Treatment inside the concentration camps were horrible. Prisoners were given tiny rations of food and forced into physical labor. They often slept more than three to a bed without pillows or blankets, even in the winter months. In many concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will, in many cases killing the prisoners in the process.
On June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France. In December the Germans started an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Continuing to gain momentum, the Soviets began an offensive in January 1945, liberating western Poland and then forcing Hungary to surrender.
Women who became pregnant shortly after the Holocaust had not always regained full strength and health. They and their babies were often in danger. There was a constant shortage of proper nutrition in the DP camp, undernourished mothers found it difficult to breastfeed, and there was not enough baby food in the DP camp. The fact that new mothers did not usually have guidance from their own mothers, grandmothers, sisters or aunts, as they would have had in previous happier times, also posed a challenge. As a result, the welfare agencies that operated in Bergen Belsen made great efforts to care for new mothers and babies. Moreover, young mothers at Bergen Belsen reached out to help one another, creating extended "families."
The 40-year-old Eicke was a veteran of World War I who had earned the Iron Cross 2nd Class. After the war he became involved in police work but had lost various jobs because of his strong opposition to Germany's democratic republic. He joined the Nazi Party in December 1928 and was then taken into the SS. Himmler appointed him as a full SS colonel in November 1931. Four months later, he fled to Italy on Himmler's orders after being sentenced to jail for participating in Nazi political bombings. Himmler brought him back to Germany in February 1933. But more trouble occurred after Eicke clashed with a local Gauleiter who had him hauled off to a psychiatric clinic as a "dangerous lunatic." Himmler had him released from the psychiatric lock-up on June 26, then immediately handed him the task of running Dachau.
One of the most remarkable humanitarian acts performed by Oskar and Emilie Schindler involved the case of 120 Jewish male prisoners from Goleszow, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. The men had been working there in a quarry plant that belonged to the SS-operated company “German Earth and Stone Works.” With the approach of the Russian front in January 1945, they were evacuated from Goleszow and transported westward in sealed cattle-wagons, without food or water. At the end of a seven-day grueling journey in the dead of winter, the SS guards finally stationed the two sealed cattle-cars with their human cargo at the gates of Brunnlitz. Emilie Schindler was just in time to stop the SS camp commandant from sending the train back. Schindler, who had rushed back to the camp from some food-procuring errand outside, barely managed to convince the commandant that he desperately needed the people who were locked in the train for work.
Mr. Le Drieullenac is a dark-haired, youngish man, limping on a heavy stick. He was wearing a dark-grey suit and looked like a typical British civilian in the purely military atmosphere of a court martial. He told the court that with most of his family he was arrested at St. Helier on the day before D-Day. For 18 months he had concealed a Russian officer prisoner and in addition had a hidden radio. He was first sent to Wilhelmshaven, where he was made a welder in the naval arsenal, and then went to Belsen with the rest of his arbeitskommando. From the evidence in this trial and from other sources it appears that as the Allied armies advanced into Germany the Germans shipped off all the foreign workers to the nearest concentration camp.
The biblical term shoah (Hebrew: שׁוֹאָה), meaning "destruction", became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jews, first used in a pamphlet in 1940, Sho'at Yehudei Polin ("Sho'ah of Polish Jews"), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland. On 3 October 1941 the cover of the magazine The American Hebrew used the phrase "before the Holocaust", apparently to refer to the situation in France, and in May 1943 The New York Times, discussing the Bermuda Conference, referred to the "hundreds of thousands of European Jews still surviving the Nazi Holocaust". In 1968 the Library of Congress created a new category, "Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)". The term was popularized in the United States by the NBC mini-series Holocaust (1978), about a fictional family of German Jews, and in November 1978 the President's Commission on the Holocaust was established. As non-Jewish groups began to include themselves as Holocaust victims too, many Jews chose to use the terms Shoah or Churban instead.[g] The Nazis used the phrase "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage).
Man blinded by continuous beatings © The ideas and emotions that lay behind the Holocaust were not new, nor were they uniquely German. The Nazis were the heirs of a centuries-old tradition of Jew-hatred, rooted in religious rivalry and found in all European countries. When the Nazis came to carry out their genocidal programme, they found collaborators in all the countries they dominated, including governments that enjoyed considerable public support. Most people drew the line at mass murder, but relatively few could be found to oppose it actively or to extend help to the Jews.
Also in 1936, a new camp called Sachsenhausen was built to replace the former "wild camp" that had been set up in an abandoned brewery in Oranienburg in 1933. The camp in the old brewery was the place where the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign was first erected. When the new Dachau gate house was finished in June 1936, this slogan was put on the iron gate. The words mean "work will set you free." According to Rudolf Hoess, who was on the Dachau staff in 1936, the slogan meant that work sets one free in the spiritual sense, not literally.
