Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and in March of that year the first Nazi concentration camp opened in the town of Dachau, just outside Munich, a major city in southern Germany. The camp initially housed political prisoners, and its first group of detainees consisted primarily of socialists and communists. Hilmar Wäckerle (1899-1941), an official in the “Schutzstaffel” (a Nazi paramilitary organization commonly known as the SS), served as the first commandant of Dachau.
At the end of July 1944 there were around 7,300 prisoners interned in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex. At the beginning of December 1944, this number had increased to around 15,000, and in February 1945 the number of prisoners was 22,000. As prisoners evacuated from the east continued to arrive, the camp population soared to over 60,000 by April 15, 1945.
6 May 1945 (23 April on the Orthodox calendar) was the day of Pascha, Orthodox Easter. In a cell block used by Catholic priests to say daily Mass, several Greek, Serbian and Russian priests and one Serbian deacon, wearing makeshift vestments made from towels of the SS guard, gathered with several hundred Greek, Serbian and Russian prisoners to celebrate the Paschal Vigil. A prisoner named Rahr described the scene:
Nazi racial policy aimed at forcing Jews to emigrate. Fifty thousand German Jews had left Germany by the end of 1934, and by the end of 1938, approximately half the German Jewish population had left the country. Among the prominent Jews who left was the conductor Bruno Walter, who fled after being told that the hall of the Berlin Philharmonic would be burned down if he conducted a concert there. Albert Einstein, who was in the United States when Hitler came to power, never returned to Germany; he was expelled from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and the Prussian Academy of Sciences and his citizenship was revoked. Other Jewish scientists, including Gustav Hertz, lost their teaching positions and left the country. On 12 March 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Austrian Nazis broke into Jewish shops, stole from Jewish homes and businesses, and forced Jews to perform humiliating acts such as scrubbing the streets or cleaning toilets. Jewish businesses were "Aryanized", and all the legal restrictions on Jews in Germany were imposed. In August that year, Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration in Vienna (Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung in Wien). About 100,000 Austrian Jews had left the country by May 1939, including Sigmund Freud and his family, who moved to London. The Évian Conference was held in July 1938 by 32 countries as an attempt to help the increased refugees from Germany, but aside from establishing the largely ineffectual Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, little was accomplished and most countries participating did not increase the number of refugees they would accept.
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.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
Jews were forced to move, often to different cities or countries, and live in designated areas, referred to as ghettos. Most of the ghettos were “open” which meant Jews were free to come and go during the daytime. As time past, more and more ghettos became “closed” meaning that Jews were trapped and not allowed to leave. No ghettos were ever established within the borders of Germany and most were only meant as a temporary means of isolating Jews from the German population until they could be moved elsewhere.
Schindler was the eldest of two children born to a farm machinery manufacturer and his wife. Svitavy, where the family lived, was located in the Sudetenland, and, though the region passed from the Austrian Empire to Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Schindlers were ethnically German. After leaving school in 1924, Schindler sold farm equipment for his father, during which time he met his future wife, Emilie, whom he married in 1928. He took a variety of odd jobs, including running a driving school, before enlisting for a stint in the Czechoslovak army. Schindler then briefly lived in Berlin before returning to Czechoslovakia to start a poultry farm, which he soon abandoned. A self-professed sybarite, he spent much of his time drinking and philandering.
A final and complete deterioration of the prisoners living conditions set in when tens of thousands of prisoners poured in – survivors of the death marches who had been evacuated from the camps in the east. These included 20,000 women prisoners from the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps who had passed through the Gross- Rosen concentration camp on the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
Joseph Goebbels made a speech at the beer hall in which he said that he would not be surprised if the German people were so outraged by the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan that they would take the law into their own lands and attack Jewish businesses and Synagogues. Goebbels is generally credited with being the instigator of the pogrom. (Pogrom is a Polish word which means an event in which ordinary citizens use violence to drive the Jews out.)
The shaven-headed prisoners in blue-striped clothes were numbers, not persons, stripped of their humanity and individual personalities. They were referred to as "pigs" and "filth" and other obscenity-laced names. Jews especially were referred to as "filth-Jews" or "trash-Jews." Upon first entering Dachau and being registered, a Jew would be asked: "The name of the whore that shitted you out?" – to which they had to give their mother's name or be beaten.
Defined by the religion of their grandparents rather than by their own beliefs, Jews were viewed as having impure blood lines. The new laws were taught in schools, cementing anti-Semitism in German culture. Most Germans kept quiet, often benefiting when Jews lost jobs and businesses. Persecution of other minorities also escalated: the police were given new powers to arrest homosexuals and compulsory abortions were administered to women considered to be ‘hereditarily ill’.
