After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Oskar Schindler set up an enamelware factory in Krakow that used a combination of Jewish workers interred by the Germans and free Polish workers. His initial interest, of course, was to make money. But as time went on, he grew to care about his Jewish workers, particularly those with whom he came into contact on a daily basis. In addition, helping Jews became a way to fight against what he viewed as disastrous and brutal policies emanating from Adolf Hitler and the SS.
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
By the spring of 1942, the Nazis had established six killing centers (death camps) in Poland: Chelmno (Kulmhof), Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek and Auschwitz. All were located near railway lines so that Jews could be easily transported daily. A vast system of camps (called Lagersystem) supported the death camps. The purpose of these camps varied: some were slave labor camps, some transit camps, others concentration camps and their subcamps, and still others the notorious death camps. Some camps combined all of these functions or a few of them. All the camps were intolerably brutal.
6 May 1945 (23 April on the Orthodox calendar) was the day of Pascha, Orthodox Easter. In a cell block used by Catholic priests to say daily Mass, several Greek, Serbian and Russian priests and one Serbian deacon, wearing makeshift vestments made from towels of the SS guard, gathered with several hundred Greek, Serbian and Russian prisoners to celebrate the Paschal Vigil. A prisoner named Rahr described the scene:
Most of the Jewish ghettos of General Government were liquidated in 1942–1943, and their populations shipped to the camps for extermination.[t] About 42,000 Jews were shot during the Operation Harvest Festival on 3–4 November 1943. At the same time, rail shipments arrived regularly from western and southern Europe at the extermination camps. Few Jews were shipped from the occupied Soviet territories to the camps: the killing of Jews in this zone was mostly left in the hands of the SS, aided by locally recruited auxiliaries.[u]
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
Soon after he became chancellor, Hitler called for new elections in an effort to get full control of the Reichstag, the German parliament, for the Nazis. The Nazis used the government apparatus to terrorize the other parties. They arrested their leaders and banned their political meetings. Then, in the midst of the election campaign, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag building burned. A Dutchman named Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested for the crime, and he swore he had acted alone. Although many suspected the Nazis were ultimately responsible for the act, the Nazis managed to blame the Communists, thus turning more votes their way.
Owing to repeated transports from the front, the camp was constantly overcrowded and the hygiene conditions were beneath human dignity. Starting from the end of 1944 up to the day of liberation, 15,000 people died, about half of all the prisoners held at KZ Dachau. Five hundred Soviet POWs were executed by firing squad. The first shipment of women came from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
By October of the same year the camp was being used by the U.S. Army as a place of confinement for war criminals, the SS and important witnesses. It was also the site of the Dachau Trials for German war criminals, a site chosen for its symbolism. In 1948 the Bavarian government established housing for refugees on the site, and this remained for many years. Among those held in the Dachau internment camp set up under the U.S. Army were Elsa Ehrich, Maria Mandl, and Elisabeth Ruppert.
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.
I was surprised to find records, going back for two or three years, of large quantities of food cooked daily for distribution. I became convinced, contrary to popular opinion, that there had never been a policy of deliberate starvation. This was confirmed by the large numbers of well-fed inmates. Why then were so many people suffering from malnutrition?... The major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs.
According to Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, the head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem: “There was no person more deserving of Righteous Gentile status than Oskar Schindler, including Raoul Wallenberg.” Crowe agrees. “I think that Oskar Schindler’s heroism is unique because of the fact that what he did, both in Krakow and Brunnlitz, took place in the midst of the most horrible killing center in modern history. Moreover, while his most dramatic efforts took place during the last year of the war, Oskar Schindler’s efforts to help and later save Jews was a stance that evolved over three or four years.”
