Man blinded by continuous beatings © The ideas and emotions that lay behind the Holocaust were not new, nor were they uniquely German. The Nazis were the heirs of a centuries-old tradition of Jew-hatred, rooted in religious rivalry and found in all European countries. When the Nazis came to carry out their genocidal programme, they found collaborators in all the countries they dominated, including governments that enjoyed considerable public support. Most people drew the line at mass murder, but relatively few could be found to oppose it actively or to extend help to the Jews.
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."
December 11, 1941 - Hitler declares war on the United States. President Roosevelt then asks Congress for a declaration of war on Germany saying, "Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty and civilization." The U.S.A. then enters the war in Europe and will concentrate nearly 90 percent of its military resources to defeat Hitler.
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.
The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
As we approached the cells of the SS guards, the [British] sergeant's language become ferocious. "We had had an interrogation this morning," the captain said. 'I'm afraid they are not a pretty sight.' ... The sergeant unbolted the first door and ... strode into the cell, jabbing a metal spike in front of him. "Get up," he shouted. "Get up. Get up, you dirty bastards." There were half a dozen men lying or half lying on the floor. One or two were able to pull themselves erect at once. The man nearest me, his shirt and face spattered with blood, made two attempts before he got on to his knees and then gradually on to his feet. He stood with his arms stretched out in front of him, trembling violently.
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.
Mike Lewis, a Jewish soldier in the British Army, filmed the bulldozers, driven by British soldiers, as they shoved the emaciated bodies towards the mass graves. This documentary film is still shown today at the Memorial Site. In the film, Mike Lewis said that he took a turn driving the bulldozer himself, while another soldier held the camera. The SS men and women were forced, at gunpoint, to carry the bodies with their bare hands to the mass graves.
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.
The Polish government-in-exile in London learned about the extermination camps from the Polish leadership in Warsaw, who from 1940 "received a continual flow of information about Auschwitz", according to historian Michael Fleming. This was in large measure thanks to Captain Witold Pilecki of the Polish Home Army, who allowed himself to be arrested in Warsaw and spent 945 days in Auschwitz from September 1940 until April 1943, organizing the resistance movement inside the camp.
Most of the prisoners in the sub-camps of Dachau were Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had been brought on trains to Germany in January 1945 after a 50-kilometer death march out of the camp. By the time that the survivors staggered into the Dachau main camp in the last weeks of April, they were emaciated, sick and exhausted. Other Jews at Dachau in 1945 had been brought from the three Lithuanian ghettos in the Summer of 1944 to work in the Dachau sub-camps. The American liberators got most of their information about the Dachau camp from these Jews who had only recently arrived and were eager to tell their stories about abuse at the hands of the Nazis.
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
Over the 12 years of use as a concentration camp, the Dachau administration recorded the intake of 206,206 prisoners and deaths of 31,951. Crematoria were constructed to dispose of the deceased. Visitors may now walk through the buildings and view the ovens used to cremate bodies, which hid the evidence of many deaths. It is claimed that in 1942, more than 3,166 prisoners in weakened condition were transported to Hartheim Castle near Linz, and were executed by poison gas because they were deemed unfit.:137
After the liberation of Dachau, the commanding officer of the Rainbow division, Major General Harry J. Collins, made sure that the Jewish survivors were taken care of properly. Some of the Jewish survivors were given private housing in homes in the town of Dachau after their owners had been evicted. In some cases, the home owners were allowed to live in the attic of their homes, but they were forbidden to remove any of the linens, china or silverware, which had to be left for the use of the new occupants. A few of the Jewish survivors settled in Dachau permanently after the war.
In the fall of that year the Płaszów work camp opened nearby, and by February 1943 it was under the command of the notoriously sadistic SS officer Amon Göth, who would be executed after the war. Capitalizing on the officer’s appetite for drink and other luxury items available mainly on the black market, Schindler cultivated his friendship by ensuring a constant stream of them to the villa from which he oversaw the camp. Schindler thus managed to prevail upon Göth to create a separate camp for his Jewish workers, where they were free of the abuses suffered at Płaszów. Though Schindler’s motivations prior to this point are unclear, many scholars interpret his efforts to extricate his workers from Płaszów as indication that his concern for them was not purely financial.
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.
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."
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.
My late father was one of those who helped liberate the camp. He said the stench of the place went out 10 miles and was utterly revolting. Now you asked if there was a gas Chamber. There was a gas chamber on the site. It was underground with a ramp leading down to it from a wooden building above. Because the number of bodies was so great, the colonel made the snap decision to bulldoze the Gas chamber complex and use it as a huge grave pit. My Dad supervised the bulldozers that ripped off the roof and engineers blew up the interior walls. The place then became a grave pit for thousands of corpses. I believe there is a photographic record.
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.
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.
Keneally’s novel is not the same as most novels. First it is a novel that deals with historical events. This is not too uncommon, though it is less common than non-historical fiction. What makes Schindler’s List special is its absolute accuracy. Keneally studiously sifted through all of the documents regarding Oskar Schindler and those he rescued, as well as interviewed many of those he rescued. The result is a nuanced portrait of Schindler that is imminently readable for any audience. His skill as a novelist allows Keneally to portray the horror of Goeth’s road paved with Jewish gravestones in a way that a strict historian could not. Where Keneally
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.
On 1 August 1940, Governor-General Hans Frank issued a decree requiring all Kraków Jews to leave the city within two weeks. Only those who had jobs directly related to the German war effort would be allowed to stay. Of the 60,000 to 80,000 Jews then living in the city, only 15,000 remained by March 1941. These Jews were then forced to leave their traditional neighbourhood of Kazimierz and relocate to the walled Kraków Ghetto, established in the industrial Podgórze district. Schindler's workers travelled on foot to and from the ghetto each day to their jobs at the factory. Enlargements to the facility in the four years Schindler was in charge included the addition of an outpatient clinic, co-op, kitchen, and dining room for the workers, in addition to expansion of the factory and its related office space.
