The total number of deaths in the first five months of 1945 was almost half the total deaths in the 12-year history of the camp. The death rate in the other Nazi concentration camps also rose dramatically in the last months of the war, as the typhus epidemic spread throughout Germany. American POWs in German camps were saved from the epidemic by booster shots of typhus vaccine sent to them from America by the International Red Cross. The Germans were conducting experiments at the Buchenwald camp in an effort to develop a vaccine for typhus, but had not been successful. After the war, the doctors who had attempted to develop a typhus vaccine at Buchenwald were put on trial as war criminals at Nuremberg in the Doctor's Trial conducted by Americans.
Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate. Machine-gun fire burst from the center watchtower, the very one which since morning had been flying the white flag! The jeeps turned about and an armored tank came on. With a few bursts, it silenced the fire from the watchtower. The body of an SS man fell off the platform and came crashing loudly to the asphalt of the little square.
Hundreds of prisoners suffered and died, or were executed in medical experiments conducted at KZ Dachau, for which Sigmund Rascher was in charge. Hypothermia experiments involved exposure to vats of icy water or being strapped down naked outdoors in freezing temperatures. Attempts at reviving the subjects included scalding baths, and forcing naked women to copulate with the unconscious victim. Nearly 100 prisoners died during these experiments. The original records of the experiments were destroyed "in an attempt to conceal the atrocities".[a]
Before the outbreak of war, Poland had been a relative haven for European Jews - Krakow's Jewish population numbered over 50,000. But when Germany invaded, destruction began immediately and it was merciless. Jews were herded into crowded ghettos, randomly beaten and humiliated, capriciously killed. Jewish property and businesses were summarily destroyed, or appropriated by the SS and 'sold' to Nazi 'investors', one of whom was the fast talking, womanizing, money hungry Schindler.
In 1944, Josiah DuBois, Jr. wrote a memorandum to then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which condemned the bureaucratic interference of U.S. State Department policies in obstructing the evacuation of Holocaust Refugees from Romania and Occupied France. The Report would spur the Roosevelt administration to create the War Refugee Board later that year.
Writer Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed him in 1948, wrote that "Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him." In a 1983 television documentary, Schindler was quoted as saying, "I felt that the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them; there was no choice."
Many of the prisoners at Bergen Belsen arrived there on death marches from other concentration camps. During Summer 1944, as the British and American Armies advanced in their fight against Germany from the West and the Soviet army advanced in its fight against Germany from the East, the Nazis began liquidating concentration camps, sending prisoners on death marches. They forced prisoners of concentration camps to march over long distances, under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were abused, and sometimes killed, by the guards that accompanied them.
Anti-Jewish measures were introduced in Slovakia, which would later deport its Jews to German concentration and extermination camps. Bulgaria introduced anti-Jewish measures in 1940 and 1941, including the requirement to wear a yellow star, the banning of mixed marriages, and the loss of property. Bulgaria annexed Thrace and Macedonia, and in February 1943 agreed to deport 20,000 Jews to Treblinka; all 11,000 Jews from the annexed territories were sent to their deaths, and plans were made to deport an additional 6,000–8,000 Bulgarian Jews from Sofia to meet the quota. When the plans became public, the Orthodox Church and many Bulgarians protested, and King Boris III canceled the deportation of Jews native to Bulgaria. Instead, they were expelled to the interior pending further decision. Although Hungary expelled Jews who were not citizens from its newly annexed lands in 1941, it did not deport most of its Jews until the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944. Between 15 May and 9 July 1944, 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz. In late 1944 in Budapest, nearly 80,000 Jews were killed by the Hungarian Arrow Cross battalions.
Some ghettos were initially open, which meant that Jews could leave the area during the daytime but had to be back by a curfew. Later, all ghettos became closed, meaning that Jews were not allowed to leave under any circumstances. Major ghettos were located in the cities of Polish cities of Bialystok, Lodz, and Warsaw. Other ghettos were found in present-day Minsk, Belarus; Riga, Latvia; and Vilna, Lithuania. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw. At its peak in March 1941, some 445,000 were crammed into an area just 1.3 square miles in size.
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.
Many of the former SS staff who survived the typhus epidemic were tried by the British at the Belsen trial. Over the period in which Bergen-Belsen operated as a concentration camp, at least 480 people had worked as guards or members of the commandant's staff, including around 45 women. From September 17 to November 17, 1945, 45 of those were tried by a military tribunal in Lüneburg. They included former commandant Josef Kramer, 16 other SS male members, 16 female SS guards and 12 former kapos (one of whom became ill during the trial). Among them were Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath, Hertha Ehlert, Ilse Lothe [de], Johanna Bormann and Fritz Klein. Many of the defendants were not just charged with crimes committed at Belsen but also earlier ones at Auschwitz. Their activities at other concentration camps such as Mittelbau-Dora, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, the Gross Rosen subcamps at Neusalz and Langenleuba, and the Mittelbau-Dora subcamp at Gross Werther were not subject of the trial. It was based on British military law and the charges were thus limited to war crimes. Substantial media coverage of the trial provided the German and international public with detailed information on the mass killings at Belsen as well as on the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
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
During the first year, the camp held about 4,800 prisoners and by 1937 the number had risen to 13,260. Initially the internees consisted primarily of German Communists, Social Democrats, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals, as well as “asocials” and repeat criminals. During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and usually because they belonged to one of the above groups or had completed prison sentences after being convicted for violating the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
Antisemitism, the new racist version of the old Jew-hatred, viewed the Jews as not simply a religious group but as members of a 'Semitic race', which strove to dominate its 'Aryan' rivals. Among the leading ideologues of this theory were a French aristocrat, the Comte Joseph de Gobineau, and an Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Antisemitism proved a convenient glue for conspiracy theories - since Jews were involved in all sorts of ventures and political movements, they could be accused of manipulating all of them behind the scenes. Thus Jews were held responsible for Communism and capitalism, liberalism, socialism, moral decline, revolutions, wars, plagues and economic crises. As the Jews had once been demonised in medieval Europe, so the new antisemites (including many Christians) found new, secular ways of demonising them.
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.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.