The government defined a Jewish person as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents, not someone who had religious convictions. This meant that people who had never practiced, or hadn’t practiced Judaism in many years, or even converted to Christianity were subjected to persecution. Although anti-semitism was pervasive in 1930s Germany, these restrictions frequently extended to any person the Nazis considered to be “non-Aryan”.
Hitler quickly moved to cement his power by suspending many civil liberties and allowing imprisonment without trial. By March, the first Nazi concentration camp was established at Dachau, not to imprison Jews but to hold political dissidents. Further laws targeted Jews, restricting the jobs they could hold and revoking their German citizenship. Anti-Semitic sentiment increased as the Jewish population was blamed for many of Germany's recent and historical problems.
In the German parliament, the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, gained popularity. The number of seats Nazis controlled in the parliament rose from 12 in 1928 to 230 in 1932, making them the largest political party. The strong showing guaranteed the Nazi party would need to be part of any political coalition. Believing he could check Hitler’s ambition, President Hindenburg reluctantly made Hitler the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.
According to Herbert Stolpmann, who was a former German soldier working for the US military at Dachau after the liberation of the camp, some of the Dachau prisoners lived with families in the town of Dachau during the war and worked for them. Stolpmann's father-in-law owned the Bielmeier bakery, which supplied bread for the prisoners in the camp. Two Russian boys, aged 13 and 14, lived with the family and worked at the bakery, which was called an Arbeitskommando or Work Commando. When the boys reached the ages of 16 and 17, they were taken to the camp and executed. They had been sentenced to death after they were captured as Partisans, but under the German law, no one under the age of 16 could be executed. The Bielmeier family also had a French woman from the Dachau camp living with them; she was engaged to be married to an SS guard, but she was also taken away, never to be seen again.
In the summer of 1941, the camp physician at Dachau was ordered to register those prisoners who were sick or unable to work. Some weeks later, a medical commission from Berlin arrived to pass judgement, and during the winter of 1941 -1942 “invalid transports” departed from Dachau in quick succession to the Hartheim castle, near Linz. Hartheim was one of the murder facilities included in the euthanasia programme. There 3166 inmates from Dachau were gassed.
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:
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.
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. More than half of this number were in the main camp. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
Schindler started out as a wartime profiteer, having acquired an enamelware factory in Poland in 1939. At the height of his business, Schindler had 1,750 workers under his employment — 1000 of them Jewish. Over time, his daily interactions with his Jewish workers prompted him to use his political connections as a former German spy and his wealth to bribe Nazi officers to prevent his workers from being deported and killed. Through various Jewish administrators came what was known as "Schindler's List," although in reality, there were nine separate lists and Schindler, at the time, did not oversee the details since he was incarcerated for suspicion of bribery.
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.
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
The camp was not really inefficient before you [British and American forces] crossed the Rhine. There was running water, regular meals of a kind -- I had to accept what food I was given for the camp and distribute it the best way I could. But then they suddenly began to send me trainloads of new prisoners from all over Germany. It was impossible to cope with them. I appealed for more staff, more food. I was told that this was impossible. I had to carry on with what I had.
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187