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or brutal treatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
In the first few days after the liberation, the town's people were forced to scrounge for food and deliver it to the camp inmates. The two bakeries in Dachau had to deliver wagon loads of bread for the starving inmates. Major General Collins, with the help of Rabbi Bohnen, made sure that the former Jewish inmates of Dachau received the best rations, including kosher foods.
Schindler grew up in Svitavy, Moravia, and worked in several trades until he joined the Abwehr, the military intelligence service of Nazi Germany, in 1936. He joined the Nazi Party in 1939. Prior to the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he collected information on railways and troop movements for the German government. He was arrested for espionage by the Czechoslovak government but was released under the terms of the Munich Agreement in 1938. Schindler continued to collect information for the Nazis, working in Poland in 1939 before the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II. In 1939, Schindler acquired an enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland, which employed at the factory's peak in 1944 about 1,750 workers, of whom 1,000 were Jews. His Abwehr connections helped Schindler protect his Jewish workers from deportation and death in the Nazi concentration camps. As time went on, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and gifts of luxury items obtainable only on the black market to keep his workers safe.
By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power. In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”–the Jews. The following day, he committed suicide. Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.
The camp staff consisted mostly of SS males, although 19 female guards served at Dachau as well, most of them until liberation. Sixteen have been identified including Fanny Baur, Leopoldine Bittermann, Ernestine Brenner, Anna Buck, Rosa Dolaschko, Maria Eder, Rosa Grassmann, Betty Hanneschaleger, Ruth Elfriede Hildner, Josefa Keller, Berta Kimplinger, Lieselotte Klaudat, Theresia Kopp, Rosalie Leimboeck, and Thea Miesl. Women guards were assigned also to the Augsburg Michelwerke, Burgau, Kaufering, Mühldorf, and Munich Agfa Camera Werke subcamps. In mid-April 1945, female subcamps at Kaufering, Augsburg, and Munich were closed, and the SS stationed the women at Dachau. Several Norwegians worked as guards at the Dachau camp.
Bergen-Belsen SS-women. On the right the notorious Herta Bothe, after the war charged with having committed war crimes. She had a good time shooting at weak female prisoners carrying food containers from the kitchen to the block with her pistol. And she often beat sick girls with a wooden stick. At the Bergen-Belsen Trial she got imprisonment for 10 years.
Though it had ancient roots, Nazi ideology was far from a primitive, medieval throwback - it was capable of appealing to intelligent and sophisticated people. Many high-ranking Nazis had doctoral degrees and early supporters included such eminent people as philosopher Martin Heidegger, theologian Martin Niemoeller, and commander-in-chief of German forces in the First World War, General Erich Ludendorff. Hitler appealed with a powerful vision of a strong, united and 'racially' pure Germany, bolstered by pseudo-scientific ideas that were popular at the time.
Czeslawa Kwoka, age 14, appears in a prisoner identity photo provided by the Auschwitz Museum, taken by Wilhelm Brasse while working in the photography department at Auschwitz, the Nazi-run death camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died during World War II. Czeslawa was a Polish Catholic girl, from Wolka Zlojecka, Poland, who was sent to Auschwitz with her mother in December of 1942. Within three months, both were dead. Photographer (and fellow prisoner) Brasse recalled photographing Czeslawa in a 2005 documentary: "She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn't understand why she was there and she couldn't understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn't interfere. It would have been fatal for me." #
"Suddenly we were marched into Bergen Belsen, that's where we were taken. In Bergen Belsen it was absolutely the worst of them all. It was not blocks; not organized. It was in the streets. We were just thrown in there between the electric wires, and wherever you could go - you go, and wherever you want to sleep - you sleep. No food. Only once or twice a week they were handing out some of that horrible grass soup."1
In the Lviv pogroms in occupied Poland in July 1941, some 6,000 Polish Jews were murdered in the streets, on top of 3,000 arrests and mass shootings by Einsatzgruppe C.[m] During the Jedwabne pogrom, on 10 July 1941, a group of 40 Polish men killed several hundred Jews; around 300 were burned alive in a barn. The attack is thought to have been organized by the German Security Police (Sicherheitsdienst). A long debate about who was responsible for the Jedwabne murders was triggered in 2001 by the publication of Jan T. Gross's book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. The response to the book was described as "the most prolonged and far-reaching of any discussion of the Jewish issue in Poland since the Second World War".
In June 1933, Theodor Eicke became the camp commander. He introduced a regime which essentially consisted of the systematic terrorisation of prisoners and an attempt to humiliate them as thoroughly as possible. Eicke had the camp surrounded by an electric fence with watch towers. Dachau also became a „murder school“ for SS members. In 1934, Eicke became the inspector of all the concentration camps. The system he developed was introduced, with certain modifications, into the other camps.
At this point, we must remember that some survivors were unable to return to "normal" life after the trauma of the Holocaust. Among this group were survivors who committed suicide, survivors who experienced severe psychological scarring, survivors who were unable to marry or have children, and others who suffered from a host of problems after the Holocaust. What is remarkable is that these were the minority, and that most Holocaust survivors were able to bring a certain degree of order to their chaotic world.
Außenlager Unterlüß-Altensothrieth (Tannenberglager) east of Bergen was in use from late August 1944 to April 13, 1945. It was located at Unterlüß, where the Rheinmetall-Borsig AG had a large test site. Up to 900 female Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Yugoslavian and Czech Jews had to clear forest, do construction work or work in munitions production.:204