American soldiers stare down at a mass grave in Nordhausen concentration camp © Originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz was greatly expanded in 1941 with the addition of a much larger camp at nearby Birkenau. In all, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps held 400,000 registered prisoners including 205,000 Jews, 137,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 12,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others (including a few British POWs). In this largest and worst of all the Nazi concentration camps, 210,000 prisoners died of starvation and abuse.
The Germans invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in May 1940. In the Netherlands, the Germans installed Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Reichskommissar, who quickly began to persecute the approximately 140,000 Dutch Jews. Jews were forced out of their jobs and had to register with the government. Non-Jewish Dutch citizens protested these measures, and in February 1941 they staged a strike that was quickly crushed. After Belgium's surrender at the end of May 1940, it was ruled by a German military governor, Alexander von Falkenhausen, who enacted anti-Jewish measures against the country's 90,000 Jews, many of whom were refugees from Germany or Eastern Europe.
The Jews killed represented around one third of the world population of Jews, and about two-thirds of European Jewry, based on an estimate of 9.7 million Jews in Europe at the start of the war. Much of the uncertainty stems from the lack of a reliable figure for the number of Jews in Europe in 1939, numerous border changes that make avoiding double-counting of victims difficult, lack of accurate records from the perpetrators, and uncertainty about whether deaths occurring months after liberation, but caused by the persecution, should be counted.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
Mr. Le Drieullenac is a dark-haired, youngish man, limping on a heavy stick. He was wearing a dark-grey suit and looked like a typical British civilian in the purely military atmosphere of a court martial. He told the court that with most of his family he was arrested at St. Helier on the day before D-Day. For 18 months he had concealed a Russian officer prisoner and in addition had a hidden radio. He was first sent to Wilhelmshaven, where he was made a welder in the naval arsenal, and then went to Belsen with the rest of his arbeitskommando. From the evidence in this trial and from other sources it appears that as the Allied armies advanced into Germany the Germans shipped off all the foreign workers to the nearest concentration camp.
In 1944, Plaszow transitioned from a labor camp to a concentration camp and all Jews were to be sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. Schindler requested Göth allow him to relocate his factory to Brnĕnec, in the Sudetenland, and produce war goods. He was told to draw up a list of workers he wanted to take with him. With Stern’s help, Schindler created a list of 1,100 Jewish names he deemed “essential” for the new factory. Permission was granted and the factory was moved. Not wanting to contribute to the German war effort, Schindler ordered his workers to purposefully make defective products that would fail inspection. The employees spent the remaining months of the war in the factory.
On May 5, 1945, Dutch resistance fighter Pim Boellaard was interviewed about his ordeal during his three years of captivity. As a resistance fighter, who continued to fight after the surrender of the Netherlands, he did not have the same protection as a POW under the Geneva Convention of 1929. He was one of 60 Dutch Nacht und Nebel prisoners who were transferred from the Natzweiler camp to Dachau in September 1944. Click here to see the video of his interview. Boellaard was a member of the International Committee of Dachau, representing approximately 500 Dutch prisoners at Dachau.
In effort to counter the strength and influence of spiritual resistance, Nazi security services monitored clergy very closely.:141–2 Priests were frequently denounced, arrested and sent to concentration camps, often simply on the basis of being "suspected of activities hostile to the State" or that there was reason to "suppose that his dealings might harm society".:142 Despite SS hostility to religious observance, the Vatican and German bishops successfully lobbied the regime to concentrate clergy at one camp and obtained permission to build a chapel, for the priests to live communally and for time to be allotted to them for the religious and intellectual activity. Priests Barracks at Dachau were established in Blocks 26, 28 and 30, though only temporarily. 26 became the international block and 28 was reserved for Poles – the most numerous group.:145–6
In 1980, Australian author Thomas Keneally by chance visited Pfefferberg's luggage store in Beverly Hills while en route home from a film festival in Europe. Pfefferberg took the opportunity to tell Keneally the story of Oskar Schindler. He gave him copies of some materials he had on file, and Keneally soon decided to make a fictionalised treatment of the story. After extensive research and interviews with surviving Schindlerjuden, his 1982 historical novel Schindler's Ark (published in the United States as Schindler's List) was the result.
Medical experiments conducted on camp inmates by the SS were another distinctive feature. At least 7,000 prisoners were subjected to experiments; most died as a result, during the experiments or later. Twenty-three senior physicians and other medical personnel were charged at Nuremberg, after the war, with crimes against humanity. They included the head of the German Red Cross, tenured professors, clinic directors, and biomedical researchers. Experiments took place at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. Some dealt with sterilization of men and women, the treatment of war wounds, ways to counteract chemical weapons, research into new vaccines and drugs, and the survival of harsh conditions.
