Hadassah Bimko was born in Sosnowiec, Poland. She was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then to Bergen Belsen, where she arrived in November 1944. A dentist who studied medicine, Hadassah made a name for herself caring for children in Bergen Belsen before and after liberation.She headed a team of survivor-doctors and became the head of the Health Department of the Jewish Central Committee. She was broad-minded and well-educated.
Although many people responded with obstructionism and doubt, several rescue operations were run throughout Axis-controlled Europe. Some were the work of prominent individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who worked largely alone while other operations were far more complex. A network of Catholic bishops and clergymen organized local protests and shelter campaigns throughout much of Europe that are today estimated to have saved 860,000 lives. Danish fishermen clandestinely ferried more than 7,000 Jews into neutral Sweden while the French town of Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees.
While these massacres were happening, the Nazis elsewhere were laying plans for an overall 'solution to the Jewish question'. Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans, which were then driven to nearby sites where the bodies were plundered and burnt. 250,000 Jews were killed this way at Chelmno and 15,000 at Semlin.
These outdoor 'wild' camps were little more than improvised barbed-wire stockades where prisoners were subjected to military-style drills and random beatings. The storm troopers soon discovered that desperate family members would gather up whatever money they could find to ransom their loved ones out of the place. Thus began a lucrative practice of hauling off prisoners simply to hold them until sufficient ransom was received.
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.
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.
Until 1943, Bergen-Belsen was exclusively a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. In April 1943 the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA) which administered the concentration camp system, took over a portion of Bergen-Belsen and converted it first into a civilian residence camp and, later, into a concentration camp. Thus, while the German government placed the Bergen-Belsen camp complex within the concentration camp system, the WVHA initially gave it a special designation.
In his book From Belsen to Buckingham Palace Paul Oppenheimer tells of the events leading up to the internment of his whole family at the camp and their incarceration there between February 1944 and April 1945, when he was aged 14–15. Following publication of the book, Oppenheimer personally talked to many groups and schools about the events he witnessed. This work is now continued by his brother Rudi, who shared the experiences.
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.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.