After the German surrender on May 7, 1945, the American Army took over the barracks of the SS garrison and set up a command post called Eastman which they occupied until 1973. On the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, all available American soldiers were brought to Dachau so that they could be eye-witnesses to the existence of the homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.
Dachau was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. Among their most-gruesome discoveries were railroad cars filled with Jewish prisoners who had died en route to the camp and had been left to decompose. American and British media coverage of Dachau and other newly liberated camps—which included photographs published in magazines and newsreel footage shown in cinemas—profoundly shaped the public’s understanding of the atrocities that had occurred.
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.
At the same time this little boy miraculously survived the same camp, Bergen-Belsen! More than any other photos, this famous photograph captures the essence of the horrors of Holocaust: Warsaw 1943, a little Jewish boy dressed in short trousers and a cap, raises his arms in surrender with lowered eyes, as a Nazi soldier trains his machine gun on him.
We continued to sing, to laugh, to dream, before the flames of the bonfires. We knew nothing as yet of the three hundred dead, twice the daily average of the last weeks before the liberation. We could not foresee that this figure would go even higher in the months to come and that our captivity was still far from being over. We could not admit that there were some among us who would never leave Dachau alive, as its inexorable law demanded. Dachau was to become in a way the symbol of all Europe, which believed itself freed, but was really only changing masters.
The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
Only one trial was ever held by a German court for crimes committed at Belsen, at Jena in 1949; the defendant was acquitted. More than 200 other SS members who were at Belsen have been known by name but never had to stand trial. No Wehrmacht soldier was ever put on trial for crimes committed against the inmates of the POW camps at Bergen-Belsen and in the region around it, despite the fact that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had found in 1946 that the treatment of Soviet POWs by the Wehrmacht constituted a war crime.:39
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.
The Nazis introduced a racial hierarchy—keeping Poles in harsh conditions, while favoring German priests.:148 697 Poles arrived in December 1941, and a further 500 of mainly elderly clergy were brought in October the following year. Inadequately clothed for the bitter cold, of this group only 82 survived. A large number of Polish priests were chosen for Nazi medical experiments. In November 1942, 20 were given phlegmons. 120 were used by Dr Schilling for malaria experiments between July 1942 and May 1944. Several Poles met their deaths with the "invalid trains" sent out from the camp, others were liquidated in the camp and given bogus death certificates. Some died of cruel punishment for misdemeanors—beaten to death or run to exhaustion.:148–9
German-occupied Denmark rescued most of its own Jews by spiriting them to Sweden by sea in October 1943. This was possible partly because the German presence in Denmark was relatively small. Moreover, while anti-Semitism in the general population of many other countries led to collaboration with the Germans, Jews were an integrated part of Danish culture. Under these unique circumstances, Danish humanitarianism flourished.
The display, which was reworked in 2003, takes the visitor through the path of new arrivals to the camp. Special presentations of some of the notable prisoners are also provided. Two of the barracks have been rebuilt and one shows a cross-section of the entire history of the camp, since the original barracks had to be torn down due to their poor condition when the memorial was built. The other 32 barracks are indicated by concrete foundations. The memorial includes four chapels for the various religions represented among the prisoners.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
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
Every morning started with the dreaded command, "Appelle!" (roll-call!). Regardless of the weather, the prisoners were required to march outside at dawn and stand at attention in formation to be counted. Upon the command, "Hats Off!" the entire assembly of 9,000 men was required to remove all hats precisely at the same moment to the satisfaction of the SS man in charge. Prisoners sometimes practiced this and other drills for hours with some actually dropping dead from the length and rigor of roll-call. When the tally of prisoners was complete and the SS officer in command was satisfied, the prisoners were marched off to begin their 12-hour workday in a camp workshop or along the camp grounds.
I was surprised to find records, going back for two or three years, of large quantities of food cooked daily for distribution. I became convinced, contrary to popular opinion, that there had never been a policy of deliberate starvation. This was confirmed by the large numbers of well-fed inmates. Why then were so many people suffering from malnutrition?... The major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs.
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 name 'Belsen' invokes tremor in Jews' hearts. Belsen is engraved in the Jewish consciousness as one of the most cursed places in Germany, where the bones of tens of thousands of Jewish victims are buried. The Belsen camp is, in Jews' memories and in the memories of all people in the world, a camp of starvation, and unbelievable filth which caused diseases and plagues. Belsen has become a symbol of man's inhumanity to man.
Mass grave at Belsen camp, shortly after its liberation by British troops. Photographs such as this are widely reproduced as proof of a German policy of extermination. Contrary to Allied propaganda claims of the time, and Holocaust allegations in recent decades, though, these unfortunate prisoners were victims of typhus and starvation that were indirect consequences of the war – not of any deliberate policy. At least 14,000 Jews died in the camp following the British takeover.
Płaszów concentration camp opened in March 1943 on the former site of two Jewish cemeteries on Jerozilimska Street, about 2.5 kilometres (1.6 mi) from the DEF factory. In charge of the camp was SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth, a sadist who would shoot inmates of the camp at random. Inmates at Płaszów lived in constant fear for their lives. Emilie Schindler called Göth "the most despicable man I have ever met."
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
Jewish refugees were the subject of two international conferences, at Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943. Neither conference resulted in any concrete action. In general, Britain treated refugees from Nazi Germany as economic migrants, and took in only those who would be of economic benefit to the country. About 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme, and placed with British families, but their parents were excluded and had to pay for their children's support. The best that can be said for Britain's refugee policy is that it was less ungenerous than that of most other European states at the time.
