While there were only 23 main camps between 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime established some 20,000 other camps used for forced labor, transit or temporary internment. During the Holocaust it is estimated that 6 million Jews were slaughtered along with, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3 million Polish Catholics, 700,000 Serbians, 250,000 Gypsies, Sinti, and Lalleri, 80,000 Germans (for political reasons), 70,000 German handicapped, 12,000 homosexuals, and 2,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Another former inmate, Moshe Peer, recalled a miraculous escape from death as an eleven-year-old in the camp. In a 1993 interview with a Canadian newspaper, the French-born Peer claimed that he "was sent to the [Belsen] camp gas chamber at least six times." The newspaper account went on to relate: "Each time he survived, watching with horror as many of the women and children gassed with him collapsed and died. To this day, Peer doesn't know how he was able to survive." In an effort to explain the miracle, Peer mused: "Maybe children resist better, I don't know." (Although Peer claimed that "Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz," he acknowledged that he and his younger brother and sister, who were deported to the camp in 1944, all somehow survived internment there.) /37
After the takeover of Bavaria on 9 March 1933, Heinrich Himmler, then Chief of Police in Munich, began to speak with the administration of an unused gunpowder and munitions factory. He toured the site to see if it could be used for quartering protective-custody prisoners. The Concentration Camp at Dachau was opened 22 March 1933, with the arrival of about 200 prisoners from Stadelheim Prison in Munich and the Landsberg fortress (where Hitler had written Mein Kampf during his imprisonment). Himmler announced in the Münchner Neuesten Nachrichten newspaper that the camp could hold up to 5,000 people, and described it as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners" to be used to restore calm to Germany. It became the first regular concentration camp established by the coalition government of the National Socialist German Worker's Party (Nazi Party) and the German National People's Party (dissolved on 6 July 1933).
This has been a terrible day at the Belsen trial. First this morning all the courtroom, court, prisoners, press, and German spectators saw the films taken in camp by the British Army Film Photographic Unit just after British troops had liberated it. Then followed the evidence by the only Briton known to survive the camp—a Jersey schoolmaster named Harold Osmand le Drieullenac of St. Helier.
The passengers had landing certificates and transit visas by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez. But, a week before the ship left, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru published a decree that overturned all recent landing certificates. For them to land in Cuba, they needed written authorization from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and a $500 bond. Most of the passengers were not prepared for the bureaucratic mess they were about to face in Cuba.
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years '41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
In early 1943, the Nazis implemented the liquidation of the Krakow Jewish population and opened up the Plaszow work camp, run by the notoriously sadistic commandant, Amon Göth. Schindler cultivated a relationship with Göth, and whenever any of his workers were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp or execution, Schindler managed to provide a black-market gift or bribe to save their lives.
Dachau was the concentration camp that was in operation the longest from March 1933 to April 1945, nearly all twelve years of the Nazi regime. Dachau's close proximity to Munich, where Hitler came to power and where the Nazi Party had its official headquarters, made Dachau a convenient location. From 1933 to 1938, the prisoners were mainly German nationals detained for political reasons. After the Reichspogromnacht or Kristallnacht, 30,000 male Jewish citizens were deported to concentration camps. More than 10,000 of them were interned in Dachau alone. As the German military occupied other European states, citizens from across Europe were sent to concentration camps. Subsequently, the camp was used for prisoners of all sorts, from every nation occupied by the forces of the Third Reich.:137
Sanitation was incredibly inadequate, with few latrines and water faucets for the tens of thousands of prisoners interned in Bergen-Belsen at this time. Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the lack of adequate food, water, and shelter led to an outbreak of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery, causing an ever increasing number of deaths. In the first few months of 1945, tens of thousands of prisoners died.
"I ascertain that the Americans are now masters of the situation. I go toward the officer who has come down from the tank, introduce myself and he embraces me. He is a major. His uniform is dusty, his shirt, open almost to the navel, is filthy, soaked with sweat, his helmet is on crooked, he is unshaven and his cigarette dangles from the left corner of his lip.
Shipments of Jews to the camps had priority over anything but the army's needs on the German railways, and continued even in the face of the increasingly dire military situation at the end of 1942. Army leaders and economic managers complained about this diversion of resources and the killing of skilled Jewish workers, but Nazi leaders rated ideological imperatives above economic considerations.
Pogroms occurred in several countries occupied by, or supportive of, Germany, attacks that were both encouraged by the Germans and carried out without their involvement. Thousands of Jews were killed in January and June 1941 in the Bucharest pogrom and Iaşi pogrom in Romania, a German ally. According to a 2004 report written by Tuvia Friling and others, up to 14,850 Jews died during the Iaşi pogrom. The Romanian military killed up to 25,000 Jews in Odessa, then under Romanian control, between 18 October 1941 and March 1942, assisted by gendarmes and the police. Mihai Antonescu, Romania's deputy prime minister, is reported as saying it was "the most favorable moment in our history" to solve the "Jewish problem". In July 1941 he said it was time for "total ethnic purification, for a revision of national life, and for purging our race of all those elements which are foreign to its soul, which have grown like mistletoes and darken our future".