The British military authorities ordered the construction of a permanent memorial in September 1945 after having been lambasted by the press for the desolate state of the camp.:41 In the summer of 1946, a commission presented the design plan, which included the obelisk and memorial walls. The memorial was finally inaugurated in a large ceremony in November 1952, with the participation of Germany's president Theodor Heuss, who called on the Germans never to forget what had happened at Belsen.:41
Deputy Fritz Dressel underwent similar daily tortures. He tried to cut his wrist with a piece of glass, but he was discovered while he still showed some signs of life and was transferred to a first-aid station. No sooner was his wound dressed than the Camp Commander, Weckerle, ordered him brought back into the detention call, in spite of the doctor’s warning that under these circumstances he would not be responsible for the consequences. A few hours later he was again “discovered” with the dressing ripped off, lying in a pool of blood, his arms pulled out of their sockets. When his corpse was taken out of the camp on a dray, the Commander made a remark to the assembled Special Police, which unfortunately I could not understand, but which was answered by the guards with roars of laughter. Captain Ehmann of the Special Police and another man led Leonhart Hausmann, Communist leader of Augsburg, out of the camp to be shot. Ehmann, however, lost his courage and ran away and the other fellow brought the prisoner back. The next day Hausmann was transferred to Ehmann’s labor group, and Ehmann took him out of sight behind some bushes and shot him. The official announcement was “Shot while trying to escape.” Ehmann was apparently reluctant to murder the prisoner, but was finally forced to do so by pressure from his superiors.
In June 1933, Theodor Eicke became the camp commander. He introduced a regime which essentially consisted of the systematic terrorisation of prisoners and an attempt to humiliate them as thoroughly as possible. Eicke had the camp surrounded by an electric fence with watch towers. Dachau also became a „murder school“ for SS members. In 1934, Eicke became the inspector of all the concentration camps. The system he developed was introduced, with certain modifications, into the other camps.
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:
For the first time, camps were created specifically for Jews. Their conditions were far worse than other camps. The implicit intention was that the inmates would die there. Increasing numbers of Jews in Poland were relocated in ghettos. Non-Jewish Poles were also deported from their farms and villages to make room for ‘pure’ ethnic Germans to populate the new territory.
The never-ending rumors surrounding these early concentration camps instilled a nagging sense of fear among all Germans that helped to extinguish all potential opposition and criticism of Hitler's regime. However, the greatest challenge to Hitler would not come from his political opponents but from within his own ranks. By early 1934, a storm trooper rebellion was brewing that threatened to ruin everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
Dachau was never a camp that was specifically intended for murdering the Jews; the Nazi plan was to consolidate all the Jews into ghettos, from which they were later sent to the death camps. German Jews were sent to the Lodz ghetto in what is now Poland where they worked in factories until 1944; those who could no longer work were sent to the Chelmno death camp. In 1942, the Jews who were still living in Germany were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic and from there to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Paradoxically, at the same time that Germany tried to rid itself of its Jews via forced emigration, its territorial expansions kept bringing more Jews under its control. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland (now in the Czech Republic) in September 1938. It established control over the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) in March 1939. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the “Jewish question” became urgent. When the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was complete, more than two million more Jews had come under German control. For a time, the Nazis considered shipping the Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but discarded the plan as impractical; the Nazis had not prevailed in the Battle of Britain, the seas had become a war zone, and the resources required for such a massive deportation were scarce.
A hedonist and gambler by nature, Schindler soon adopted a profligate lifestyle, carousing into the small hours of the night, hobnobbing with high ranking SS-officers, and philandering with beautiful Polish women. Schindler seemed to be no different from other Germans who had come to Poland as part of the occupation administration and their associates. The only thing that set him apart from other war-profiteers, was his humane treatment of his workers, especially the Jews.
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 January 1946, 18,000 members of the SS were being confined at the camp along with an additional 12,000 persons, including deserters from the Russian army. The occupants of one barracks rioted as 271 of the Russian deserters were to be loaded onto trains that would return them to Russian-controlled lands, as agreed at the Yalta Conference. Ten of the soldiers, who had been captured in German Army uniforms, committed suicide during the riot. Twenty-one others attempted suicide, apparently with razor blades. Many had "cracked heads" inflicted by 500 American and Polish guards, in the attempt to bring the situation under control. Inmates barricaded themselves inside and set fire to the building, tore off their clothing, and linked arms to resist being removed from the building. Some begged American soldiers to shoot them. Tear gas was used by the soldiers before rushing the building.
Prisoners continued to die, in spite of the medical treatment provided by the Red Cross and the British Army. Nine thousand died in the first two weeks after the British arrived, and another 4000 died in May. The bodies were thrown into unmarked mass graves, even though the identities of these prisoners were known. Today none of the mass graves at Bergen-Belsen has a stone with the names of those who are buried there.
In February 1942, the Nazis began systematically rounding up all the Jews in Germany and the Nazi-occupied countries, and transporting them to what is now Poland or the area that is now Belarus, in a program of extermination, which had been planned at the Wannsee conference on January 20, 1942. The title of the conference was "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question."
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.