A young man sits on an overturned stool next to a burnt body in the Thekla camp outside Leipzig, in April of 1945, after the US troops entered Leipzig April 18. On the 18th of April, the workers of the Thekla plane factory were locked in an isolated building of the factory by the Germans and burned alive by incendiary bombs. About 300 prisoners died. Those who managed to escape died on the barbed wire or were executed by the Hitler youth movement, according to a US captain's report. #
On April 18, 1945, the burial of the dead began. The staff members, who were now prisoners of the British, were ordered to do the work of burying the bodies. The British deliberately forced the SS staff to use only their bare hands to handle the corpses of prisoners who had died of contagious diseases. In the documentary film which was shown in the newsreels in theaters around the world, a British officer said that the Germans were being punished by not allowing them to use gloves to handle the bodies. According to Eberhard Kolb, 20 out of the 80 guards, who were forced to handle diseased bodies without wearing protective gear, died later and the majority of the deaths were from typhus.
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.
Dachau was the first and most important camp at which German doctors and scientists set up laboratories using inmates as involuntary guinea pigs for such experiments as determining the effects on human beings of sudden increases and decreases in atmospheric pressure, studying the effects of freezing on warm-blooded creatures, infecting prisoners with malaria and treating them with various drugs with unknown effects, and testing the effects of drinking seawater or going without food or water. Continued throughout World War II, such experiments and the harsh living conditions made Dachau one of the most notorious of camps. After the war, the scientists and doctors from this and other camps were tried at Nürnberg in the “Doctors’ Trial”; seven were sentenced to death. (See Nürnberg trials.)
The Dachau concentration camp opened on March 22, 1933. It was the first SS-run camp for "political prisoners" under Hitler's regime and became a model for the many SS prison camps that followed. Located in southern Germany, Dachau remained open until 1945 when it was liberated by U.S. troops. Approximately 200,000 people were detained during these years and an estimated 41,500 died.
1945 Photo by George Rodger: "It wasn't even a matter of what I was photographing, as what had happened to me in the process. When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen --4000 dead and starving lying around-- and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I felt I was like the people running the camp --it didn't mean a thing." George Rodger in "Dialogue with photography", Dewi Lewis Publishing.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party, was named chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg after the Nazi party won a significant percentage of the vote in the elections of 1932. The Nazi Party had taken advantage of the political unrest in Germany to gain an electoral foothold. The Nazis incited clashes with the communists and conducted a vicious propaganda campaign against its political opponents - the weak Weimar government and the Jews whom the Nazis blamed for Germany's ills.
Three defendants were acquitted. However, many of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust were never tried or punished, including Hitler who had committed suicide. Since then, the international community has continued and improved accountability through forums such as the International Criminal Court, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The camp's layout and building plans were developed by Kommandant Theodor Eicke and were applied to all later camps. He had a separate secure camp near the command center, which consisted of living quarters, administration, and army camps. Eicke became the chief inspector for all concentration camps, responsible for organizing others according to his model.
From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents (including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah's Witnesses). Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
A book entitled "Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army" was released only days after the camp was liberated. The information in this book was obtained from interviews with the Dachau survivors; half of the prisoners at Dachau on the day it was liberated had only been there for two weeks or less and some had arrived only the day before. The following quote is from page 48 of this book:
While there will always be those who question the motives of others, those who have examined Schindler’s efforts find him heroic. “The defining measure of Schindler’s commitment to doing everything possible to save his Jewish workers came in the fall of 1944, when Oskar chose to risk everything to move his armaments factory to Brunnlitz,” writes David Crowe, citing Dr. Moshe Bejski, who was saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. “Oskar could easily have closed his Krakow operations and retreated westward with the profits he had already made. Instead, he chose to risk his life and his money to save as many Jews as he could.”
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.
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.
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.”
When the 42nd U.S. Infantry Division liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its sub camps. American soldiers nearing the camp were appalled at the more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau. Inside the camp, the Americans discovered approximately 32,000 prisoners, crammed 1,600 to each of 20 barracks designed to house only 250 people.
"The fact is that all these were once clean-living and sane and certainly not the type to do harm to the Nazis. They are Jews and are dying now at the rate of three hundred a day. They must die and nothing can save them --their end is inescapable, they are too far gone now to be brought back to life. I saw their corpses lying near their hovels, for they crawl or totter out into the sunlight to die. I watched them make their last feeble journeys, and even as I watched they died."
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.
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case. Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees. This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency. The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.