The logistics of the mass murder turned Germany into what Michael Berenbaum called a "genocidal state". Eberhard Jäckel wrote in 1986 that it was the first time a state had thrown its power behind the idea that an entire people should be wiped out.[h] Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated, and complex rules were devised to deal with Mischlinge ("mixed breeds": half and quarter Jews). Bureaucrats identified who was a Jew, confiscated property, and scheduled trains to deport them. Companies fired Jews and later used them as slave labor. Universities dismissed Jewish faculty and students. German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; other companies built the crematoria. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were ordered to surrender all personal property, which was catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany for reuse or recycling. Through a concealed account, the German National Bank helped launder valuables stolen from the victims.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, thirty-one-year-old Schindler showed up in occupied Krakow. The ancient city, home to some 60,000 Jews and seat of the German occupation administration, the Generalgouvernement, proved highly attractive to German entrepreneurs, hoping to capitalize on the misfortunes of the subjugated country and make a fortune. Naturally cunning and none too scrupulous, Schindler appeared at first to thrive in these surroundings. In October 1939, he took over a run-down enamelware factory that had previously belonged to a Jew. He cleverly maneuvered his steps- acting upon the shrewd commercial advice of a Polish-Jewish accountant, Isaak Stern - and began to build himself a fortune. The small concern in Zablocie outside Krakow, which started producing kitchenware for the German army, began to grow by leaps and bounds. After only three months it already had a task-force of some 250 Polish workers, among them seven Jews. By the end of 1942, it had expanded into a mammoth enamel and ammunitions production plant, occupying some 45,000 square meters and employing almost 800 men and women. Of these, 370 were Jews from the Krakow ghetto, which the Germans had established after they entered the city.
In autumn of 1945 a British Military Tribunal in Lüneburg tried 48 members of the Bergen-Belsen staff, including 37 SS personnel and eleven prisoner functionaries. The tribunal sentenced eleven of the defendants to death, including camp commandant Josef Kramer. Nineteen other defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison terms; the tribunal acquitted fourteen. On December 12, 1945, British military authorities executed Kramer and his co-defendants.
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.
The number of Afro-Germans in Germany when the Nazis came to power is variously estimated at 5,000–25,000. It is not clear whether these figures included Asians. Although blacks, including prisoners of war, in Germany and German-occupied Europe were subjected to incarceration, sterilization, murder, and other abuse, there was no programme to kill them all as there was for the Jews.
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.
Also that November, Schindler was introduced to Itzhak Stern, an accountant for Schindler's fellow Abwehr agent Josef "Sepp" Aue, who had taken over Stern's formerly Jewish-owned place of employment as a Treuhander (trustee). Property belonging to Polish Jews, including their possessions, places of business, and homes were seized by the Germans beginning immediately after the invasion, and Jewish citizens were stripped of their civil rights. Schindler showed Stern the balance sheet of a company he was thinking of acquiring, an enamelware factory called Rekord Ltd[a] owned by a consortium of Jewish businessmen that had filed for bankruptcy earlier that year. Stern advised him that rather than running the company as a trusteeship under the auspices of the Haupttreuhandstelle Ost (Main Trustee Office for the East), he should buy or lease the business, as that would give him more freedom from the dictates of the Nazis, including the freedom to hire more Jews.
Josef Kramer statement (1945) in: R. Phillips, ed., Trial of Josef Kramer and Forty-Four Others, p. 737. Also quoted in: A. Butz, Hoax, p. 275; Essay by Alan Moorehead, "Belsen," in: Cyril Connolly, ed., The Golden Horizon, pp. 109-110; Dr. Russell Barton, "Belsen," History of the Second World War (Editor: Barrie Pitt, Copyright BPC publications, 1966), Part 109, 1975, p. 3025.
Außenlager Hambühren-Ovelgönne (Lager III, Waldeslust) at Hambühren south of Winsen was in use from August 23, 1944 to February 4, 1945. It was an abandoned potash mine, now intended as an underground production site for Bremen plane manufacturer Focke-Wulf. Around 400 prisoners, mostly female Polish or Hungarian Jews, were forced to prepare the facility and to help lay train tracks to it. This was done for the company Hochtief.:204