While the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies, only the Jews were marked for systematic and total annihilation. Jews were singled out for "Special Treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), which meant that Jewish men, women and children were to be methodically killed with poisonous gas. In the exacting records kept at the Auschwitz death camp, the cause of death of Jews who had been gassed was indicated by "SB," the first letters of the two words that form the German term for "Special Treatment."
These evacuations were regarded as provisional or "temporary solutions" ("Ausweichmöglichkeiten").[p] The final solution would encompass the 11 million Jews living not only in territories controlled by Germany, but elsewhere in Europe and adjacent territories, such as Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, and Hungary, "dependent on military developments". There was little doubt what the final solution was, writes Peter Longerich: "the Jews were to be annihilated by a combination of forced labour and mass murder".
The impact of the Holocaust varied from region to region and from year to year in the 21 countries that were directly affected. Nowhere was the Holocaust more intense and sudden than in Hungary. What took place over several years in Germany occurred over 16 weeks in Hungary. Entering the war as a German ally, Hungary had persecuted its Jews but not permitted the deportation of Hungarian citizens. In 1941 foreign Jewish refugees were deported from Hungary and were shot by Germans in Kam’yanets-Podilskyy, Ukraine. After Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, the situation changed dramatically. By mid-April the Nazis had confined Jews to ghettos. On May 15, deportations began, and over the next 55 days the Nazis deported more than 437,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz on 147 trains.
Ghastly images recorded by Allied photographers at Belsen in mid-April 1945 and widely reproduced ever since have greatly contributed to the camp's reputation as a notorious extermination center. In fact, the dead of Bergen-Belsen were, above all, unfortunate victims of war and its turmoil, not deliberate policy. It can even be argued that they were as much victims of Allied as of German measures.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, it gained control of about 2 million Jews in the occupied territory. The rest of Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union, which had control of the rest of Poland's pre-war population of 3.3–3.5 million Jews. German plans for Poland included expelling gentile Poles from large areas, confining Jews, and settling Germans on the emptied lands. The Germans initiated a policy of sending Jews from all territories they had recently annexed (Austria, Czechoslovakia, and western Poland) to the central section of Poland, which they called the General Government. There, the Jews were concentrated in ghettos in major cities, chosen for their railway lines to facilitate later deportation. Food supplies were restricted, public hygiene was difficult, and the inhabitants were often subjected to forced labor. In the work camps and ghettos, at least half a million Jews died of starvation, disease, and poor living conditions. Jeremy Black writes that the ghettos were not intended, in 1939, as a step towards the extermination of the Jews. Instead, they were viewed as part of a policy of creating a territorial reservation to contain them.[l]
"During the Holocaust, Germans extinguished the lives of six million Jews and, had Germany not been defeated, would have annihilated millions more. The Holocaust was also the defining feature of German politics and political culture during the Nazi period, the most shocking event of the twentieth century, and the most difficult to understand in all of German history. The Germans' persecution of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust is thus the central feature of Germany during the Nazi period. It is so not because we are retrospectively shocked by the most shocking event of the century, but because of what it meant to Germans at the time and why so many of them contributed to it." Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust
On May 5, 1945, Dutch resistance fighter Pim Boellaard was interviewed about his ordeal during his three years of captivity. As a resistance fighter, who continued to fight after the surrender of the Netherlands, he did not have the same protection as a POW under the Geneva Convention of 1929. He was one of 60 Dutch Nacht und Nebel prisoners who were transferred from the Natzweiler camp to Dachau in September 1944. Click here to see the video of his interview. Boellaard was a member of the International Committee of Dachau, representing approximately 500 Dutch prisoners at Dachau.
That June, Theodor Eicke (1892-1943) replaced Wäckerle as Dachau commandant. Eicke immediately released a set of regulations for the camp’s daily operation. Prisoners deemed guilty of rule breaking were to be brutally beaten. Those who plotted to escape or espoused political views were to be executed on the spot. Prisoners would not be allowed to defend themselves or protest this treatment. Eicke’s regulations served as a blueprint for the operation of all concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
In the main camp too, conditions at the end of the war were horrendous. Dachau was unbearably overcrowded as a result of the influx of prisoners evacuated from the camps that were being closed ahead of the Allied advance. Thousands of prisoners fell victim to a typhus epidemic. On the 29th of April 1945, 30 000 thousand prisoners at the camp were liberated by US army units without any fighting.
Schindler’s story remained largely the province of Holocaust scholars until the publication in 1982 of Schindler’s Ark, a Booker Prize-winning novelization by Thomas Keneally. The novel, which became a canonical text of Holocaust literature, was later used as the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993), which starred Liam Neeson as Schindler and Ralph Fiennes as Göth.
In January 1945 a trainload of 250 Jews who had been rejected as workers at a mine in Goleschau in Poland arrived at Brünnlitz. The boxcars were frozen shut when they arrived, and Emilie Schindler waited while an engineer from the factory opened the cars using a soldering iron. Twelve people were dead in the cars, and the remainder were too ill and feeble to work. Emilie took the survivors into the factory and cared for them in a makeshift hospital until the end of the war. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the slaughter of his workers as the Red Army approached. On 7 May 1945 he and his workers gathered on the factory floor to listen to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announce over the radio that Germany had surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
New arrivals at Dachau were never told how long they would be imprisoned, a factor that weakened their morale and left them more vulnerable to the remolding that would follow. Often, their journey to Dachau marked the first time they had ever been arrested or involved with police. Many had been sent there by the Gestapo upon vague accusations or denunciations by persons who simply disliked them or who wanted to settle an old score. Some were even arrested on suspicion they might commit a crime in the future.
One of the witnesses to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British soldiers on April 15, 1945 was Iolo Lewis, a 20-year-old soldier from Wales. He recalled that, as he arrived at Belsen, Commandant Kramer and his assistant, Irma Grese, were standing at the gates to greet them. Most of the SS men, who were the guards in the camp, had escaped before the British arrived. Commandant Josef Kramer and 80 of the SS men and women had volunteered to remain in the camp to carry out their duties. He said that he counted 13,000 unburied corpses at the time of the liberation, and that the haunting memory never left him, particularly the pearly colour of the piled-up bodies, small, like the bodies of children.
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
Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
By October 1944, there was a shortage of coal in all of Germany and the dead could no longer be cremated. A new cemetery was opened on a hill north of the camp, called Leitenberg, where the last Dachau victims were buried in unmarked mass graves. Ashes of earlier unknown victims are buried in the area north of the new crematorium. Markers were placed on the sites of the mass graves of ashes between 1950 and 1964.
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.