There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, since the mass killings took place in the camps further east. Nevertheless, current estimates put the number of deaths at Belsen at more than 50,000 Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). Among them was Czech painter and writer Josef Čapek (estimated to be in April 1945). He had coined the word robot, popularised by his brother Karel Čapek.
On November 9-10, 1938, the attacks on the Jews became violent. Hershel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish boy distraught at the deportation of his family, shot Ernst vom Rath, the third secretary in the German Embassy in Paris, who died on November 9. Nazi hooligans used this assassination as the pretext for instigating a night of destruction that is now known as Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass). They looted and destroyed Jewish homes and businesses and burned synagogues. Many Jews were beaten and killed; 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
From 1945 until 1950, when it was finally shut down, the British maintained Belsen as a camp for displaced European Jews. During this period it achieved new notoriety as a major European black market center. The "uncrowned king" of Belsen's 10,000 Jews was Yossl (Josef) Rosensaft, who amassed tremendous profits from the illegal trading. Rosensaft had been interned in various camps, including Auschwitz, before arriving in Belsen in early April 1945. /42
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
Being fully aware that Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, the SS invested its time in removing evidence of the crimes it committed in the concentration camps. They began destroying incriminating evidence in April 1945 and planned on murdering the prisoners using codenames "Wolke A-I" (Cloud A-1) and "Wolkenbrand" (Cloud fire). However, these plans were not carried out. In mid-April, plans to evacuate the camp started by sending prisoners toward Tyrol. On 26 April, over 10,000 prisoners were forced to leave the Dachau concentration camp on foot, in trains, or in trucks. The largest group of some 7,000 prisoners was driven southward on a foot-march lasting several days. More than 1,000 prisoners did not survive this march. The evacuation transports cost many thousands of prisoners their lives.
September 26, 1942 - SS begins cashing in possessions and valuables of Jews from Auschwitz and Majdanek. German banknotes are sent to the Reichs Bank. Foreign currency, gold, jewels and other valuables are sent to SS Headquarters of the Economic Administration. Watches, clocks and pens are distributed to troops at the front. Clothing is distributed to German families. By February 1943, over 800 boxcars of confiscated goods will have left Auschwitz.
Despite, wide reporting of Holocaust atrocities including gas chambers, many prominent analysts doubted the authenticity of these reports. Prominently, Roger Allen, a member of the British Foreign Office discounted intelligence reports on the use of gas chambers in Polish extermination camps because he could “never understand what the advantage of a gas chamber over a simple machine gun or over starving people would be.”
The liberated inmates had to be kept in the camp until the typhus epidemic could be brought under control. The Americans used DDT, a new insecticide not being used in Germany, to kill the lice in the camp. When the epidemic ended, the concentration camp was immediately turned into War Crimes Enclosure No. 1 for 30,000 Germans who had been arrested as war criminals and were awaiting trial by an American Military Tribunal. Most of them were released by 1948 for lack of evidence, although some were transferred to France for trial.
Among the key revelations in Crowe’s book: Oskar Schindler did not write out a list of people to save, he didn’t break down in tears because he thought he could have saved more people, and it is unlikely he experienced a defining moment, such as seeing a girl in a red coat, that led to his decision to save the lives of his Jewish workers. Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List, while important, impressive and admirable in many ways, took creative license on these and other issues.
Conditions in the camp were good by concentration camp standards, and most prisoners were not subjected to forced labor. However, beginning in the spring of 1944 the situation deteriorated rapidly. In March, Belsen was redesignated an Ehrholungslager [Recovery Camp], where prisoners of other camps too sick to work were brought, though none received medical treatment. As the German Army retreated in the face of the advancing Allies, the concentration camps were evacuated and their prisoners sent to Belsen. The facilites in the camp were unable to accommodate the sudden influx of thousands of prisoners and all basic services - food, water and sanitation - collapsed, leading to the outbreak of disease. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in March 1945, along with other prisoners in a typhus epidemic.
But if the 10,000 bodies found in the camp by the British liberators weren't victims of mass gassing, how did so many die in such a short time? It was easy for viewers of the British documentary film, made immediately after the liberation, to believe that the emaciated corpses were those of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death by the evil Nazis, especially because the film made no mention of epidemics in the overcrowded camp, or that the camp was right in the middle of a war zone and had even been hit in an Allied bombing attack.
When British tanks reached the camp Mr. Le Drieullenac was having his first meal for five days – grass. In the whole ten days there he had about one pint of soup in a mug which he took from a pile of effects of the dead. There was no water to wash the mug, but he did get one drink by climbing over the dead bodies in the washroom. The grass meal was got when the Germans on the last day moved him with some comrades to better quarters, this apparently being done to make a more favourable impression on the British troops. This motive was also, it would seem, behind the efforts which the Germans forced the prisoners to make to get rid of the bodies in the course of which Mr. Le Drieullenac said, the number of dead buried ran into five figures.
