Jewish deportees in the Drancy transit camp near Paris, France, in 1942, on their last stop before the German concentration camps. Some 13,152 Jews (including 4,115 children) were rounded up by French police forces, taken from their homes to the "Vel d'Hiv", or winter cycling stadium in southwestern Paris, in July of 1942. They were later taken to a rail terminal at Drancy, northeast of the French capital, and then deported to the east. Only a handful ever returned. #
Germany implemented the persecution of the Jews in stages. Following Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933, the regime built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and those deemed "undesirable", starting with Dachau on 22 March 1933. After the passing of the Enabling Act on 24 March, which gave Hitler plenary powers, the government began isolating Jews from civil society, which included a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933 and enacting the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935. On 9–10 November 1938, during Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass"), Jewish businesses and other buildings were ransacked, smashed or set on fire throughout Germany and Austria, which Germany had annexed in March that year. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Eventually thousands of camps and other detention sites were established across German-occupied Europe.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
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.
A tablet at the camp commemorates the liberation of Dachau by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on 29 April 1945. Others claim that the first forces to enter the main camp were a battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division commanded by Felix L. Sparks. There is an on-going disagreement as to which division, the 42nd or the 45th, actually liberated Dachau because they seem to have approached by different routes and by the American Army’s definition, anyone arriving at such a camp within 48 hours was a liberator. General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp after it was liberated, but not Dachau.
At the present time the camp harbors about 1,700 prisoners, the majority of whom are either Communists or members of organizations known as sympathetic, such as workers’ athletic and relief organizations. Some hundred prisoners are Social Democrats, Socialist Workers’ party members, students, lawyers and doctors, who were either active politically or known as pacifists. There are about forty Jews, mostly manual workers or clerks. A few of them were business men from small villages in northern Bavaria who had been arrested from motives of personal rancor or envy. None of the prisoners could be convicted of any violation of law, but they are nevertheless detained for an indefinite period.
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187
"Come on. Get up," the sergeant shouted [in the next cell]. The man was lying in his blood on the floor, a massive figure with a heavy head and bedraggled beard ... "Why don't you kill me?" he whispered. "Why don't you kill me? I can't stand it any more." The same phrases dribbled out of his lips over and over again. "He's been saying that all morning, the dirty bastard," the sergeant said.
In May 1944, Martin Gottfried Weiss was appointed the department head of the Office Group D in the SS Main Office of Economic Administration (WVHA) at Oranienburg. That same year, Weiss became the commander of the five sub-camps of Dachau at Mühldorf; when the Mühldorf prisoners were evacuated and brought to the main camp in the Spring of 1945, Weiss returned to Dachau. Fourteen members of the staff at Mühldorf were put on trial at Dachau from April 1 through May 13, 1947 in the case of US vs. Franz Auer et al.
On the evening of November 9, 1938, carefully orchestrated anti-Jewish violence “erupted” throughout the Reich, which since March had included Austria. Over the next 48 hours rioters burned or damaged more than 1,000 synagogues and ransacked and broke the windows of more than 7,500 businesses. Some 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Police stood by as the violence—often the action of neighbours, not strangers—occurred. Firemen were present not to protect the synagogues but to ensure that the flames did not spread to adjacent “Aryan” property. The pogrom was given a quaint name: Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night,” or “Night of Broken Glass”). In its aftermath, Jews lost the illusion that they had a future in Germany.
Schindler was founded in 1874 by Robert Schindler and Eduard Villiger. Soon, they established a mechanical engineering workshop on an island in the Reuss River in Lucerne, Switzerland. At that time, the company was called "Schindler & Villiger". In 1892, Eduard Villiger leaves the partnership and the company continues under the name of Robert Schindler, Machinery Manufacturer.
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."
Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious and lethal of the concentration camps, was actually three camps in one: a prison camp (Auschwitz I), an extermination camp (Auschwitz II–Birkenau), and a slave labour camp (Auschwitz III–Buna-Monowitz). Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners faced what was called a Selektion. A German doctor presided over the selection of pregnant women, young children, the elderly, handicapped, sick, and infirm for immediate death in the gas chambers. As necessary, the Germans selected able-bodied prisoners for forced labour in the factories adjacent to Auschwitz, where one German company, IG Farben, invested 700 million Reichsmarks in 1942 alone to take advantage of forced labour, a capital investment. The conglomerate presumed that slave labour would be a permanent part of the German economy. Deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, these prisoners were literally worked to death. Periodically, they would face another Selektion. The Nazis would transfer those unable to work to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
Although the prisoners deployed at Emalia were still subject to the brutal conditions of the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler intervened repeatedly on their behalf. He used bribes and personal diplomacy both for the well-being of Jews threatened on an individual basis and to ensure, until late 1944, that the SS did not deport his Jewish workers. In order to claim the Jewish workers to be essential to the war effort, he added an armaments manufacturing division to Emalia. During the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, Schindler allowed his Jewish workers to stay at the factory overnight.
