Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of Bergenbelsen became a concentration camp. Initially it was an “exchange camp,” where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps. It is also the location where writer Anne Frank passed away.
During the first three weeks the camp was under the command of the regular police fore. Then the Nazis appeared one night to take over control. Their leader made a speech to his followers, of which the following quotations are of interest: “Always remember that no human beings are here, only swine.”—“Whoever does not wish to see blood may go home immediately.”—“No one who does harm to a prisoner need fear reprimand.”—“The more you shoot, the fewer we must feed.”
After the SS re-designated Plaszow as a concentration camp in August 1943, Schindler persuaded the SS to convert Emalia into a subcamp of Plaszow. In addition to the approximately 1,000 Jewish forced laborers registered as factory workers, Schindler permitted 450 Jews working in other nearby factories to live at Emalia as well. This saved them from the systematic brutality and arbitrary murder that was part of daily life in Plaszow.
But the personalities and characteristics of human beings cannot be spliced. Sometimes character flaws, such as hubris, also lead to great achievements through a willingness to attempt something most people never would. Oskar’s espionage activities on behalf of Germany, while regrettable to enemies of Germany, later put him in a position to save many lives.
When the Nazi’s rose to power they built facilities to hold and, eventually kill, their enemies. When the first concentration camps were built in 1933, this primarily meant political dissidents and opponents of the Nazi government, such as German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats but would grow to include asocial groups – Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the homeless, the mentally ill and homosexuals. It was not until Kristallnacht that the prisoners became primarily Jewish.
Each barracks consists of five connecting rooms, in each of which fifty-two prisoners are lodged. Each room is equipped with fifty-two berths, in tiers of three, rough tables and benches. The floor is concrete. The prisoners sleep on straw sacks covered with a sheet which is changed once in two months. The walls are only a few inches thick, and the ill fitting windows offer almost no protection against the icy cold, wind or rain. For each fifty-two men a small washstand is provided, and the time allotted for washing, for the whole group, is only twenty-five minutes.
Sprawozdanie 6/42 was sent to Polish officials in London by courier and had reached them by 12 November 1942, when it was translated into English and added to another report, "Report on Conditions in Poland". Dated 27 November, this was forwarded to the Polish Embassy in the United States. On 10 December 1942, the Polish Foreign Affairs Minister, Edward Raczyński, addressed the fledgling United Nations on the killings; the address was distributed with the title The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland. He told them about the use of poison gas; about Treblinka, Bełżec and Sobibor; that the Polish underground had referred to them as extermination camps; and that tens of thousands of Jews had been killed in Bełżec in March and April 1942. One in three Jews in Poland were already dead, he estimated, from a population of 3,130,000. Raczyński's address was covered by the New York Times and The Times of London. Winston Churchill received it, and Anthony Eden presented it to the British cabinet. On 17 December 1942, 11 Allies issued the Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations condemning the "bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination".
Responding to domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, the Évian Conference on resettlement, in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938. In his invitation to government leaders, Roosevelt specified that they would not have to change laws or spend government funds; only philanthropic funds would be used for resettlement. Britain was assured that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The result was that little was attempted and less accomplished.
His middle-class Catholic family belonged to the German-speaking community in the Sudetenland. The young Schindler, who attended German grammar school and studied engineering, was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and take charge of the family farm-machinery plant. Some of Schindler’s schoolmates and childhood neighbors were Jews, but with none of them did he develop an intimate or lasting friendship. Like most of the German-speaking youths of the Sudetenland, he subscribed to Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German Party, which strongly supported the Nazi Germany and actively strove for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and their annexation to Germany . When the Sudetenland was incorporated into Nazi Germany in 1938, Schindler became a formal member of the Nazi party.
During World War II the main camp was supplemented by about 150 branches scattered throughout southern Germany and Austria, all of which collectively were called Dachau. (This southern system complemented the camps for central and northern Germany, at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.) In the course of Dachau’s history, at least 160,000 prisoners passed through the main camp, and 90,000 through the branches. Incomplete records indicate that at least 32,000 of the inmates died there from disease, malnutrition, physical oppression, and execution, but countless more were transported to the extermination camps in German-occupied Poland.
