After the German surrender on May 7, 1945, the American Army took over the barracks of the SS garrison and set up a command post called Eastman which they occupied until 1973. On the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, all available American soldiers were brought to Dachau so that they could be eye-witnesses to the existence of the homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.
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.
Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
The camp was divided into two sections: the camp area and the crematorium. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. The camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire gate, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers.
On April 15, 1945, the British army liberated Belsen. However, it was unable to rescue the inmates. On that liberation day the British found 10,000 unburied corpses and 40,000 sick and dying prisoners. Among the 40,000 living inmates, 28,000 died after the liberation. The inmates were abandoned in Bergen-Belsen by the Germans, left behind for death to come.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
A hedonist and gambler by nature, Schindler soon adopted a profligate lifestyle, carousing into the small hours of the night, hobnobbing with high ranking SS-officers, and philandering with beautiful Polish women. Schindler seemed to be no different from other Germans who had come to Poland as part of the occupation administration and their associates. The only thing that set him apart from other war-profiteers, was his humane treatment of his workers, especially the Jews.
Dachau prisoners were used as forced laborers. At first, they were employed in the operation of the camp, in various construction projects, and in small handicraft industries established in the camp. Prisoners built roads, worked in gravel pits, and drained marshes. During the war, forced labor utilizing concentration camp prisoners became increasingly important to German armaments production.
Some ghettos were initially open, which meant that Jews could leave the area during the daytime but had to be back by a curfew. Later, all ghettos became closed, meaning that Jews were not allowed to leave under any circumstances. Major ghettos were located in the cities of Polish cities of Bialystok, Lodz, and Warsaw. Other ghettos were found in present-day Minsk, Belarus; Riga, Latvia; and Vilna, Lithuania. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw. At its peak in March 1941, some 445,000 were crammed into an area just 1.3 square miles in size.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.