The AFPU recruited from the ranks of the British Army. Many of the photographers and cameramen present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen were tough, hardened by their own experiences of combat. Yet they were deeply shocked by what they witnessed at the camp. AFPU cameraman and photographer Sergeant Mike Lewis came from a Jewish family and describes how witnessing the camp's liberation made real for him the stories of persecution he had been told by his parents. He also reflects on his own reaction to what he had witnessed.
The first proceedings against the Nazi war criminals after the war were conducted by a British Military Tribunal at Lüneburg, Germany in November 1945. Some of the staff members of Bergen-Belsen had previously worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau and former prisoners of that camp, who had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen in January 1945, testified about the crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the Lüneburg proceedings. Dr. Klein was charged with selecting prisoners for the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but there were no charges, involving a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen, against any of the accused.
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.
At the Bergen-Belsen camp, a sign had been put up outside the gate to warn the British liberators that there was typhus in the camp, but there was no sign at Dachau since there was no danger to the Americans who had all been vaccinated against typhus and other diseases before going overseas. The American liberators assumed that the emaciated bodies that they found piled up in the camp were the bodies of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death.
The prisoners are kept occupied at hard labor, building roads and laying out drilling and shooting grounds. Some of the prisoners were harnessed for weeks to a heavy roller which they had to tow nine hours a day without a rest period. Others were compelled to stand the whole day in cold water excavating quagmire to lay the foundation for a swimming pool for the guards. The work was continually speeded up by lashing and kicking the prisoners, and many times men collapsed and had to be carried back to the camp for a short rest.
Rzepliñski, Andrzej (25 March 2004). "Prosecution of Nazi Crimes in Poland in 1939–2004" (PDF). First International Expert Meeting on War Crimes, Genocide, and Crimes against Humanity. Lyon, France: International Criminal Police Organization – Interpol General Secretariat. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
The rioting was triggered by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, on November 7th. Grynszpan did not attempt to escape and claimed that the assassination was motivated by the persecution of the Jewish people. Despite being attended to by Hitler’s personal physician, vom Rath died two days later.
May 16, 1944 - Jews from Hungary arrive at Auschwitz. Eichmann arrives to personally oversee and speed up the extermination process. By May 24, an estimated 100,000 have been gassed. Between May 16 and May 31, the SS report collecting 88 pounds of gold and white metal from the teeth of those gassed. By the end of June, 381,661 persons - half of the Jews in Hungary - arrive at Auschwitz.
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.
Dachau is 20 km (12 mi) northwest of Munich. It is 482 meters above sea level by the river Amper, with a boundary demarcated by lateral moraines formed during the last ice age and the Amper glacial valley. It is also close to a large marshy area called Dachauer Moos. Highest elevation of the district is the so-called "Schlossberg", the lowest point is near the neighborhood of Prittlbach, at the border to the next community of Hebertshausen. The bordering communities are Bergkirchen to the west, Schwabhausen to the northwest, Röhrmoos to the north, Hebertshausen to the northeast, and Karlsfeld to the south. To the east the greater district Dachau borders on the greater district of Munich with the community of Oberschleißheim.
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.
In August 1944, a new section was created and this became the so-called "women's camp". By November 1944 this camp received around 9,000 women and young girls. Most of those who were able to work stayed only for a short while and were then sent on to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. The first women interned there were Poles, arrested after the failed Warsaw Uprising. Others were Jewish women from Poland or Hungary, transferred from Auschwitz. Among those who never left Bergen-Belsen were Margot and Anne Frank, who died there in February or March 1945.