The worst killer was typhus, but typhoid fever and dysentery also claimed many lives. Aggravating the situation was a policy during the final months of transferring already sick inmates from other camps to Belsen, which was then officially designated a sick or convalescence camp (Krankenlager). The sick women of Auschwitz, for example, were transferred to Belsen in three groups in November-December 1944. /12
Indelibly scarred by the savagery and suffering he confronted during World War II—in England during the Blitz; in war-torn Southeast Asia and Europe; and, especially, in Bergen-Belsen—George Rodger did not work as a war photographer again. He did, however, continue to travel and photograph around the world in the decades after the war—particularly in Africa, where he made some of his most celebrated pictures.
During the liberation of the sub-camps surrounding Dachau, advance scouts of the U.S. Army's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a segregated battalion consisting of Nisei, 2nd generation Japanese-Americans, liberated the 3,000 prisoners of the "Kaufering IV Hurlach" slave labor camp. Perisco describes an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) team (code name LUXE) leading Army Intelligence to a "Camp IV" on 29 April. "They found the camp afire and a stack of some four hundred bodies burning ... American soldiers then went into Landsberg and rounded up all the male civilians they could find and marched them out to the camp. The former commandant was forced to lie amidst a pile of corpses. The male population of Landsberg was then ordered to walk by, and ordered to spit on the commandant as they passed. The commandant was then turned over to a group of liberated camp survivors". The 522nd's personnel later discovered the survivors of a death march headed generally southwards from the Dachau main camp to Eurasburg, then eastwards towards the Austrian border on 2 May, just west of the town of Waakirchen.
The Nazis regarded the Slavs as subhuman, or Untermenschen. In a secret memorandum dated 25 May 1940, Himmler stated that it was in German interests to foster divisions between the ethnic groups in the East. He wanted to restrict non-Germans in the conquered territories to schools that would only teach them how to write their own name, count up to 500, and obey Germans.[y] In November 1939 German planners called for "the complete destruction" of all Poles and resettlement of the land by German colonists. The Polish political leadership was the target of a campaign of murder (Intelligenzaktion and AB-Aktion). Between 1.8 and 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish citizens perished at German hands during the course of the war; about four-fifths were ethnic Poles and the rest Ukrainians and Belarusians. At least 200,000 died in concentration camps, around 146,000 in Auschwitz. Others died in massacres or in uprisings such as the Warsaw Uprising, where 120,000–200,000 were killed. During the occupation, the Germans adopted a policy of restricting food and medical services, as well as degrading sanitation and public hygiene. The death rate rose from 13 per 1000 before the war to 18 per 1000 during the war. Around 6 million of World War II victims were Polish citizens; half the death toll were Jews. Over the course of the war Poland lost 20 percent of its pre-war population. Over 90 percent of the death toll came through non-military losses, through various deliberate actions by Germany and the Soviet Union. Polish children were also kidnapped by Germans to be "Germanized", with perhaps as many as 200,000 children stolen from their families.
On the night of 9-10 November 1938, Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr Josef Goebbels organised the violent outburst known as Kristallnacht ('Crystal Night', the night of broken glass). While the police stood by, Nazi stormtroopers in civilian clothes burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes throughout Germany and Austria, terrorising and beating men, women and children. Ninety-one Jews were murdered and over 20,000 men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Afterwards the Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks to pay for the damage.
You see, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated these people were let loose. So we were wandering. We were wandering from one place to another. And there were warehouses. We came to a building, and we walked in, and I still see rows and rows and shelves of handbags, ladies' handbags. As we were walking over there to reach those shelves, I sort of stepped on something. And I said to my friend, "Look! There's a body!" You see, somebody, one of these inmates who wandered to these warehouses and dropped dead from exhaustion or something. And she says, "What do you want me to do about it?" I said, "Let's carry it out." She said, "Are you crazy? You can't carry that out." and she took a few packages of these linens and dropped it on (the body). And then we went to the shelves, and she wanted a handbag. And I wasn't in the mood anymore for the handbag. She pulled out one handbag. It was an alligator handbag. She says, "Take this one." I took it, and she took another one, and we walked out. And I remember, as we left the place, I just threw back the bag. I said, "I don't want it." - and walked away. And this only came back. I never thought about it.
For a long time, however, remembering Bergen-Belsen was not a political priority. Periods of attention were followed by long phases of official neglect. For much of the 1950s, Belsen "was increasingly forgotten as a place of remembrance". Only after 1957 did large groups of young people visit the place where Anne Frank had died. After anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled on the Cologne synagogue over Christmas 1959, German chancellor Konrad Adenauer followed a suggestion by Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, and visited the site of a former concentration camp for the first time. In a speech at the Bergen-Belsen memorial, Adenauer assured the Jews still living in Germany that they would have the same respect and security as everyone else.:42 Afterwards, the German public saw the Belsen memorial as primarily a Jewish place of remembrance. Nevertheless, the memorial was redesigned in 1960–61. In 1966, a document centre was opened which offered a permanent exhibition on the persecution of the Jews, with a focus on events in the nearby Netherlands – where Anne Frank and her family had been arrested in 1944. This was complemented by an overview of the history of the Bergen-Belsen camp. This was the first ever permanent exhibit anywhere in Germany on the topic of Nazi crimes.:42 However, there was still no scientific personnel at the site, with only a caretaker as permanent staff. Memorial events were only organized by the survivors themselves.