Some former inmates and a few historians have claimed that Jews were put to death in gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen. For example, an "authoritative" work published shortly after the end of the war, A History of World War II, informed readers: "In Belsen, [Commandant] 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." /31
The first prisoners arrived in Dachau on March 22, 1933, two days after the acting Munich Chief of Police and Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler announced the camp’s creation. Many of the initial prisoners were Social Democrats and German Communists, the latter group having been blamed for the February 27 fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
Schindler’s most effective tool in this privately conceived rescue campaign was the privileged status his plant enjoyed as a “business essential to the war effort” as accorded him by the Military Armaments Inspectorate in occupied Poland. This not only qualified him to obtain lucrative military contracts, but also enabled him to draw on Jewish workers who were under the jurisdiction of the SS. When his Jewish employees were threatened with deportation to Auschwitz by the SS, he could claim exemptions for them, arguing that their removal would seriously hamper his efforts to keep up production essential to the war effort. He did not balk at falsifying the records, listing children, housewives, and lawyers as expert mechanics and metalworkers, and, in general, covering up as much as he could for unqualified or temporarily incapacitated workers.
In the first half of 1944, the “star camp” also took in small transports of Jews from various other countries. These included 200 Jews from Tunisia, Tripoli, and Benghazi , who until then had been held in the Fossoli di Carpi camp in Italy: 200 Jewish women from the Drancy transit camp in France, whose husbands were French prisoners-of –war, being held by the Germans, and several hundred Jews from Yugoslavia and Albania.
According to a newspaper article by Mark Muckenfuss in The Press-Enterprise, Cecil Davis was a B17 pilot who was shot down during a bombing raid, and subsequently sent to a POW camp. He was with a group of American Prisoners of War who got lost while marching through the German countryside in late April 1945; the lost POWs were picked up by a patrol and dropped off at the Dachau "death camp" for three or four days. Davis was assigned to work in the crematorium where he saw the bodies of children that were being burned in "gas ovens."
Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate. Machine-gun fire burst from the center watchtower, the very one which since morning had been flying the white flag! The jeeps turned about and an armored tank came on. With a few bursts, it silenced the fire from the watchtower. The body of an SS man fell off the platform and came crashing loudly to the asphalt of the little square.
As the Allies began to advance on Nazi Germany, the SS began to evacuate the first concentration camps in summer 1944. Thousands of prisoners were killed before the evacuation due to being ill or unable to walk. At the end of 1944, the overcrowding of camps began to take its toll on the prisoners. The unhygienic conditions and the supplies of food rations became disastrous. In November a typhus fever epidemic broke out that took thousands of lives.
Nearly 100 British medical students arrived at Bergen-Belsen in May 1945 to assist with the relief effort. They worked directly in the huts to supervise the distribution of food and provide whatever medical care possible. Dr Roger Dixey, one of the students who volunteered at the camp, describes his work and the condition of the prisoners in the barracks.
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.
As the Red Army drew nearer in July 1944, the SS began closing down the easternmost concentration camps and evacuating the remaining prisoners westward to Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camp. Göth's personal secretary, Mietek Pemper, alerted Schindler to the Nazis' plans to close all factories not directly involved in the war effort, including Schindler's enamelware facility. Pemper suggested to Schindler that production should be switched from cookware to anti-tank grenades in an effort to save the lives of the Jewish workers. Using bribery and his powers of persuasion, Schindler convinced Göth and the officials in Berlin to allow him to move his factory and his workers to Brünnlitz (Czech: Brněnec), in the Sudetenland, thus sparing them from certain death in the gas chambers. Using names provided by Jewish Ghetto Police officer Marcel Goldberg, Pemper compiled and typed the list of 1,200 Jews—1,000 of Schindler's workers and 200 inmates from Julius Madritsch's textiles factory—who were sent to Brünnlitz in October 1944.
The British forced the former SS camp personnel to help bury the thousands of dead bodies in mass graves. Some civil servants from Celle and Landkreis Celle were brought to Belsen and confronted with the crimes committed on their doorstep.:262 Military photographers and cameramen of No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit documented the conditions in the camp and the measures of the British Army to ameliorate them. Many of the pictures they took and the films they made from April 15 to June 9, 1945 were published or shown abroad. Today, the originals are in the Imperial War Museum. These documents had a lasting impact on the international perception and memory of Nazi concentration camps to this day.:243 According to Habbo Knoch, head of the institution that runs the memorial today: "Bergen-Belsen [...] became a synonym world-wide for German crimes committed during the time of Nazi rule.":9