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.
In 1939, shortly after the war began, the Germans initiated the T4 Program—framed euphemistically as a “euthanasia” program—for the murder of intellectually or physically disabled and emotionally disturbed Germans who by their very existence violated the Nazi ideal of Aryan supremacy. They were termed “life unworthy of life.” An economic justification was also employed as these Germans were considered “useless eaters.” The Nazis pioneered the use of gas chambers and mass crematoria under this program. The murder of the disabled was the training ground for key personnel who were to later staff the death camps of Aktion Reinhard. The German public protested these murders. The Roman Catholic bishop of Münster, Clemens August, Graf von Galen, preached against them, and the T4 program was formally halted. Nonetheless, the murder and sterilization of these German “Aryans” continued secretly throughout the war.
In August 1944 a women's camp opened inside Dachau. In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau deteriorated. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners from concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
Estimates of the number of people who died in Bergen-Belsen have ranged widely over the years. Many have been irresponsible exaggerations. Typical is a 1985 York Daily News report, which told readers that "probably 100,000 died at Bergen-Belsen." /39 An official German government publication issued in 1990 declared that "more than 50,000 people had been murdered" in the Belsen camp under German control, and "an additional 13,000 died in the first weeks after liberation." /40
Bergen-Belsen was a concentration camp near Hanover in northwest Germany, located between the villages of Bergen and Belsen. Built in 1940, it was a prisoner-of-war camp for French and Belgium prisoners. In 1941, it was renamed Stalag 311 and housed about 20,000 Russian prisoners. The POW portion of the camp remained in operation until January 1945.
Jewish refugees were the subject of two international conferences, at Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943. Neither conference resulted in any concrete action. In general, Britain treated refugees from Nazi Germany as economic migrants, and took in only those who would be of economic benefit to the country. About 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme, and placed with British families, but their parents were excluded and had to pay for their children's support. The best that can be said for Britain's refugee policy is that it was less ungenerous than that of most other European states at the time.
Most of the survivors in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen were young people. They found themselves entirely alone, having lost their parents, spouses, children and siblings during the Holocaust. They commonly chose to establish a feeling of normality and fight despair by marrying in the DP camp. During the first year after liberation, in the Bergen Belden DP camp, there were often six weddings a day, and up to fifty weddings a week. During 1946, there were 1,070 weddings at Bergen Belsen.
Italy introduced some antisemitic measures, but there was less antisemitism there than in Germany, and Italian-occupied countries were generally safer for Jews than German-occupied territories. In some areas, the Italian authorities even tried to protect Jews, such as in the Croatian areas of the Balkans. But while Italian forces in Russia were not as vicious towards Jews as the Germans, they did not try to stop German atrocities either. There were no deportations of Italian Jews to Germany while Italy remained an ally. Several forced labor camps for Jews were established in Italian-controlled Libya. Almost 2,600 Libyan Jews were sent to camps, where 562 died.
After invading Poland, the Germans established ghettos in the incorporated territories and General Government to confine Jews. The ghettos were formed and closed off from the outside world at different times and for different reasons. For example, the Łódź ghetto was closed in April 1940, to force the Jews inside to give up money and valuables; the Warsaw ghetto was closed for health considerations (for the people outside, not inside, the ghetto), but this did not happen until November 1940; and the Kraków ghetto was not established until March 1941. The Warsaw Ghetto contained 380,000 people and was the largest ghetto in Poland; the Łódź Ghetto was the second largest, holding between 160,000 to 223,000. Because of the long drawn-out process of establishing ghettos, it is unlikely that they were originally considered part of a systematic attempt to eliminate Jews completely.
Between the years 1933 and 1945, more than 3.5 million Germans were imprisoned in such concentration camps or prison for political reasons. Approximately 77,000 Germans were killed for one or another form of resistance by Special Courts, courts-martial, and the civil justice system. Many of these Germans had served in government, the military, or in civil positions, which were considered to enable them to engage in subversion and conspiracy against the Nazis.
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.
Approximately 30,00 Jewish men were arrested during the pogrom, allegedly for their own protection, and taken to the 3 major concentration camps in Germany, including 10,911 who were brought to Dachau and held as prisoners while they were pressured to sign over their property and leave the country. The majority of these Jews were released within a few weeks, after they promised to leave Germany within six months; most of them wound up in Shanghai, the only place that did not require a visa, because other countries, except Great Britain, refused to take them.
On the night of 9-10 November 1938, Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr Josef Goebbels organised the violent outburst known as Kristallnacht ('Crystal Night', the night of broken glass). While the police stood by, Nazi stormtroopers in civilian clothes burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes throughout Germany and Austria, terrorising and beating men, women and children. Ninety-one Jews were murdered and over 20,000 men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Afterwards the Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks to pay for the damage.
