facilities were non-existent, food was scarce, the water supply grossly inadequate for the large influx of prisoners. A serious typhus epidemic erupted. In the first few months of 1945, up to 35,000 prisoners died, among them Margot and Anne Frank.
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.
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.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began systematically clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for 'deportation to the East'. The killing of the Polish Jews, code-named 'Project Reinhardt', was carried out in three camps: Treblinka, near Warsaw (850,000 victims); Belzec, in south-eastern Poland (650,000 victims); and Sobibor, in east-central Poland (250,000 victims). Some Jews from western Europe were sometimes taken to these camps as well, but most were killed at the biggest and most advanced of the death camps, Auschwitz.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
"Well the General (Brig. Gen. Linden) attempted to get the thing organized and an American Major who had been held in the Camp since September (1944) came out and we set him up as head of the prisoners. He soon picked me to quiet the prisoners down and explain to them that they must stay in the Camp until we could get them deloused, and proper food and medical care. Several newspaper people arrived about that time and wanted to go through the Camp so we took them through with a guide furnished by the prisoners. The first thing we came to were piles and piles of clothing, shoes, pants, shirts, coats, etc. Then we went into a room with a table with flowers on it and some soap and towels. Another door with the word showers lead off of this and upon going through this room it appeared to be a shower room but instead of water, gas came out and in two minutes the people were dead. Next we went next door to four large ovens where they cremated the dead. Then we were taken to piles of dead. There were from two to fifty people in a pile all naked, starved and dead. There must have been about 1,000 dead in all."
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The worst killer was typhus, but typhoid fever and dysentery also claimed many lives. Aggravating the situation was a policy during the final months of transferring already sick inmates from other camps to Belsen, which was then officially designated a sick or convalescence camp (Krankenlager). The sick women of Auschwitz, for example, were transferred to Belsen in three groups in November-December 1944. /12
Georg Elser, who was imprisoned at Dachau as a suspect in the attempted assassination of Hitler on November 8, 1939, was allegedly shot around the time that an Allied bomb hit the camp on April 9, 1945 and his death was blamed on the bombing. General Charles Delestraint, a Dachau prisoner who had been the leader of the French Secret Army in the Resistance, was allegedly executed at Dachau on April 19, 1945, although no execution order from Berlin was ever found. Four female British SOE agents were also allegedly executed Dachau, although the execution order was never found.
For the first time, camps were created specifically for Jews. Their conditions were far worse than other camps. The implicit intention was that the inmates would die there. Increasing numbers of Jews in Poland were relocated in ghettos. Non-Jewish Poles were also deported from their farms and villages to make room for ‘pure’ ethnic Germans to populate the new territory.
Further trials at Nuremberg took place between 1946 and 1949, which tried another 185 defendants. West Germany initially tried few ex-Nazis, but after the 1958 Ulm Einsatzkommando trial, the government set up a governmental agency to investigate crimes. Other trials of Nazis and collaborators took place in Western and Eastern Europe. In 1960, Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial on 15 indictments, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. He was convicted in December 1961 and executed in June 1962. Eichmann's trial and death revived interest in war criminals and the Holocaust in general.
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.