Smith was told by the former inmates of Dachau that "many ambitious projects were undertaken, such as the production of artificial pepper, the evaluation of seasoning mixtures, the extraction of Vitamin C from gladioli and other flowers, the potentiation of plant growth by hormone-enriched manure, and of most importance to Germany, the development of synthetic fertilizer. As a profitable sideline, garlic, malva, and other medicinal plants, and vegetable seeds, were cultivated by the prisoners and then sold; the profits went to the SS."
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, a famous scene depicts Oskar Schindler departing his factory at the end of the war and crying without consolation over his inability to save even more lives. (The scene was even parodied in an episode of Seinfeld.) “The idea that Oskar collapsed sobbing into Itzhak Stern’s arms and bemoaned his failure to save more Jews is preposterous,” writes Crowe. “Oskar was proud of all he had done to save Brunnlitz’s Jews and said so in his speech earlier that evening.”
A letter from Dr. Sigmund Rascher to Heinrich Himmler, the head of all the concentration camps, which makes a reference to a facility like the one at Hartheim which the Nazis were planning to build at Dachau, is the best proof that the fake shower room in Baracke X was actually a gas chamber. A copy of this letter was displayed in the gas chamber building in May 2001, but it was later moved to the Dachau Museum.
The gates of the camp had been locked again, and the liberators of the first hour, on their way again, were already far off, toward Munich, toward the south, pursuing their war. Guards had been placed on the other side of the barbed wire. No one was allowed out any more, Already, at the end of this first day, the Americans wondered what they would do with his rabble of lepers.
By May 19, 1945, all the former prisoners had been evacuated to the nearby Army barracks and on May 21, 1945, the last hut at the Bergen-Belsen camp was burned to the ground. The horror that was Bergen-Belsen had been completely wiped off the face of the earth. Today the former camp is a landscaped park with heather, which blooms in August, covering the mass graves. Most of the visitors to the Memorial Site are German students who come on tour buses.
The survivors at Bergen Belsen, living under improved conditions, began to establish educational institutions shortly after liberation. They set up an elementary school as early as July 1945. After three years the number of pupils in the elementary school had grown to 340. This number was impressive considering that most children did not survive the Holocaust. In December 1945 the survivors founded a high school, where studies were carried out with the help of soldiers from the Jewish Brigade. Over the course of time the number of pupils in the high school reached 200. The school also included a yeshiva (institute of higher Jewish learning). The DP camp also had kindergartens, an orphanage and ORT vocational training institutions.There was a lively theatrical life in Bergen Belsen. In addition, the main Jewish newspaper in British-occupied Germany, "Unzer Sztyme" ("Our Voice") was published there.
The Soviets found 7,600 inmates in Auschwitz. Some 60,000 prisoners were discovered at Bergen-Belsen by the British 11th Armoured Division; 13,000 corpses lay unburied, and another 10,000 people died from typhus or malnutrition over the following weeks. The BBC's war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby, described the scenes that greeted him and the British Army at Belsen, in a report so graphic the BBC declined to broadcast it for four days, and did so, on 19 April, only after Dimbleby had threatened to resign.
Responding to domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, the Évian Conference on resettlement, in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938. In his invitation to government leaders, Roosevelt specified that they would not have to change laws or spend government funds; only philanthropic funds would be used for resettlement. Britain was assured that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The result was that little was attempted and less accomplished.
But in the spring of 1945, photographs and eyewitness accounts from the liberation of camps like Bergen-Belsen afforded the disbelieving world outside of Europe its first glimpse into the abyss of Nazi depravity. All these years later, after countless reports, books, oral histories and documentary films have constructed a terrifyingly clear picture of the Third Reich's vast machinery of murder, it's difficult to grasp just how shocking these first revelations really were. The most horrific rumors about what was happening to the Jews and millions of other "undesirables—Catholics, pacifists, homosexuals, Slavs—in Nazi-occupied lands paled before the reality revealed by the liberation of the camps.
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag building, seat of the German parliament, burnt down. Communists were blamed for setting the fire and Hindenburg declared a state of emergency, passing the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended basic rights like trial by jury. The German Communist Party was suspended and over 4,000 members were detained without trial. The next month, Hitler’s cabinet passed the Enabling Act which allowed him to enact laws without the consent of the parliament for four years, effectively transforming the German government into a de facto Nazi dictatorship.
Transportation between camps was often carried out in freight cars with prisoners packed tightly. Long delays would take place; prisoners might be confined in the cars on sidings for days. In mid-1942 work camps began requiring newly arrived prisoners to be placed in quarantine for four weeks. Prisoners wore colored triangles on their uniforms, the color of the triangle denoting the reason for their incarceration. Red signified a political prisoner, Jehovah's Witnesses had purple triangles, "asocials" and criminals wore black and green. Badges were pink for gay men and yellow for Jews. Jews had a second yellow triangle worn with their original triangle, the two forming a six-pointed star. In Auschwitz, prisoners were tattooed with an identification number on arrival.
