Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
The Dachau concentration camp opened on March 22, 1933. It was the first SS-run camp for "political prisoners" under Hitler's regime and became a model for the many SS prison camps that followed. Located in southern Germany, Dachau remained open until 1945 when it was liberated by U.S. troops. Approximately 200,000 people were detained during these years and an estimated 41,500 died.
Before reaching the concentration camp, the 45th Thunderbird Division had discovered an abandoned train, with no engine, on a branch railroad line which at that time ran from the Dachau station along Freisinger Street in the direction of the camp. Inside the 39 train cars were the corpses of prisoners who had been evacuated from Buchenwald on April 7, 1945 and, because of heavy bombing and strafing by Allied planes in the last days of the war, had not reached Dachau until three weeks later, two days before the American soldiers arrived.
When the war was over, a penniless Schindler moved to West Germany where he received financial assistance from Jewish relief organizations. However, he soon felt unsafe there after receiving threats from former Nazi officers. He tried to move to the United States, but because he had been part of the Nazi Party, he was denied entry. After obtaining partial reimbursement for his expenses he incurred during the war, Schindler was able to emigrate to Buenos Aires, Argentina, taking his wife, mistress and a dozen of his Jewish workers (aka "Schindler Jews"). There, he set up a new life, where he took up farming for a time.
All of the Dachau proceedings were conducted by US Army Military Tribunals in which the accused were presumed to be guilty; most of the interrogators, prosecutors and judges were Jews, many of whom were foreign-born American citizens. After the Jewish interrogators in the Malmédy trial were accused of torturing the Waffen-SS soldiers into confessing, a Congressional investigation was conducted, and by December 1957, all of the convicted men in this case had been released.
To the Nazi regime, there would have been no doubt that a war against Bolshevism was implicitly a war against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. A division of Hitler’s SS known as the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind the German army and acted as death squads, exterminating civilian populations in the most efficient way possible. During the early part of Operation Barbarossa these were frequently people who had fled the Nazi’s earlier invasion of Poland.
Methods of mass murder evolved at local levels as well as being decreed from Nazi high command. Killing squads rounded up and shot entire Jewish communities. Over two days in Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot. The murder of Jews rapidly escalated, in part because local Nazi leaders didn’t have enough room to place them in the ghettos. By the end of the year, plans to implement the systematic slaughter of Jews by using gas in mobile trucks and gas chambers were well underway.
The death marches served a dual purpose for the Nazis. On one hand, the Nazis intended for large numbers of Jewish prisoners to die on death marches. Indeed, about 250,000 prisoners, many of whom were Jews, died on death marches. On the other hand, the death marches were also an attempt to move concentration camp prisoners into Germany's borders, so that the Nazis could continue to exploit them for slave labor. Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany, such as Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Mauthausen.
The first Jewish prisoners came as known political opponents of the Nazis. At Dachau, as elsewhere, they received even worse treatment than the other prisoners. Gradually, more and more groups were arrested and brought to Dachau, Jehovah’s Witness, Gypsies, who like the Jews were classified as racially inferior, Clergymen who resisted the Nazi coercion of the churches and Homosexuals and many others who had been denounced for making critical remarks against the Nazi regime.
As the first American officer, a major, descended from his tank, "the young Teutonic lieutenant, Heinrich Skodzensky," emerged from the guard post and came to attention before the American officer. The German is blond, handsome, perfumed, his boots glistening, his uniform well-tailored. He reports as if he were on the military parade grounds near Unter den Linden during an exercise, then very properly raising his arm he salutes with a very respectful "Heil Hitler!" and clicks his heels. "I hereby turn over to you the concentration camp of Dachau, 30,000 residents, 2,340 sick, 27,000 on the outside, 560 garrison troops."
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.
The never-ending rumors surrounding these early concentration camps instilled a nagging sense of fear among all Germans that helped to extinguish all potential opposition and criticism of Hitler's regime. However, the greatest challenge to Hitler would not come from his political opponents but from within his own ranks. By early 1934, a storm trooper rebellion was brewing that threatened to ruin everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
In fall 1941, the Nazis began transporting Jews out of the ghetto. Most of them were sent to the Bełżec extermination camp and killed. On 13 March 1943, the ghetto was liquidated and those still fit for work were sent to the new concentration camp at Płaszów. Several thousand not deemed fit for work were sent to extermination camps and killed. Hundreds more were killed on the streets by the Nazis as they cleared out the ghetto. Schindler, aware of the plans because of his Wehrmacht contacts, had his workers stay at the factory overnight to prevent them coming to harm. Schindler witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto and was appalled. From that point forward, says Schindlerjude Sol Urbach, Schindler "changed his mind about the Nazis. He decided to get out and to save as many Jews as he could."
Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
Georg Elser, who was imprisoned at Dachau as a suspect in the attempted assassination of Hitler on November 8, 1939, was allegedly shot around the time that an Allied bomb hit the camp on April 9, 1945 and his death was blamed on the bombing. General Charles Delestraint, a Dachau prisoner who had been the leader of the French Secret Army in the Resistance, was allegedly executed at Dachau on April 19, 1945, although no execution order from Berlin was ever found. Four female British SOE agents were also allegedly executed Dachau, although the execution order was never found.
50,000 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen. 60,000 prisoners were liberated by the Allies in April, 1945. The Bergen-Belsen staff, largely intact at the time of liberation, were tried in 1945 by a British military tribunal in Luneburg, Germany. Among those tried were the camp Kommandant, Josef Kramer, and a 22-year old female S.S. guard, Irma Grese, who was accused by camp inmates of shooting prisoners and beating them with a homemade whip. Forty-five staff were tried; fourteen were acquitted.
State of Health. The incidence of disease is very high here in proportion to the number of detainees. When you interviewed me on Dec. 1, 1944, at Oranienburg, you told me that Bergen-Belsen was to serve as a sick camp for all concentration camps in north Germany. The number of sick has greatly increased, particularly on account of the transports of detainees that have arrived from the East in recent times -- these transports have sometimes spent eight or fourteen days in open trucks ...
Another scene in the movie that Crowe believes never happened is the depiction of Oskar Schindler on horseback watching from a hill in 1943 as a young Jewish girl in a red coat seeks a hiding place during the ruthless closing of the Krakow ghetto. Crowe writes that Spielberg included the scene to show an epiphany, a moment that motivated Schindler into action. But it is unlikely during the middle of such a major action Oskar Schindler and his girlfriend would be taking a pleasure ride on horseback. “There is nothing to indicate that Oskar and his mistress were ever on Lasota Hill on March 13th and 14th. He was well aware of the coming Aktion and was more concerned about the fate of his Jewish workers,” notes Crowe.
British troops guard Alex Pickowski, Camp Commandant of Dechau concentration camp © The discovery of Belsen brought home the shocking truth about Nazi atrocities, but the facts had been known for some time. As early as the summer of 1941, British signals intelligence had intercepted and decoded radio messages from German police units co-operating with the Einsatzgruppen, and details of the killings of Jews were included in the monthly summaries that were sent to Churchill. Churchill responded with a speech on August 24 1941 in which he called the massacres 'a crime without a name' but erroneously identified the victims as 'Russian patriots defending their native soil'. Otherwise, these facts were not made public.
While there will always be those who question the motives of others, those who have examined Schindler’s efforts find him heroic. “The defining measure of Schindler’s commitment to doing everything possible to save his Jewish workers came in the fall of 1944, when Oskar chose to risk everything to move his armaments factory to Brunnlitz,” writes David Crowe, citing Dr. Moshe Bejski, who was saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. “Oskar could easily have closed his Krakow operations and retreated westward with the profits he had already made. Instead, he chose to risk his life and his money to save as many Jews as he could.”
At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease. During the summer of 1944, even as the events of D-Day (June 6, 1944) and a Soviet offensive the same month spelled the beginning of the end for Germany in the war, a large proportion of Hungary’s Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz, and as many as 12,000 Jews were killed every day.
Solidarity among the prisoners is strong. Although at every cross-examination the prisoners are tortured, the Nazis never succeeded in obtaining any traitorous information. Despite the fact that several attempts were made by the Commander to stir up hatred between the Christian prisoners and the Jewish minority, and although the Commander promised that any prisoner who harmed a Jew would be released, the Jews receive every encouragement, kindness and consideration from other prisoners.
Initially lacking sufficient manpower, the British allowed the Hungarians to remain in charge and only commandant Kramer was arrested. Subsequently, SS and Hungarian guards shot and killed some of the starving prisoners who were trying to get their hands on food supplies from the store houses. The British started to provide emergency medical care, clothing and food. Immediately following the liberation, revenge killings took place in the satellite camp the SS had created in the area of the army barracks that later became Hohne-Camp. Around 15,000 prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora had been relocated there in early April. These prisoners were in much better physical condition than most of the others. Some of these men turned on those who had been their overseers at Mittelbau. About 170 of these "Kapos" were killed on April 15, 1945.:62 On April 20, four German fighter planes attacked the camp, damaging the water supply and killing three British medical orderlies.:261