In January 1945 a trainload of 250 Jews who had been rejected as workers at a mine in Goleschau in Poland arrived at Brünnlitz. The boxcars were frozen shut when they arrived, and Emilie Schindler waited while an engineer from the factory opened the cars using a soldering iron. Twelve people were dead in the cars, and the remainder were too ill and feeble to work. Emilie took the survivors into the factory and cared for them in a makeshift hospital until the end of the war. Schindler continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the slaughter of his workers as the Red Army approached. On 7 May 1945 he and his workers gathered on the factory floor to listen to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announce over the radio that Germany had surrendered, and the war in Europe was over.
Dachau served as a prototype and model for other Nazi concentration camps that followed. Its basic organization, camp layout as well as the plan for the buildings 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 himself became the chief inspector for all concentration camps, responsible for molding the others according to his model.
Also that November, Schindler was introduced to Itzhak Stern, an accountant for Schindler's fellow Abwehr agent Josef "Sepp" Aue, who had taken over Stern's formerly Jewish-owned place of employment as a Treuhander (trustee). Property belonging to Polish Jews, including their possessions, places of business, and homes were seized by the Germans beginning immediately after the invasion, and Jewish citizens were stripped of their civil rights. Schindler showed Stern the balance sheet of a company he was thinking of acquiring, an enamelware factory called Rekord Ltd[a] owned by a consortium of Jewish businessmen that had filed for bankruptcy earlier that year. Stern advised him that rather than running the company as a trusteeship under the auspices of the Haupttreuhandstelle Ost (Main Trustee Office for the East), he should buy or lease the business, as that would give him more freedom from the dictates of the Nazis, including the freedom to hire more Jews.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish displaced persons emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last camp for Jewish displaced persons closed in 1957.
Until 1943, Bergen-Belsen was exclusively a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. In April 1943 the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA) which administered the concentration camp system, took over a portion of Bergen-Belsen and converted it first into a civilian residence camp and, later, into a concentration camp. Thus, while the German government placed the Bergen-Belsen camp complex within the concentration camp system, the WVHA initially gave it a special designation.
11 of Hitler’s deputies were given death sentences, including Goering, the most senior surviving Nazi. However he too committed suicide the night before he was due to hang. Others received prison terms. Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect, was released in 1966 and spent his remaining years writing about the Nazi regime, donating most of his royalties to Jewish charities. Rudolph Hess committed suicide in prison in 1987. Many Nazis evaded justice altogether and were never tried.
Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. On 1 April 1933, there was a boycott of Jewish businesses. On 7 April 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, which excluded Jews and other "non-Aryans" from the civil service. Jews were disbarred from practising law, being editors or proprietors of newspapers, joining the Journalists' Association, or owning farms. In Silesia, in March 1933, a group of men entered the courthouse and beat up Jewish lawyers; Friedländer writes that, in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of courtrooms during trials. Jewish students were restricted by quotas from attending schools and universities. Jewish businesses were targeted for closure or "Aryanization", the forcible sale to Germans; of the approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany in 1933, about 7,000 were still Jewish-owned in April 1939. Works by Jewish composers, authors, and artists were excluded from publications, performances, and exhibitions. Jewish doctors were dismissed or urged to resign. The Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a medical journal) reported on 6 April 1933: "Germans are to be treated by Germans only."
Today, nothing remains of the camp because the British immediately burned down every structure to prevent the further spread of typhus. What is left is a graveyard, “the largest Jewish cemetery in Western Europe,” according to Renee Ghert-Zand. She notes that “there are no grave markers or monuments save for a small number of symbolic ones, placed in recent years by family members or memorial foundations to supplement a number of official monuments erected on the site in the late 1940s and early ’50s.” Nearby, another cemetery was built after liberation as the final resting place for 4,500 Jews and Christians. Most of the graves are umarked, and several of those with grave stones say only, “Here lies an unknown deceased.”
The most notorious physician was Josef Mengele, an SS officer who became the Auschwitz camp doctor on 30 May 1943. Interested in genetics and keen to experiment on twins, he would pick out subjects from the new arrivals during "selection" on the ramp, shouting "Zwillinge heraus!" (twins step forward!). They would be measured, killed, and dissected. One of Mengele's assistants said in 1946 that he was told to send organs of interest to the directors of the "Anthropological Institute in Berlin-Dahlem". This is thought to refer to Mengele's academic supervisor, Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer , director from October 1942 of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics in Berlin-Dahlem.[i] Mengele's experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change their eye color by injecting chemicals into children's eyes, and amputations and other surgeries.
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.
In the summer of 1943, Stalag XI-C (311) was dissolved and Bergen-Belsen became a branch camp of Stalag XI-B. It served as the hospital for all Soviet POWs in the region until January 1945. Other inmates/patients were Italian military internees from August 1944 and, following the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, around 1,000 members of the Polish Home Army were imprisoned in a separate section of the POW camp.