In 1935 Schindler joined the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei; SdP) and the next year began collecting counterintelligence for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. In 1938 he was arrested by Czechoslovak authorities on charges of espionage and sentenced to death. After the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany late that year as part of the Munich Agreement, Schindler was pardoned by the Reich and rose through the ranks of the Abwehr. His application for membership in the Nazi Party—thought to have been submitted out of pragmatism rather than ideological affinity—was accepted in 1939. That year, on the heels of the German invasion and occupation of Poland, Schindler journeyed to Kraków, where he became active in the emerging black market. Thanks to the network of German contacts he had arranged through liberal bribes, he secured the lease of a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory. He renamed the facility Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik Oskar Schindler (known as Emalia) and commenced production with a small staff. Three months later he had several hundred employees, seven of whom were Jewish. By 1942 nearly half of the workers at the expanded plant were Jewish. (Ostensibly “cheap labour,” Schindler paid their salaries to the SS.)
Several books published after the war maintained that there was a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen. For example, in a book entitled "Jews, God and History," Jewish historian Max Dimont mentioned gassings at Bergen-Belsen. Another book, entitled "A History of World War II" claimed that "In Belsen, Kramer kept an orchestra to play him Viennese music while he watched children torn from their mothers to be burned alive. Gas chambers disposed of thousands of persons daily." (Josef Kramer was the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen from 2 December 1944 until the camp was liberated.)
In nearly every country overrun by the Nazis, the Jews were forced to wear badges marking them as Jews, they were rounded up into ghettos or concentration camps and then gradually transported to the killing centers. The death camps were essentially factories for murdering Jews. The Germans shipped thousands of Jews to them each day. Within a few hours of their arrival, the Jews had been stripped of their possessions and valuables, gassed to death, and their bodies burned in specially designed crematoriums. Approximately 3.5 million Jews were murdered in these death camps.
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.
Immediately after the war, in the Spring of 1945, the majority of Americans believed that there had been homicidal gas chambers in most of the Nazi concentration camps, certainly in Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. After seeing the horrible newsreels of thousands of dead bodies in the camps, there was no doubt in most people's minds that the Nazis had carried out mass gassings in Germany, as well as in the death camps in what is now Poland. Even today, news reports confirm that there were gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, as well as at Buchenwald and Dachau.
Nobody slept that night. The camp was alive with bonfires and we all wanted to bivouac out of doors, near the flames. Dachau had been transformed into a nomad camp. The Americans had distributed canned food, and we heated it in the coals of the fires. We also got some bread, taken from the last reserves in the kitchens. But I for one was not hungry, and most of us did not think of eating. We were drunk with our freedom.
The British troops who liberated the Belsen camp three weeks before the end of the war were shocked and disgusted by the many unburied corpses and dying inmates they found there. Horrific photos and films of the camp's emaciated corpses and mortally sick inmates were quickly circulated around the globe. Within weeks the British military occupation newspaper proclaimed: "The story of that greatest of all exhibitions of 'man's inhumanity to man' which was Belsen Concentration Camp is known throughout the world." (note 1)
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.
With an increasing number of transports of female prisoners, the SS dissolved the northern portion of the camp complex, which was still in use as a POW camp, and established the so-called "large women's camp" (Grosses Frauenlager) in its place in January 1945. This camp housed women evacuated from Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald concentration camps, as well as various subcamps and labor camps.
As late as 19 April 1945, prisoners were sent to KZ Dachau; on that date a freight train from Buchenwald with nearly 4,500 was diverted to Nammering. SS troops and police confiscated food and water, which local townspeople tried to give to the prisoners. Nearly three hundred dead bodies were ordered removed from the train and carried to a ravine over 400 metres (.25 mi) away. The 524 prisoners who had been forced to carry the dead to this site were then shot by the guards, and buried along with those who had died on the train. Nearly 800 bodies went into this mass grave.
In the second phase of the evacuation, in April 1945, Himmler gave direct evacuation routes for remaining camps. Prisoners who were from the northern part of Germany were to be directed to the Baltic and North Sea coasts to be drowned. The prisoners from the southern part were to be gathered in the Alps, which was the location in which the SS wanted to resist the Allies. On 28 April 1945, an armed revolt took place in the town of Dachau. Both former and escaped concentration camp prisoners, and a renegade Volkssturm (civilian militia) company took part. At about 8:30 am the rebels occupied the Town Hall. The advanced forces of the SS gruesomely suppressed the revolt within a few hours.
Hitlers most famous victim Anne Frank ended up in Bergen-Belsen after being evacuated from Auschwitz in October, 1944. As starvation. cold and disease swept through the camp's population, Margot, Anne's sister, developed typhus and died. A few days later, Anne herself, in April, 1945, succumbed to the disease a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the British. She was 15 years old ...
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian unit. At the time of liberation, the camp had been without food or water for three to five days. As Matthew Nesbitt, a Canadian liberator, recounted, "…the first thing we had to do when we got to camp. Prior to even distributing the food. And that was to make sure we used the guards to separate the living from the dead, from the huts, because first of all, if we are going to save anybody, we had to know who was alive and who had to be buried…The only way you could do that was to go into each individual hut and shake whoever was on that little slab…if they didn't move, they were dead."
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.