When the Nazis occupied western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews - Europe's largest Jewish community - fell into their hands. The Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that 500,000 people died of starvation and disease. Nazi policy at this point was aimed at forced emigration and isolation of the Jews rather than mass murder, but large numbers were to die through attrition.
"Come on. Get up," the sergeant shouted [in the next cell]. The man was lying in his blood on the floor, a massive figure with a heavy head and bedraggled beard ... "Why don't you kill me?" he whispered. "Why don't you kill me? I can't stand it any more." The same phrases dribbled out of his lips over and over again. "He's been saying that all morning, the dirty bastard," the sergeant said.
ST. LAURENT - As an 11 year-old boy held captive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II, Moshe Peer was sent to the gas chamber at least six times. Each time he survived, watching with horror as many of the women and children gassed with him collapsed and died. To this day, Peer doesn't know how he was able to survive. "Maybe children resist better, I don't know," he said in an interview last week.
Bergen-Belsen was first established in 1940 as a prisoner of war camp. From 1943, Jewish civilians with foreign passports were held as ‘leverage’ in possible exchanges for Germans interned in Allied countries or for money. It later became a concentration camp and was used as a collection centre for survivors of the death marches. The camp became exceptionally overcrowded and, as a result of the Germans’ neglect, conditions were allowed to deteriorate further in the last months of the war, causing many more deaths.
Advocacy organizations worldwide called for British Royal Air Forces to bomb concentration camps particularly at Auschwitz. Although the plan was adopted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill poor information-sharing between parts of the British government led the order to be ignored and the plan dropped. Such calculations were hardly the low point of Allied Responses. One story has that, low on supplies, the Nazis offered the British a million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks, which one British diplomat promptly refused saying, “What would I do with one million Jews? Where would I put them?”
From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally ill. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
The camp included an administration building that contained offices for the Gestapo trial commissioner, SS authorities, the camp leader and his deputies. These administration offices consisted of large storage rooms for the personal belongings of prisoners, the bunker, roll-call square where guards would also inflict punishment on prisoners (especially those who tried to escape), the canteen where prisoners served SS men with cigarettes and food, the museum containing plaster images of prisoners who suffered from bodily defects, the camp office, the library, the barracks, and the infirmary, which was staffed by prisoners who had previously held occupations such as physicians or army surgeons.
The Germans required each ghetto to be run by a Judenrat, or Jewish council. Councils were responsible for a ghetto's day-to-day operations, including distributing food, water, heat, medical care, and shelter. The Germans also required councils to confiscate property, organize forced labor, and, finally, facilitate deportations to extermination camps. The councils' basic strategy was one of trying to minimize losses, by cooperating with German authorities, bribing officials, and petitioning for better conditions or clemency.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27th. Of the 937 passengers on board, only 28 passengers were allowed into Cuba. 22 of these passengers were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas, 4 were Spanish citizens and 2 were Cuban nationals, all with valid documents. This story gained a lot of publicity; it was spread throughout Europe and the United States. The U.S. newspapers reported the story compassionately, but only a handful suggested that the refugees should come to the United States. The United States government decided not to take the steps to permit the passengers into the country.
Although the prisoners deployed at Emalia were still subject to the brutal conditions of the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler intervened repeatedly on their behalf. He used bribes and personal diplomacy both for the well-being of Jews threatened on an individual basis and to ensure, until late 1944, that the SS did not deport his Jewish workers. In order to claim the Jewish workers to be essential to the war effort, he added an armaments manufacturing division to Emalia. During the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, Schindler allowed his Jewish workers to stay at the factory overnight.
Anti-Jewish measures were introduced in Slovakia, which would later deport its Jews to German concentration and extermination camps. Bulgaria introduced anti-Jewish measures in 1940 and 1941, including the requirement to wear a yellow star, the banning of mixed marriages, and the loss of property. Bulgaria annexed Thrace and Macedonia, and in February 1943 agreed to deport 20,000 Jews to Treblinka; all 11,000 Jews from the annexed territories were sent to their deaths, and plans were made to deport an additional 6,000–8,000 Bulgarian Jews from Sofia to meet the quota. When the plans became public, the Orthodox Church and many Bulgarians protested, and King Boris III canceled the deportation of Jews native to Bulgaria. Instead, they were expelled to the interior pending further decision. Although Hungary expelled Jews who were not citizens from its newly annexed lands in 1941, it did not deport most of its Jews until the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944. Between 15 May and 9 July 1944, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. In late 1944 in Budapest, nearly 80,000 Jews were killed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross battalions.
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.