Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
In 1980, Australian author Thomas Keneally by chance visited Pfefferberg's luggage store in Beverly Hills while en route home from a film festival in Europe. Pfefferberg took the opportunity to tell Keneally the story of Oskar Schindler. He gave him copies of some materials he had on file, and Keneally soon decided to make a fictionalised treatment of the story. After extensive research and interviews with surviving Schindlerjuden, his 1982 historical novel Schindler's Ark (published in the United States as Schindler's List) was the result.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
Oskar Schindler did not create “Schindler’s List.” In 1944, with Germany threatened militarily, exterminating Jews increased in many places, but a strategy to move factories deemed vital to the war effort also emerged. Oskar Schindler convinced German authorities his factory was vital and that he needed trained workers. But Schindler did not author or dictate the list of who would go on the transport, as was dramatically depicted in the Steven Spielberg film.
After invading Poland, the Germans established ghettos in the incorporated territories and General Government to confine Jews. The ghettos were formed and closed off from the outside world at different times and for different reasons. For example, the Łódź ghetto was closed in April 1940, to force the Jews inside to give up money and valuables; the Warsaw ghetto was closed for health considerations (for the people outside, not inside, the ghetto), but this did not happen until November 1940; and the Kraków ghetto was not established until March 1941. The Warsaw Ghetto contained 380,000 people and was the largest ghetto in Poland; the Łódź Ghetto was the second largest, holding between 160,000 to 223,000. Because of the long drawn-out process of establishing ghettos, it is unlikely that they were originally considered part of a systematic attempt to eliminate Jews completely.
My father supervised work parties in which Irma Grese was forced to carry corpses for burial and he described her as really beautiful but utterly evil. Most of the SS guards were evil and Dad had trouble stopping his men from shooting them out of hand, especially when the SS prisoners protested about having to work in burial details. He was tempted to do so himself. He told me that Bergen-Belsen brought home to him what they had been fighting, evil from the pit of hell itself.
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.
The site is open to the public and includes monuments to the dead, including a successor to the wooden cross of 1945, some individual memorial stones and a "House of Silence" for reflection. In addition to the Jewish, Polish and Dutch national memorials, a memorial to eight Turkish citizens who were killed at Belsen was dedicated in December 2012.
As their health improved, survivors were sent to pick out new clothes from a supply store nicknamed 'Harrods'. This 'shop' was stocked with clothing provided by relief organisations or taken from German towns nearby. Norna Alexander was a nurse with 29th British General Hospital, which arrived at Bergen-Belsen just over a month after its liberation. Here she describes 'Harrods' and the effect new clothes had on the survivors' morale.
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.