The Nazis used the phrase Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) in reference to the disabled and mentally ill. On 14 July 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), the Sterilization Law, was passed, allowing for compulsory sterilization. The New York Times reported on 21 December that year: "400,000 Germans to be sterilized". There were 84,525 applications from doctors in the first year. The courts reached a decision in 64,499 of those cases; 56,244 were in favor of sterilization. Estimates for the number of involuntary sterilizations during the whole of the Third Reich range from 300,000 to 400,000.
Concentration camps began to incarcerate ‘habitual criminals’ in addition to political prisoners. Goebbels stepped up anti-Semitic propaganda with a traveling exhibition which cast Jews as the enemy. Nearly half a million people attended. Some guessed worse would come. Winston Churchill criticised British relations with Germany, warning of ‘great evils of racial and religious intolerance’, though many colleagues complained of his ‘harping on’ about Jews.
Testimony of Dr. Russell Barton, Feb. 7, 1985, in the first "Holocaust" trial of Ernst Zündel. Official trial transcript, pp. 2916-2917; See also Barton's testimony during the second, 1988 Zündel trial in: Barbara Kulaszka, ed., Did Six Million Really Die? (Toronto: Samisdat, 1992), p. 175, and, Robert Lenski, The Holocaust on Trial: The Case of Ernst Zündel (Decatur, Ala.: Reporter Press, 1990), p. 159.
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
In addition to workers, Schindler moved 250 wagon loads of machinery and raw materials to the new factory. Few if any useful artillery shells were produced at the plant. When officials from the Armaments Ministry questioned the factory's low output, Schindler bought finished goods on the black market and resold them as his own. The rations provided by the SS were insufficient to meet the needs of the workers, so Schindler spent most of his time in Kraków, obtaining food, armaments, and other materials. His wife Emilie remained in Brünnlitz, surreptitiously obtaining additional rations and caring for the workers' health and other basic needs. Schindler also arranged for the transfer of as many as 3,000 Jewish women out of Auschwitz to small textiles plants in the Sudetenland in an effort to increase their chances of surviving the war.
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.
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Oskar Schindler was a German who joined the Nazi Party for business reasons. Before the war, Schindler was known mainly for his interest in making quick money, drinking, and womanizing. Indeed, he saw the war at first as a chance to indulge in all three. Soon after the invasion of Poland, he came to the city of Kraków in search of business opportunities. With equal doses of bribery and charm, he managed to convince the Nazis that he was the right man to take over a failed cookware factory outside the city. He then proceeded to make a fortune turning out mess kits for German soldiers.
The economic strains of the Great Depression led some in the German medical establishment to advocate murder (euphemistically called "euthanasia") of the "incurable" mentally and physically disabled as a cost-saving measure to free up funds for the curable. By the time the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party,[j] came to power in 1933, there was already a tendency to seek to save the racially "valuable", while ridding society of the racially "undesirable". The party had originated in 1920 as an offshoot of the völkisch movement, and it adopted that movement's antisemitism. Early antisemites in the party included Dietrich Eckart, publisher of the Völkischer Beobachter, the party's newspaper, and Alfred Rosenberg, who wrote antisemitic articles for it in the 1920s. Rosenberg's vision of a secretive Jewish conspiracy ruling the world would influence Hitler's views of Jews by making them the driving force behind communism. The origin and first expression of Hitler's antisemitism remain a matter of debate. Central to his world view was the idea of expansion and lebensraum (living space) for Germany. Open about his hatred of Jews, he subscribed to the common antisemitic stereotypes. From the early 1920s onwards, he compared the Jews to germs and said they should be dealt with in the same way. He viewed Marxism as a Jewish doctrine, said he was fighting against "Jewish Marxism", and believed that Jews had created communism as part of a conspiracy to destroy Germany.
New arrivals at Dachau were never told how long they would be imprisoned, a factor that weakened their morale and left them more vulnerable to the remolding that would follow. Often, their journey to Dachau marked the first time they had ever been arrested or involved with police. Many had been sent there by the Gestapo upon vague accusations or denunciations by persons who simply disliked them or who wanted to settle an old score. Some were even arrested on suspicion they might commit a crime in the future.
Schindler was the eldest of two children born to a farm machinery manufacturer and his wife. Svitavy, where the family lived, was located in the Sudetenland, and, though the region passed from the Austrian Empire to Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Schindlers were ethnically German. After leaving school in 1924, Schindler sold farm equipment for his father, during which time he met his future wife, Emilie, whom he married in 1928. He took a variety of odd jobs, including running a driving school, before enlisting for a stint in the Czechoslovak army. Schindler then briefly lived in Berlin before returning to Czechoslovakia to start a poultry farm, which he soon abandoned. A self-professed sybarite, he spent much of his time drinking and philandering.
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
“At this point in the war and in his life, I think Oskar Schindler was absolutely determined to do everything he could to save as many Jews as he could regardless of the cost, either personal or financial,” writes Crowe. “During the last two years of the war, he had undergone a dramatic moral transformation, and, in many ways, he came more and more to associate himself with his Jews than with other Germans.”
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding.
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.