By October of the same year the camp was being used by the U.S. Army as a place of confinement for war criminals, the SS and important witnesses. It was also the site of the Dachau Trials for German war criminals, a site chosen for its symbolism. In 1948 the Bavarian government established housing for refugees on the site, and this remained for many years. Among those held in the Dachau internment camp set up under the U.S. Army were Elsa Ehrich, Maria Mandl, and Elisabeth Ruppert.
Another important correction to the historical record: Itzhak Stern, played in the movie by Ben Kingsley, was actually a composite of a number of people, including Mietek Pemper, who played a crucial role in putting Oskar Schindler in the position to save many people. Pemper had the unfortunate task of being forced to work as the assistant to Amon Goth, the sadistic commandant of the Krakow-Płaszow concentration camp. In that position, Pemper passed along valuable information to Oskar. As the German war effort neared collapse, Pemper told Schindler he needed to expand into armaments because only factories deemed vital to the war effort would be viewed worth saving, along with, it was hoped, the workers in those factories.
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.
Throughout its history, Dachau was primarily a camp for men; it was used to incarcerate Communists, Social Democrats, trade union leaders, religious dissidents, common criminals, Gypsy men, homosexuals, asocials, spies, resistance fighters, and others who were considered "enemies of the state." It was not a death camp for the genocide of the Jews, although there were Jewish prisoners at Dachau.
From 1945 until 1950, when it was finally shut down, the British maintained Belsen as a camp for displaced European Jews. During this period it achieved new notoriety as a major European black market center. The "uncrowned king" of Belsen's 10,000 Jews was Yossl (Josef) Rosensaft, who amassed tremendous profits from the illegal trading. Rosensaft had been interned in various camps, including Auschwitz, before arriving in Belsen in early April 1945. /42
When the war was over, a penniless Schindler moved to West Germany where he received financial assistance from Jewish relief organizations. However, he soon felt unsafe there after receiving threats from former Nazi officers. He tried to move to the United States, but because he had been part of the Nazi Party, he was denied entry. After obtaining partial reimbursement for his expenses he incurred during the war, Schindler was able to emigrate to Buenos Aires, Argentina, taking his wife, mistress and a dozen of his Jewish workers (aka "Schindler Jews"). There, he set up a new life, where he took up farming for a time.
His grip on German society tightened and those who publicly objected to Nazi policies were often sentenced to hard labour in the rapidly expanding concentration camp system. Jews were subjected to further laws restricting their rights, but rising anti-Semitism in Europe wasn’t limited to Germany. In the UK, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists gained support from sections of the public and press, even filling the Royal Albert Hall in April.
Due to horrific overcrowding and the spread of contagious diseases brought from what is now Poland by new arrivals who had been evacuated from the death camps, the number of recorded deaths at Dachau in the last four chaotic months of the war jumped to 13,158. After the camp was liberated by the US Seventh Army on April 29, 1945, an additional 2,226 prisoners died from disease in the month of May and 196 more died in June.
Treatment inside the concentration camps were horrible. Prisoners were given tiny rations of food and forced into physical labor. They often slept more than three to a bed without pillows or blankets, even in the winter months. In many concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will, in many cases killing the prisoners in the process.
Prisoners on a death march from Dachau move towards the south along the Noerdliche Muenchner Street in Gruenwald, Germany, on April 29, 1945. Many thousands of prisoners were marched forcibly from outlying prison camps to camps deeper inside Germany as Allied forces closed in. Thousands died along the way, anyone unable to keep up was executed on the spot. Pictured, fourth from the right, is Dimitry Gorky who was born on August 19, 1920 in Blagoslovskoe, Russia to a family of peasant farmers. During World War II Dmitry was imprisoned in Dachau for 22 months. The reason for his imprisonment is not known. Photo released by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. #
The Nazis also used Dachau prisoners as subjects in brutal medical experiments. For example, inmates were obligated to be guinea pigs in a series of tests to determine the feasibility of reviving individuals immersed in freezing water. For hours at a time, prisoners were forcibly submerged in tanks filled with ice water. Some prisoners died during the process.