According to Marcus J. Smith, a US military doctor who was assigned to Dachau after it was liberated, there was an "experimental farm, the Plantage" just outside the concentration camp. Smith wrote in his book "The Harrowing of Hell" that "When the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) inspected, he seemed particularly interested in the Plantage, discoursing enthusiastically on the medicinal value of herbs."
Oskar Schindler is a vainglorious and greedy German businessman who becomes an unlikely humanitarian amid the barbaric German Nazi reign when he feels compelled to turn his factory into a refuge for Jews. Based on the true story of Oskar Schindler who managed to save about 1100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz concentration camp, it is a testament to the good in all of us. Written by Harald Mayr
Mr. Le Drieullenac said that as he helped to drag the bodies he noticed many had wounds at the top of the thigh. “First I thought they were gunshot wounds,” he told. the court to-day. “Then I saw that they could not be and a friend told me that men were cutting bits out of the bodies to eat them. When I went into the but to another body I saw a man take a knife and, looking to see if he was unobserved, cut a piece of flesh from the body and put it in his mouth. You can imagine the condition to which the men had been reduced to run the risk of eating flesh taken from a body turned black.”
The industrialization and scale of the murder was unprecedented. Killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of occupied Europe—more than 20 occupied countries. Close to three million Jews in occupied Poland and between 700,000 and 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union were killed. Hundreds of thousands more died in the rest of Europe. Victims were transported in sealed freight trains from all over Europe to extermination camps equipped with gas chambers. The stationary facilities grew out of Nazi experiments with poison gas during the Aktion T4 mass murder ("euthanasia") programme against the disabled and mentally ill, which began in 1939. The Germans set up six extermination camps in Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau (established October 1941); Majdanek (October 1941); Chełmno (December 1941); and the three Operation Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, in 1942. A seventh death camp, Maly Trostenets, was established near Minsk in Belarus, then part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Discussions at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 made it clear that the German "final solution of the Jewish question" was intended eventually to include Britain and all the neutral states in Europe, including Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.
One of the alleged survivors of Dachau is Martin Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew born in 1911, who settled in the town of Dachau after the war and married a German woman. He lives in a very nice house in the heart of Old Town Dachau, and up until May 2003 he would come to the Memorial Site every day to talk with the tourists. As many American tourists learned, he expected a donation and would get angry if he was handed less than $20. Although Martin told the tourists that he was a prisoner at Dachau for 3 years before the camp was liberated, the staff at the Museum claims that there is no record of him being incarcerated there.
Schloss, a business man from Nuremberg, was killed in less than three days by blows on the testicles. The torturing was supervised by Commander Erpsmüller. The Jews were forced to scrub especially befouled toilets with their bare hands. A lawyer, Rosenfelder, was made to dab his face with the excrement. Two other prisoners were forced to clean some barbed-wire entanglements placed in the bed of a brook. They were forced to work without shoes or gloves, so that both came back to camp benumbed with cold and with their hands and feet severely lacerated.
Marc Coyle (?) reached the camp two days before I did and was a guard so as soon as I got there I looked him up and he took me to the crematory. Dead SS troops were scattered around the grounds, but when we reached the furnace house we came upon a huge stack of corpses piled up like kindling, all nude so that their clothes wouldn't be wasted by the burning. There were furnaces for burning six bodies at once and on each side of them was a room twenty feet square crammed to the ceiling with more bodies - one big stinking rotten mess. Their faces purple, their eyes popping, and with a ludicrous (?) grin on each one. They were nothing but bones & skin. Coyle had assisted at ten autopsies the day before (wearing a gas mask) on ten bodies selected at random. Eight of them had advanced T.B., all had Typhus and extreme malnutrition symptoms. There were both women and children in the stack in addition to the men.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding.
For the last four days there has been no delivery [of food] from Hannover owing to interrupted communications, and I shall be compelled, if this state of affairs prevails till the end of the week, to fetch bread also by means of truck from Hannover. The trucks allotted to the local unit are in no way adequate for this work, and I am compelled to ask for at least three to four trucks and five to six trailers. When I once have here a means of towing then I can send out the trailers into the surrounding area ... The supply question must, without fail, be cleared up in the next few days. I ask you, Gruppenführer, for an allocation of transport ...
There were massive efforts to help the survivors with food and medical treatment, led by Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of 2nd Army, and James Johnston, the Senior Medical Officer. Despite their efforts, about another 9,000 died in April, and by the end of June 1945 another 4,000 had died. (After liberation 13,994 people died.):305