To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labor camps for Jews during the war years. The German authorities also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.
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.
On 26 April 1945 prisoner Karl Riemer fled the Dachau concentration camp to get help from American troops and on 28 April Victor Maurer, a representative of the International Red Cross, negotiated an agreement to surrender the camp to U.S. troops. That night a secretly formed International Prisoners Committee took over the control of the camp. Units of 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Felix L. Sparks, were ordered to secure the camp. On 29 April Sparks led part of his battalion as they entered the camp over a side wall.[76] At about the same time, Brigadier General Henning Linden led the 222nd Infantry Regiment of the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division soldiers including his aide, Lieutenant William Cowling,[77] to accept the formal surrender of the camp from German Lieutenant Heinrich Wicker at an entrance between the camp and the compound for the SS garrison. Linden was traveling with Marguerite Higgins and other reporters, as a result, Linden's detachment generated international headlines by accepting the surrender of the camp. More than 30,000 Jews and political prisoners were freed, and since 1945 adherents of the 42nd and 45th Division versions of events have argued over which unit was the first to liberate Dachau.[30]:201[78]:283[79][80][81]
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged and in operation until 1945. A crematorium that was next to, but not directly accessible from within the camp, was erected in 1942. KZ Dachau was therefore the longest running concentration camp of the Third Reich. The Dachau complex included other SS facilities beside the concentration camp—a leader school of the economic and civil service, the medical school of the SS, etc. The camp at that time was called a "protective custody camp," and occupied less than half of the area of the entire complex.[13]
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.[259] 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.[260] 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.[261] 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."[260][o]
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.
Dachau served as a prototype and model for the other German concentration camps that followed. Almost every community in Germany had members taken away to these camps. Newspapers continually reported "the removal of the enemies of the Reich to concentration camps." As early as 1935, a jingle went around: "Lieber Herr Gott, mach mich stumm, Das ich nicht nach Dachau komm'" ("Dear God, make me silent, That I may not come to Dachau").[12]
There was a typhus epidemic raging in the camp and 900 prisoners at Dachau were dying of the disease when the liberators arrived, according to the account of Marcus J. Smith. Smith was an Army doctor, who along with 9 others, formed Displaced Persons Team 115, which was sent to Dachau after the liberation. In his book entitled "Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell," Smith wrote that eleven of the barracks buildings at the Dachau camp had been converted into a hospital to house the 4,205 sick prisoners. Another 3,866 prisoners were bed ridden.
The camp changed its name to Bergen-Belsen and was converted into a concentration camp in 1943. Jews with foreign passports were kept there to be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned abroad, although very few exchanges were made. About 200 Jews were allowed to immigrate to Palestine and about 1,500 Hungarian Jews were allowed to immigrate to Switzerland, both took place under the rubric of exchanges for German nationals.
As the first major camp to be liberated by the allies, the event received a lot of press coverage and the world saw the horrors of the Holocaust. Sixty-thousand prisoners were present at the time of liberation. Afterward, about 500 people died daily of starvation and typhus, reaching nearly 14,000. Mass graves were made to hold the thousands of corpses of those who perished.
The camp changed its name to Bergen-Belsen and was converted into a concentration camp in 1943. Jews with foreign passports were kept there to be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned abroad, although very few exchanges were made. About 200 Jews were allowed to immigrate to Palestine and about 1,500 Hungarian Jews were allowed to immigrate to Switzerland, both took place under the rubric of exchanges for German nationals.
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.
My father supervised work parties in which Irma Grese was forced to carry corpses for burial and he described her as really beautiful but utterly evil. Most of the SS guards were evil and Dad had trouble stopping his men from shooting them out of hand, especially when the SS prisoners protested about having to work in burial details. He was tempted to do so himself. He told me that Bergen-Belsen brought home to him what they had been fighting, evil from the pit of hell itself.
There was "practically no resistance" in the ghettos in Poland by the end of 1942, according to Peter Longerich.[305] Raul Hilberg accounted for this by evoking the history of Jewish persecution: as had been the case before, appealing to their oppressors and complying with orders might avoid inflaming the situation until the onslaught abated.[306] Henri Michel argued that resistance consisted not only of physical opposition but of any activity that gave the Jews humanity in inhumane conditions, while Yehuda Bauer defined resistance as actions that in any way opposed the German directives, laws, or conduct.[307] Hilberg cautioned against overstating the extent of Jewish resistance, arguing that turning isolated incidents into resistance elevates the slaughter of innocent people into some kind of battle, diminishes the heroism of those who took active measures to resist, and deflects questions about the survival strategies and leadership of the Jewish community.[308] Timothy Snyder noted that it was only during the three months after the deportations of July–September 1942 that agreement on the need for armed resistance was reached.[309]
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case.[7] Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees.[8] This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency.[9] The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.[10]:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value.[9] However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.[9]
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