While the labour camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek used inmates for slave labour to support the German war effort, the extermination camps at Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor had one task alone: killing. At Treblinka a staff of 120, of whom only 30 were SS (the Nazi paramilitary corps), killed some 750,000 to 925,000 Jews during the camp’s 17 months of operation. At Belzec German records detail a staff of 104, including about 20 SS, who killed some 500,000 Jews in less than 10 months. At Sobibor they murdered between 200,000 and 250,000. These camps began operation during the spring and summer of 1942, when the ghettos of German-occupied Poland were filled with Jews. Once they had completed their missions—murder by gassing, or “resettlement in the east,” to use the language of the Wannsee protocols—the Nazis closed the camps. There were six extermination camps, all in German-occupied Poland, among the thousands of concentration and slave-labour camps throughout German-occupied Europe.
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.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Schilling, a renowned expert on malaria, was persuaded to come out of retirement in order to conduct medical experiments on approximately 1,200 Dachau prisoners in an attempt to find a cure for malaria after German troops began fighting the Allies in North Africa. Hundreds died as a result of Dr. Schilling's experiments, including a few who died from malaria and others who died from other diseases after being weakened by malaria. The subjects for the malaria experiments were the Catholic priests in the camp because they were not required to work, and would not be missed in the labor force if they died.
In 1946, Belsen served as the largest DP camp in Europe for more than 12,000 Jews; it was the only exclusively Jewish camp in the British zone of Germany. The refugees formed a camp committee within three days of liberation. Political, cultural and religious activities were organized by the committee, such as searching for relatives and spiritual rehabilitation. Jewish family life was renewed, more than twenty marriages were performed daily during the first few months. More than 2,000 children were born to survivors. An elementary school was founded in July 1945 and, by 1948, 340 students attended the school. In December 1945, a high school was started and was partly staffed by the Jewish brigade. A kindergarten, orphanage, yeshiva and religious school were also formed. ORT sponsored a vocational training school. The DPs also wrote the main Jewish newspaper, Unzer Shtimme (Our Voice), in the British zone.
After the death marches of the winter of 1945—forced evacuations of prisoners from concentration and extermination camps in the east—conditions at Bergen-Belsen deteriorated rapidly, and its death toll climbed. Originally it was designed for 10,000 prisoners but, by war’s end, with the arrival of Jewish prisoners forcibly evacuated from Auschwitz and other eastern camps, it held about 60,000 people, most of whom lacked any food or shelter. Although Bergen-Belsen contained no gas chambers, more than 35,000 people died between January and mid-April 1945 from starvation, overwork, disease, and, toward the war’s end, a typhus epidemic brought about by some of the most squalid, fetid living conditions of any of Germany’s camps. Anne Frank, whose wartime diary later became world-famous, died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.
"Bergen-Belsen," Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), vol. 4, pp. 610-612; Colonel Schmidt, the German officer who worked to alleviate conditions in Belsen during the final weeks and also arranged for the camp's surrender to the British, estimated that "altogether about 8,000 people" died in the camp. (This figure may, however, only include victims of the final chaotic weeks under German control.) Source: Signed report by Oberst a.D. Hanns Schmidt to Kurt Mehner and Lt. Colonel Bechtold, Braunschweig, March 3, 1981. (Cited above.) Photocopy in author's possession.
Over a short period of time, Bergen Belsen became the largest DP camp in Germany. In 1946, more than 11,000 Jews lived there. Some survivors succumbed to their despair in the DP camp. After years of forced labor, some survivors refused to work at all. Others developed a Black Market at Bergen Belsen, trafficking in anything that would earn them a penny. However, the majority of survivors at Bergen Belsen were able to gather emotional energy and channel it towards rebuilding their lives.
As the Amper River would divert into backwaters in several places, there were many fords making it possible to cross the river. The oldest findings of human presence here date back to the Stone Age. The most noteworthy findings were discovered near Feldgeding in the adjoining municipality Bergkirchen. Around 1000 B.C. the Celts arrived in this area and settled. The name “Dachau” originated in the Celtic Dahauua, which roughly translates to “loamy meadow” and also alludes to the loamy soil of the surrounding hills. Some theories assume the name “Amper” river may derive from the Celtic word for “water”. Approximately at the turn of the first millennium the Romans conquered the area and incorporated it into the province of Rhaetia. A Roman trade road between Salzburg and today’s Augsburg is said to have run through Dachau. Remains of this old route are found along the Amper marshlands.
Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.
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.)
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.
Estimates of the number of people who died in Bergen-Belsen have ranged widely over the years. Many have been irresponsible exaggerations. Typical is a 1985 York Daily News report, which told readers that "probably 100,000 died at Bergen-Belsen." /39 An official German government publication issued in 1990 declared that "more than 50,000 people had been murdered" in the Belsen camp under German control, and "an additional 13,000 died in the first weeks after liberation." /40
Many of the soldiers who first entered the camp were desperate to try and alleviate the prisoners' starvation by giving them army rations. This first intake of food was fatal for many prisoners, who were too weak to digest it. One of the British Army's most important tasks, as Major Dick Williams explains, was to find a safer and more appropriate way of providing food for the starving prisoners.
Historians increasingly view the Holocaust as a pan-European phenomenon, or a series of holocausts impossible to conduct without the help of local collaborators. Over 200,000 people are estimated to have been Holocaust perpetrators; without them, the Germans would not have been able to extend the Holocaust across most of Europe. Some Christian churches tried to defend the Jews by declaring that converted Jews were "part of the flock," according to Saul Friedländer, "but even then only up to a point". Otherwise, Friedländer writes, "[n]ot one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews."
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years '41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Schindler left his wife and traveled to Krakow, hoping to profit from the impending war. Looking for business opportunities, he quickly became involved in the black market. By October, Schindler used his charm and doled out “gifts of gratitude” (contraband goods) to bribe high-ranking German officers. Wanting to expand his business interests, Schindler obtained a former Jewish enamelware factory to produce goods for the German military.
Germany invaded Norway and Denmark on 9 April 1940, during Operation Weserübung. Denmark was overrun so quickly that there was no time for an organized resistance to form. Consequently, the Danish government stayed in power and the Germans found it easier to work through it. Because of this, few measures were taken against the Danish Jews before 1942. By June 1940 Norway was completely occupied. In late 1940, the country's 1,800 Jews were banned from certain occupations, and in 1941 all Jews had to register their property with the government. On 26 November 1942, 532 Jews were taken by police officers, at four o'clock in the morning, to Oslo harbour, where they boarded a German ship. From Germany they were sent by freight train to Auschwitz. According to Dan Stone, only nine survived the war.
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas [de], who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.