"Bergen-Belsen," Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), vol. 4, pp. 610-612; Colonel Schmidt, the German officer who worked to alleviate conditions in Belsen during the final weeks and also arranged for the camp's surrender to the British, estimated that "altogether about 8,000 people" died in the camp. (This figure may, however, only include victims of the final chaotic weeks under German control.) Source: Signed report by Oberst a.D. Hanns Schmidt to Kurt Mehner and Lt. Colonel Bechtold, Braunschweig, March 3, 1981. (Cited above.) Photocopy in author's possession.
In the summer of 1941, the camp physician at Dachau was ordered to register those prisoners who were sick or unable to work. Some weeks later, a medical commission from Berlin arrived to pass judgement, and during the winter of 1941 -1942 “invalid transports” departed from Dachau in quick succession to the Hartheim castle, near Linz. Hartheim was one of the murder facilities included in the euthanasia programme. There 3166 inmates from Dachau were gassed.
The camp physician, Dr. Katz of Nuremberg, was also a prisoner. At first he was well treated because the guards and even the Commander admired his courageous attitude, but after he had witnessed the torture inflicted upon the prisoners, it became dangerous for the Nazis to release him. It was reported later that he had hanged himself in a detention cell—a few days before his anticipated release. His presence in the cell, however, was never explained.
During World War II the main camp was supplemented by about 150 branches scattered throughout southern Germany and Austria, all of which collectively were called Dachau. (This southern system complemented the camps for central and northern Germany, at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.) In the course of Dachau’s history, at least 160,000 prisoners passed through the main camp, and 90,000 through the branches. Incomplete records indicate that at least 32,000 of the inmates died there from disease, malnutrition, physical oppression, and execution, but countless more were transported to the extermination camps in German-occupied Poland.
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.
On arrival at Belsen with his kommondo on the night of what he believes was April 5, he was placed in a hut which was in a state of filth and overcrowding which nobody in the outside world ever dreamed could exist before Belsen was discovered. The next morning, after a roll-call lasting from 3.30 to 9, he inspected the next hut, a long, low building. Looking through a hole where a window had been, he saw one or two bodies lying about in the water on the floor of what had been the wash-place. Looking through other windows he saw piles of bodies systematically stacked, each one’s head resting on the chest of the man or woman below. The whole building was full of corpses.
Finland was pressured in 1942 to hand over its 150–200 non-Finnish Jews to Germany. After opposition from the government and public, eight non-Finnish Jews were deported in late 1942; only one survived the war. Japan had little antisemitism in its society and did not persecute Jews in most of the territories it controlled. Jews in Shanghai were confined, but despite German pressure they were not killed.
The Zionists at Bergen-Belsen, who wanted to go to Palestine, were housed at the Germany Army Training Center to wait for permission from the British who were in control of Palestine at that time. The DP camp at the Army Base was the largest one in Europe. It remained open until 1950, after the last Jews had emigrated to Palestine or some other country.
A final and complete deterioration of the prisoners living conditions set in when tens of thousands of prisoners poured in – survivors of the death marches who had been evacuated from the camps in the east. These included 20,000 women prisoners from the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps who had passed through the Gross- Rosen concentration camp on the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
A portion of the concrete-lined ditch on the left in the photo above has been reconstructed and today visitors can cross a bridge which has been built over the ditch and the Würm river canal in the northwest corner of the camp in order to provide access to the gas chamber area which was outside the prison compound and hidden from the inmates by a line of poplar trees.
Though the Nazis tried to keep operation of camps secret, the scale of the killing made this virtually impossible. Eyewitnesses brought reports of Nazi atrocities in Poland to the Allied governments, who were harshly criticized after the war for their failure to respond, or to publicize news of the mass slaughter. This lack of action was likely mostly due to the Allied focus on winning the war at hand, but was also a result of the general incomprehension with which news of the Holocaust was met and the denial and disbelief that such atrocities could be occurring on such a scale.
As the mass shootings continued in Russia, the Germans began to search for new methods of mass murder. This was driven by a need to have a more efficient method than simply shooting millions of victims. Himmler also feared that the mass shootings were causing psychological problems in the SS. His concerns were shared by his subordinates in the field. In December 1939 and January 1940, another method besides shooting was tried. Experimental gas vans equipped with gas cylinders and a sealed compartment were used to kill the disabled and mentally-ill in occupied Poland. Similar vans, but using the exhaust fumes rather than bottled gas, were introduced to the Chełmno extermination camp in December 1941, and some were used in the occupied Soviet Union, for example in smaller clearing actions in the Minsk ghetto. They also were used for murder in Yugoslavia.
The photograph above shows the prisoners lined up along the concrete ditch in front of the electric barbed wire fence on the west side of the main Dachau camp. The barbed fire fence is out of camera range on the left hand side. At the end of the row of wooden barracks is the camp greenhouse which was located where the Protestant Memorial church now stands. This photo was probably taken from the top of Guard Tower B. Notice the American flag on the top of one of the buildings.
