Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief of the German police. By July 1933, German concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength.
In January 1945 a trainload of 250 Jews who had been rejected as workers at a mine in Goleschau in Poland arrived at Brünnlitz. The boxcars were frozen shut when they arrived, and Emilie Schindler waited while an engineer from the factory opened the cars using a soldering iron. Twelve people were dead in the cars, and the remainder were too ill and feeble to work. Emilie took the survivors into the factory and cared for them in a makeshift hospital until the end of the war. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the slaughter of his workers as the Red Army approached. On 7 May 1945 he and his workers gathered on the factory floor to listen to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announce over the radio that Germany had surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
Accompanied by Communist political prisoners, who served as guides, the Americans toured the prison camp and were shown the building, just outside the barbed wire enclosure, which housed the homicidal gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The Americans heard eye-witness accounts from Dachau survivors who said that prisoners had been gassed to death in the fake shower room; they also heard stories of how prisoners had been shoved into the crematory ovens while still alive. Bodies of fully-clothed dead inmates were found piled inside the new crematorium building and many more naked corpses were piled up outside. Outside the disinfection chambers, there was a huge pile of clothing waiting to be fumigated with Zyklon-B gas pellets.
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.
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.
After attending a series of trade schools in Brno and marrying Emilie Pelzl in 1928, Schindler held a variety of jobs, including working in his father's farm machinery business in Svitavy, opening a driving school in Sumperk, and selling government property in Brno. He also served in the Czechoslovak army and in 1938 attained the rank of lance corporal in the reserves. Schindler began working with the Amt Auslands/Abwehr (Office of the Military Foreign Intelligence) of the German Armed Forces in 1936. In February 1939, five months after the German annexation of the Sudetenland, he joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime rescuer. During World War II, Schindler would rescue more than 1,000 Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's largest camp complex.
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. 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, 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.:201:283
The names of the Nazis who are mainly responsible for the cruelty toward and murder of the prisoners are the following: Weckerle, Erpsmüller, Dr. Frank, Steinbrenner, Heini Straus, Hofmann and Kantschuster. The great majority of the Storm Troopers did not take part in the torturing of the prisoners. Some of the guards even had the courage openly to oppose the torturing and murdering of prisoners. They were placed in “protective custody.” Several of the Special Police sympathized with the prisoners, so that every third week the guard had to be changed, and only the most brutal were kept permanently at the camp.
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According to Marcus J. Smith, a US military doctor who was assigned to Dachau after it was liberated, there was an "experimental farm, the Plantage" just outside the concentration camp. Smith wrote in his book "The Harrowing of Hell" that "When the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) inspected, he seemed particularly interested in the Plantage, discoursing enthusiastically on the medicinal value of herbs."
According to Herbert Stolpmann, who was a former German soldier working for the US military at Dachau after the liberation of the camp, some of the Dachau prisoners lived with families in the town of Dachau during the war and worked for them. Stolpmann's father-in-law owned the Bielmeier bakery, which supplied bread for the prisoners in the camp. Two Russian boys, aged 13 and 14, lived with the family and worked at the bakery, which was called an Arbeitskommando or Work Commando. When the boys reached the ages of 16 and 17, they were taken to the camp and executed. They had been sentenced to death after they were captured as Partisans, but under the German law, no one under the age of 16 could be executed. The Bielmeier family also had a French woman from the Dachau camp living with them; she was engaged to be married to an SS guard, but she was also taken away, never to be seen again.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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."[o]
Although Dachau was initially established to hold political prisoners of the Third Reich, only a minority of whom were Jews, Dachau soon grew to hold a large and diverse population of people targeted by the Nazis. Under the oversight of Nazi Theodor Eicke, Dachau became a model concentration camp, a place where SS guards and other camp officials went to train.
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.
The excuse for setting up concentration camps, including the Dachau camp, was the hysteria following the burning of the Reichstag, which was the Congressional building in Berlin, on the night of February 27, 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Hermann Goering accused the Communists of starting the fire in protest of the appointment of Hitler as the Chancellor and the scheduled Congressional election to confirm his appointment, but the Communists claimed that the Nazis had set the fire themselves in order to begin a reign of terror. The arrests of Communists and Social Democrats began even before the fire was put out.
Also among the Dachau inmates were 109 anti-Nazi Protestant clergymen, including the Reverend Martin Niemöller, one of the founders of the Protestant Confessional Church. Niemöller had been tried in a German court and convicted of treason; after being sentenced to time served, he was first sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, then later to Buchnwald and finally to Dachau. After the war, he continued to preach against the Nazi regime, including making a speech before the American Congress.
The camp of huts near Fallingbostel became known as Stalag XI-B and was to become one of the Wehrmacht's largest POW camps, holding up to 95,000 prisoners from various countries. In June 1940, Belgian and French POWs were housed in the former Bergen-Belsen construction workers' camp. This installation was significantly expanded from June 1941, once Germany prepared to invade the Soviet Union, becoming an independent camp known as Stalag XI-C (311). It was intended to hold up to 20,000 Soviet POWs and was one of three such camps in the area. The others were at Oerbke (Stalag XI-D (321)) and Wietzendorf (Stalag X-D (310)). By the end of March 1942, some 41,000 Soviet POWs had died in these three camps of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. By the end of the war, the total number of dead had increased to 50,000. When the POW camp in Bergen ceased operation in early 1945, as the Wehrmacht handed it over to the SS, the cemetery contained over 19,500 dead Soviet prisoners.