The camp of Bergen-Belsen, located near the towns of Bergen and Belsen in Saxony, northern Germany, got its start in 1940 as a P.O.W. camp for French and Belgian prisoners. In 1941, the camp was renamed Stalag 311 and housed some 20,000 Russian prisoners. Conditions were terrible, resulting by 1942 in the deaths of 16,000 to 18,000 prisoners from disease, starvation and exposure.
The evacuation of prisoners from the sub-camps to the main Dachau camp had begun in March 1945, in preparation for surrendering the prisoners to the Allies. The evacuated prisoners had to walk for several days to the main camp because Allied bombs were destroying the railroad tracks as fast as the Germans could repair them. The few trains that did bring prisoners to Dachau, including a train load of women and children, were bombed or strafed by American planes, killing many of the prisoners.
Demographic statistics vary but they are in the same general range. History will likely never know how many people were interned or died there, due to periods of disruption. One source gives a general estimate of over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries for the Third Reich's years, of whom two-thirds were political prisoners, including many Catholic priests, and nearly one-third were Jews. 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide. In late 1944, a typhus epidemic occurred in the camp caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding, which caused more than 15,000 deaths. It was followed by an evacuation, in which large numbers of the prisoners died. Toward the end of the war, death marches to and from the camp caused the deaths of numerous unrecorded prisoners. After liberation, prisoners weakened beyond recovery by the starvation conditions continued to die. Two thousand cases of "the dread black typhus" had already been identified by 3 May, and the U.S. Seventh Army was "working day and night to alleviate the appalling conditions at the camp". Prisoners with typhus, a louse-borne disease with an incubation period from 12 to 18 days, were treated by the 116th Evacuation Hospital, while the 127th would be the general hospital for the other illnesses. There were 227 documented deaths among the 2,252 patients cared for by the 127th.
The camp was originally designed for holding German and Austrian political prisoners and Jews, but in 1935 it began to be used also for ordinary criminals. Inside the camp there was a sharp division between the two groups of prisoners; those who were there for political reasons and therefore wore a red tag, and the criminals, who wore a green tag. The political prisoners who were there because they disagreed with Nazi Party policies, or with Hitler, naturally did not consider themselves criminals. Dachau was used as the chief camp for Christian (mainly Catholic) clergy who were imprisoned for not conforming with the Nazi Party line.
Before and after the March 1933 Reichstag elections, the Nazis intensified their campaign of violence against opponents. They set up concentration camps for extrajudicial imprisonment. One of the first, at Dachau, opened on 9 March 1933. Initially the camp contained mostly Communists and Social Democrats. Other early prisons were consolidated by mid-1934 into purpose-built camps outside the cities, run exclusively by the SS. The initial purpose of the camps was to serve as a deterrent by terrorizing Germans who did not conform.
With the financial backing of several Jewish investors, including one of the owners, Abraham Bankier, Schindler signed an informal lease agreement on the factory on 13 November 1939 and formalised the arrangement on 15 January 1940.[b] He renamed it Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (German Enamelware Factory) or DEF, and it soon became known by the nickname "Emalia". He initially acquired a staff of seven Jewish workers (including Abraham Bankier, who helped him manage the company) and 250 non-Jewish Poles. At its peak in 1944, the business employed around 1,750 workers, a thousand of whom were Jews. Schindler also helped run Schlomo Wiener Ltd, a wholesale outfit that sold his enamelware, and was leaseholder of Prokosziner Glashütte, a glass factory.
The Sturmabteilung (S.A., Storm Troopers), a grassroots organization, helped Hitler undermine the German democracy. The Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, Secret State Police), a force recruited from professional police officers, was given complete freedom to arrest anyone after February 28. The Schutzstaffel (SS, Protection Squad) served as Hitler’s personal bodyguard and eventually controlled the concentration camps and the Gestapo. The Sicherheitsdienst des ReichsführersSS (S.D., Security Service of the SS) functioned as the Nazis' intelligence service, uncovering enemies and keeping them under surveillance.
On April 28, 1945, the day before the liberation of the camp, Dachau citizens joined with escaped prisoners from the camp in an uprising led by Georg Scherer, a former prisoner who had been released, but was still working in a factory at the Dachau complex. Their attempt to take control of the town of Dachau failed; 3 of the prisoners and 4 of the locals were killed in a battle that took place in front of the Dachau town hall. Georg Scherer survived and later became the mayor of Dachau.
Soon after his marriage, Schindler quit working for his father and took a series of jobs, including a position at Moravian Electrotechnic and the management of a driving school. After an 18-month stint in the Czech army, where he rose to the rank of Lance-Corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army, Schindler returned to Moravian Electrotechnic, which went bankrupt shortly afterwards. His father's farm machinery business closed around the same time, leaving Schindler unemployed for a year. He took a job with Jarslav Simek Bank of Prague in 1931, where he worked until 1938.
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, "[a]ll the serious research" confirms that between five and six million Jews died. Early postwar calculations were 4.2 to 4.5 million from Gerald Reitlinger; 5.1 million from Raul Hilberg; and 5.95 million from Jacob Lestschinsky. In 1986 Lucy S. Dawidowicz used the pre-war census figures to estimate 5.934 million. Yehuda Bauer and Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) estimated 5.59–5.86 million. A 1996 study led by Wolfgang Benz suggested 5.29 to 6.2 million, based on comparing pre- and post-war census records and surviving German documentation on deportations and killings. Martin Gilbert arrived at a minimum of 5.75 million. The figures include over one million children.