"Coming back to Bergen Belsen, I met the people from the Jewish Relief Unit from England and the Joint American Distribution Committee. In 1946 one of the nurses who came from England was a former Berlin girl, Alice Retlick, and we got to be friends. We got married on the 20th of June 1948 by the Chief Rabbi of the British Army, Chaplain Levy, and our Rabbi Asaria Helfgott. It was a great day."6
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.
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
Working together with both Commandant Kramer and chief inmate representative Kuestermeier, Colonel Hanns Schmidt responded by arranging for the local volunteer fire department to provide water. He also saw to it that food supplies were brought to the camp from abandoned rail cars. Schmidt later recalled that Kramer "did not at all impress one as a criminal type. He acted like an upright and rather honorable man. Neither did he strike me as someone with a guilty conscience. He worked with great dedication to improve conditions in the camp. For example, he rounded up horse drawn vehicles to bring food to the camp from rail cars that had been shot up." /17
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.
Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners in concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
Italy introduced some antisemitic measures, but there was less antisemitism there than in Germany, and Italian-occupied countries were generally safer for Jews than German-occupied territories. In some areas, the Italian authorities even tried to protect Jews, such as in the Croatian areas of the Balkans. But while Italian forces in Russia were not as vicious towards Jews as the Germans, they did not try to stop German atrocities either. There were no deportations of Italian Jews to Germany while Italy remained an ally. Several forced labor camps for Jews were established in Italian-controlled Libya. Almost 2,600 Libyan Jews were sent to camps, where 562 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.
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.
Prisoners continued to die, in spite of the medical treatment provided by the Red Cross and the British Army. Nine thousand died in the first two weeks after the British arrived, and another 4000 died in May. The bodies were thrown into unmarked mass graves, even though the identities of these prisoners were known. Today none of the mass graves at Bergen-Belsen has a stone with the names of those who are buried there.
To more than 1200 Jews Oscar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man full of flaws like the rest of us - the unlikeliest of all role models who started by earning millions as a war profiteer and ended by spending his last pfennig and risking his life to save his Jews. An ordinary man who even in the worst of circumstances did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. In the shadow of Auschwitz he kept the SS out and everyone alive.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, thirty-one-year-old Schindler showed up in occupied Krakow. The ancient city, home to some 60,000 Jews and seat of the German occupation administration, the Generalgouvernement, proved highly attractive to German entrepreneurs, hoping to capitalize on the misfortunes of the subjugated country and make a fortune. Naturally cunning and none too scrupulous, Schindler appeared at first to thrive in these surroundings. In October 1939, he took over a run-down enamelware factory that had previously belonged to a Jew. He cleverly maneuvered his steps- acting upon the shrewd commercial advice of a Polish-Jewish accountant, Isaak Stern - and began to build himself a fortune. The small concern in Zablocie outside Krakow, which started producing kitchenware for the German army, began to grow by leaps and bounds. After only three months it already had a task-force of some 250 Polish workers, among them seven Jews. By the end of 1942, it had expanded into a mammoth enamel and ammunitions production plant, occupying some 45,000 square meters and employing almost 800 men and women. Of these, 370 were Jews from the Krakow ghetto, which the Germans had established after they entered the city.
The British military authorities ordered the construction of a permanent memorial in September 1945 after having been lambasted by the press for the desolate state of the camp.:41 In the summer of 1946, a commission presented the design plan, which included the obelisk and memorial walls. The memorial was finally inaugurated in a large ceremony in November 1952, with the participation of Germany's president Theodor Heuss, who called on the Germans never to forget what had happened at Belsen.:41