On April 17, 1945, two days after the first British soldiers arrived, British Medical units were at the scene. The first thing they did was to set up a hospital area in the barracks of the German Army training camp nearby. Also on that date, the British arrested the entire personnel of the SS Commandant's office, the 50 men and 30 women who had voluntarily stayed behind to help the British manage the catastrophe. A Jewish Camp Committee was organized by the survivors, under the leadership of Josef Rosensaft.
In the final days of the war, just before the entry of the Russian army into Moravia, Schindler managed to smuggle himself back into Germany, into Allied-controlled territory. The wartime industrial tycoon was by now penniless. Jewish relief organizations and groups of survivors supported him modestly over the years, helping finance his (in the long run, unsuccessful) emigration to South America. When Schindler visited Israel in 1961, the first of seventeen visits, he was treated to an overwhelming welcome from 220 enthusiastic survivors. He continued to live partly in Israel and partly in Germany. After his death in Hildesheim, Germany, in October 1974, the mournful survivors brought the remains of their rescuer to Israel to be laid to eternal rest in the Catholic Cemetery of Jerusalem. The inscription on his grave says: 'The unforgettable rescuer of 1,200 persecuted Jews".
Although many people responded with obstructionism and doubt, several rescue operations were run throughout Axis-controlled Europe. Some were the work of prominent individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who worked largely alone while other operations were far more complex. A network of Catholic bishops and clergymen organized local protests and shelter campaigns throughout much of Europe that are today estimated to have saved 860,000 lives. Danish fishermen clandestinely ferried more than 7,000 Jews into neutral Sweden while the French town of Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Schilling, a renowned expert on malaria, was persuaded to come out of retirement in order to conduct medical experiments on approximately 1,200 Dachau prisoners in an attempt to find a cure for malaria after German troops began fighting the Allies in North Africa. Hundreds died as a result of Dr. Schilling's experiments, including a few who died from malaria and others who died from other diseases after being weakened by malaria. The subjects for the malaria experiments were the Catholic priests in the camp because they were not required to work, and would not be missed in the labor force if they died.
As Lise described the meeting, across barbed wire when the guard was occupied elsewhere, Anne told her that she had no one. She believed her father and mother were dead; her sister was very ill. Lise remembered, "After her sister died, she was just without hope. But she didn't know [that her father was alive], and so she had really nothing to live for."
Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. On 1 April 1933, there was a boycott of Jewish businesses. On 7 April 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, which excluded Jews and other "non-Aryans" from the civil service. Jews were disbarred from practising law, being editors or proprietors of newspapers, joining the Journalists' Association, or owning farms. In Silesia, in March 1933, a group of men entered the courthouse and beat up Jewish lawyers; Friedländer writes that, in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of courtrooms during trials. Jewish students were restricted by quotas from attending schools and universities. Jewish businesses were targeted for closure or "Aryanization", the forcible sale to Germans; of the approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany in 1933, about 7,000 were still Jewish-owned in April 1939. Works by Jewish composers, authors, and artists were excluded from publications, performances, and exhibitions. Jewish doctors were dismissed or urged to resign. The Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a medical journal) reported on 6 April 1933: "Germans are to be treated by Germans only."
Around 50,000 German gay men were jailed between 1933 and 1945, and 5,000–15,000 are estimated to have been sent to concentration camps. It is not known how many died during the Holocaust. James Steakley writes that what mattered in Germany was criminal intent or character, rather than acts, and the "gesundes Volksempfinden" ("healthy sensibility of the people") became the guiding legal principle. In 1936, Himmler created the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality and Abortion. The Gestapo raided gay bars, tracked individuals using the address books of those they arrested, used the subscription lists of gay magazines to find others, and encouraged people to report suspected homosexual behavior and to scrutinize the behavior of their neighbors. Lesbians were left relatively unaffected; the Nazis saw them as "asocials", rather than sexual deviants. Gay men convicted between 1933 and 1944 were sent to camps for "rehabilitation", where they were identified by pink triangles. Hundreds were castrated, sometimes "voluntarily" to avoid criminal sentences. Steakley writes that the full extent of gay suffering was slow to emerge after the war. Many victims kept their stories to themselves because homosexuality remained criminalized in postwar Germany.
Dachau was mainly a camp for Communist political prisoners and anti-Fascist resistance fighters who were captured in the Nazi-occupied countries. On the day of the liberation of Dachau, the political prisoners were in control, as Commandant Wilhelm Eduard Weiter had left the camp on April 26, 1945, along with a transport of prisoners who were being evacuated to Schloss Itter, a subcamp of Dachau in Austria. Former Commandant Martin Gottfried Weiss was in charge of the camp for two days until he fled, along with most of the regular guards, on the night of April 28, 1945.
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.