Ghastly images recorded by Allied photographers at Belsen in mid-April 1945 and widely reproduced ever since have greatly contributed to the camp's reputation as a notorious extermination center. In fact, the dead of Bergen-Belsen were, above all, unfortunate victims of war and its turmoil, not deliberate policy. It can even be argued that they were as much victims of Allied as of German measures.
By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.
A favorite stunt of the Nazis is to order newly arrived prisoners into a dark room and make them stand with their faces against the wall while volleys are fired into the air. Whenever a new transport comes, some prisoners are picked out and horribly beaten with wired oxtails. On April 12 a transport from Nuremberg arrived with three Jewish prisoners. These, and another Jew who had been imprisoned for some time, were led out of the camp on evening. A few minutes later a volley of shots was heard. All were killed by shots fired through their temples at close range. These men were Arthur Kahn, Dr. Benario, a man named Goldman from Nuremberg, and Edwin Kahn from Munich. The last did not die immediately, and was able to make a statement to the effect that no attempt to escape had been made. Nevertheless, the next morning the prisoners were addressed by an overseer. He began by insulting the Jews: “They successfully tried to mislead and to stir up hatred and strife among the German people. But when they have to share your lot and wield pick and shovel as you do, they try to escape.” Three of the four prisoners were shot by the Second-in-Command, Erpsmüller, who boasted about the deed before the prisoners and remarked, “I am opposed to torture for the Jews. Bugs are not exterminated by tearing out their legs, but are trampled upon.”
After the liberation of Dachau, the commanding officer of the Rainbow division, Major General Harry J. Collins, made sure that the Jewish survivors were taken care of properly. Some of the Jewish survivors were given private housing in homes in the town of Dachau after their owners had been evicted. In some cases, the home owners were allowed to live in the attic of their homes, but they were forbidden to remove any of the linens, china or silverware, which had to be left for the use of the new occupants. A few of the Jewish survivors settled in Dachau permanently after the war.
SS Officer Hosler, under arrest, stands in front of a truck which is loaded with corpses at Belsen concentration camp © The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces began to close in on Germany in 1944. The Project Reinhardt camps were razed. A prisoner work-gang called the Blobel Commando began digging up and burning the bodies of those killed by the Einsatzgruppen. Prisoners remaining in Auschwitz and other concentration camps were transported or force-marched to camps within Germany. Hardly fit for such an effort, thousands of prisoners on these death marches succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and cold, or were shot for not keeping up the pace.
There were massive efforts to help the survivors with food and medical treatment, led by Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of 2nd Army, and James Johnston, the Senior Medical Officer. Despite their efforts, about another 9,000 died in April, and by the end of June 1945 another 4,000 had died. (After liberation 13,994 people died.):305
Oskar Schindler was born into a German Catholic family on April 28, 1908. After attending trade schools, he worked for his father’s farm machinery company. He worked for German intelligence and later joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime hero. During the war, however, he operated a factory that employed more than 1,000 Polish Jews, saving them from concentration camps and extermination. In 1993 his story was made into the Steven Spielberg feature film Schindler's List.
Using gas vans, Chełmno had its roots in the Aktion T4 euthanasia program. Majdanek began as a POW camp, but in August 1942 it had gas chambers installed. A few other camps are occasionally named as extermination camps, but there is no scholarly agreement on the additional camps; commonly mentioned are Mauthausen in Austria and Stutthof. There may also have been plans for camps at Mogilev and Lvov.
The major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs. In trying to assess the causes of the conditions found in Belsen one must be alerted to the tremendous visual display, ripe for purposes of propaganda, that masses of starved corpses presented.
In effort to counter the strength and influence of spiritual resistance, Nazi security services monitored clergy very closely.:141–2 Priests were frequently denounced, arrested and sent to concentration camps, often simply on the basis of being "suspected of activities hostile to the State" or that there was reason to "suppose that his dealings might harm society".:142 Despite SS hostility to religious observance, the Vatican and German bishops successfully lobbied the regime to concentrate clergy at one camp and obtained permission to build a chapel, for the priests to live communally and for time to be allotted to them for the religious and intellectual activity. Priests Barracks at Dachau were established in Blocks 26, 28 and 30, though only temporarily. 26 became the international block and 28 was reserved for Poles – the most numerous group.:145–6
Immediately after liberation, West European Jews who survived the Holocaust generally returned to their countries of origin. Holocaust survivors who tried to return to their homes in Eastern Europe faced many more difficulties. The Nazi destruction in the East had been all-encompassing. Many survivors, particularly in Eastern Europe, continued to encounter antisemitism when they returned to their communities. In some places survivors who had returned home met with violent hostility. In Kielce, 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust were killed by local Poles in a pogrom on July 4, 1946.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, it gained control of about 2 million Jews in the occupied territory. The rest of Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union, which had control of the rest of Poland's pre-war population of 3.3–3.5 million Jews. German plans for Poland included expelling gentile Poles from large areas, confining Jews, and settling Germans on the emptied lands. The Germans initiated a policy of sending Jews from all territories they had recently annexed (Austria, Czechoslovakia, and western Poland) to the central section of Poland, which they called the General Government. There, the Jews were concentrated in ghettos in major cities, chosen for their railway lines to facilitate later deportation. Food supplies were restricted, public hygiene was difficult, and the inhabitants were often subjected to forced labor. In the work camps and ghettos, at least half a million Jews died of starvation, disease, and poor living conditions. Jeremy Black writes that the ghettos were not intended, in 1939, as a step towards the extermination of the Jews. Instead, they were viewed as part of a policy of creating a territorial reservation to contain them.[l]
After World War II, Schindler and his wife Emilie settled in Regensburg, Germany, until 1949, when they immigrated to Argentina. In 1957, permanently separated but not divorced from Emilie, Schindler returned alone to Germany. Schindler died in Germany, penniless and almost unknown, in October 1974. Many of those whose survival he facilitated—and their descendants—lobbied for and financed the transfer of his body for burial in Israel.
German students over the age of 12 are required to tour a concentration camp as part of the on-going education of the present generation of German citizens in the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime over 60 years ago. German soldiers are also required to tour the former concentration camps. Most visitors associate Dachau with the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, although the majority of the inmates at Dachau were Catholics.
Eventually the studio bought the rights to the book, and when Page met with Spielberg to discuss the story, the director promised the Holocaust survivor that he would make the film adaptation within 10 years. The project languished for over a decade because Spielberg was reluctant to take on such serious subject matter. Spielberg’s hesitation actually stopped Hollywood veteran Billy Wilder from making Schindler’s List his final film. Wilder tried to buy the rights to Keneally’s book, but Spielberg and MCA/Universal scooped them up before he could.
After 1945 the name was applied to the displaced persons camp established nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration camp. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there. Overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.