"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."
Of a total of 2,720 clergy recorded as imprisoned at Dachau, the overwhelming majority, some 2,579 (or 94.88%) were Catholic. Among the other denominations, there were 109 Protestants, 22 Greek Orthodox, 8 Old Catholics and Mariavites and 2 Muslims. In his Dachau: The Official History 1933–1945, Paul Berben noted that R. Schnabel's 1966 investigation, Die Frommen in der Hölle ("The Pious Ones in Hell") found an alternative total of 2,771 and included the fate all the clergy listed, with 692 noted as deceased and 336 sent out on "invalid trainloads" and therefore presumed dead.:276–277 Over 400 German priests were sent to Dachau. Total numbers incarcerated are nonetheless difficult to assert, for some clergy were not recognised as such by the camp authorities, and some—particularly Poles—did not wish to be identified as such, fearing they would be mistreated.:157
During the last months before the liberation, the prisoners at Dachau had to live under extremely inhuman conditions, which even they would not have been able to imagine. The gigantic transports continually arriving from other Nazi camps evacuated in the face of the advancing Allied forces, brought human beings who were, for the most part, reduced to skeletons and exhausted to the point of death.
From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally ill. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
Established in March 1933, Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp.12 The camp originally housed political prisoners and those opposed to the Nazi regime. Individuals and groups who were considered inferior to Germans, such as Jehovah Witnesses, Gypsies and homosexuals were sent to Dachau. The first Jews imprisoned at Dachau were sent there because they were considered enemies of the Reich.13 Over time, more Jews were sent to Dachau than any other group.
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.
The prisoners are kept occupied at hard labor, building roads and laying out drilling and shooting grounds. Some of the prisoners were harnessed for weeks to a heavy roller which they had to tow nine hours a day without a rest period. Others were compelled to stand the whole day in cold water excavating quagmire to lay the foundation for a swimming pool for the guards. The work was continually speeded up by lashing and kicking the prisoners, and many times men collapsed and had to be carried back to the camp for a short rest.
The Jews killed represented around one third of the world population of Jews, and about two-thirds of European Jewry, based on an estimate of 9.7 million Jews in Europe at the start of the war. Much of the uncertainty stems from the lack of a reliable figure for the number of Jews in Europe in 1939, numerous border changes that make avoiding double-counting of victims difficult, lack of accurate records from the perpetrators, and uncertainty about whether deaths occurring months after liberation, but caused by the persecution, should be counted.
From the evidence it became clear how this was done. After a sleepless night – for sleep in the huts was impossible – the men were driven to a hut where the dead were collected. They were instructed by what the witness called the “language of blows, which was universal.” Their duty was to take strips of blankets, tie them to a corpse, and, four men to a corpse, drag it across the main road of the camp along dusty paths to the burial pit. In the midst of this work, which lasted three days without sleep, food, or water till the British arrived, one Hungarian guard at the exit from the hut containing the bodies began shooting all prisoners if they did not come out dragging a body at the double. During the last three days the Hungarian guards were almost continuously shooting at prisoners, sometimes single shots, sometimes fusillades.
The Nazis also used Dachau prisoners as subjects in brutal medical experiments. For example, inmates were obligated to be guinea pigs in a series of tests to determine the feasibility of reviving individuals immersed in freezing water. For hours at a time, prisoners were forcibly submerged in tanks filled with ice water. Some prisoners died during the process.
In France Jews under Fascist Italian occupation in the southeast fared better than the Jews of Vichy France, where collaborationist French authorities and police provided essential support to the understaffed German forces. The Jews in those parts of France under direct German occupation fared the worst. Although allied with Germany, the Italians did not participate in the Holocaust until Germany occupied northern Italy after the overthrow of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1943.
Joseph Goebbels made a speech at the beer hall in which he said that he would not be surprised if the German people were so outraged by the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan that they would take the law into their own lands and attack Jewish businesses and Synagogues. Goebbels is generally credited with being the instigator of the pogrom. (Pogrom is a Polish word which means an event in which ordinary citizens use violence to drive the Jews out.)
Typhus, transmitted by body lice, which had been prevalent in the ghettos and death camps in occupied Poland throughout the war, now spread to the concentration camps in Germany. After January 1945, conditions in all of Germany and Austria, including the concentration camps, became intolerable due to the chaos caused by the intensive Allied bombing of civilian areas in all the major cities.
The British forced the former SS camp personnel to help bury the thousands of dead bodies in mass graves. Some civil servants from Celle and Landkreis Celle were brought to Belsen and confronted with the crimes committed on their doorstep.:262 Military photographers and cameramen of No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit documented the conditions in the camp and the measures of the British Army to ameliorate them. Many of the pictures they took and the films they made from April 15 to June 9, 1945 were published or shown abroad. Today, the originals are in the Imperial War Museum. These documents had a lasting impact on the international perception and memory of Nazi concentration camps to this day.:243 According to Habbo Knoch, head of the institution that runs the memorial today: "Bergen-Belsen [...] became a synonym world-wide for German crimes committed during the time of Nazi rule.":9