When the British and Canadians advanced on Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the German army negotiated a truce and exclusion zone around the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. On April 11, 1945 Heinrich Himmler (the Reichsführer SS) agreed to have the camp handed over without a fight. SS guards ordered prisoners to bury some of the dead. The next day, Wehrmacht representatives approached the British and were brought to VIII Corps. At around 1 a.m. on April 13, an agreement was signed, designating an area of 48 square kilometers (19 square miles) around the camp as a neutral zone. Most of the SS were allowed to leave. Only a small number of SS men and women, including the camp commandant Kramer, remained to "uphold order inside the camp". The outside was guarded by Hungarian and regular German troops. Due to heavy fighting near Winsen and Walle, the British were unable to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 14, as originally planned. The camp was liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945.:253 The first two to reach the camp were a British Special Air Service officer, Lieutenant John Randall, and his jeep driver, who were on a reconnaissance mission and discovered the camp by chance.
Under such terrible conditions, Kramer did everything in his power to reduce suffering and prevent death among the inmates, even appealing to the hard-pressed German army. "I don't know what else to do," he told high-ranking army officers. "I have reached the limit. Masses of people are dying. The drinking water supply has broken down. A trainload of food was destroyed by low-flying [Allied] war planes. Something must be done immediately." /16
In spite of the Jewish "holy war" against the Nazis, there were no Jews sent to a concentration camp solely because they were Jewish during the first five and a half years that the Nazi concentration camps were in existence. Jews were sent to Dachau from day one, but it was because they were Communists or trade union leaders, not because they were Jewish. The first Jews to be taken into "protective custody," simply because they were Jews, were arrested during the pogrom on the night of November 9th & 10th in 1938, which the Nazis named Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
Former concentration camp inmates of Dachau and Displaced Persons from other camps were housed at the Dachau army garrison, next door to the concentration camp; they were fed by the American Army. Former inmates were paid to be prosecution witnesses in a series of American Military Tribunals that were held on the grounds of the Dachau complex, beginning in November 1945.
With an increasing number of transports of female prisoners, the SS dissolved the northern portion of the camp complex, which was still in use as a POW camp, and established the so-called "large women's camp" (Grosses Frauenlager) in its place in January 1945. This camp housed women evacuated from Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald concentration camps, as well as various subcamps and labor camps.
Every morning started with the dreaded command, "Appelle!" (roll-call!). Regardless of the weather, the prisoners were required to march outside at dawn and stand at attention in formation to be counted. Upon the command, "Hats Off!" the entire assembly of 9,000 men was required to remove all hats precisely at the same moment to the satisfaction of the SS man in charge. Prisoners sometimes practiced this and other drills for hours with some actually dropping dead from the length and rigor of roll-call. When the tally of prisoners was complete and the SS officer in command was satisfied, the prisoners were marched off to begin their 12-hour workday in a camp workshop or along the camp grounds.
The area of the former Bergen-Belsen camp fell into neglect after the burning of the buildings and the closure of the nearby displaced persons' camp in the summer of 1950. The area reverted to heath; few traces of the camp remained. However, as early as May 1945, the British had erected large signs at the former camp site. Ex-prisoners began to set up monuments. A first wooden memorial was built by Jewish DPs in September 1945, followed by one made in stone, dedicated on the first anniversary of the liberation in 1946. On November 2, 1945, a large wooden cross was dedicated as a memorial to the murdered Polish prisoners. Also by the end of 1945 the Soviets had built a memorial at the entrance to the POW cemetery. A memorial to the Italian POWs followed in 1950, but was removed when the bodies were reinterred in a Hamburg cemetery.
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.
From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died at this camp. 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.
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Before and after the March 1933 Reichstag elections, the Nazis intensified their campaign of violence against opponents. They set up concentration camps for extrajudicial imprisonment. One of the first, at Dachau, opened on 9 March 1933. Initially the camp contained mostly Communists and Social Democrats. Other early prisons were consolidated by mid-1934 into purpose-built camps outside the cities, run exclusively by the SS. The initial purpose of the camps was to serve as a deterrent by terrorizing Germans who did not conform.
After the German surrender on May 7, 1945, the American Army took over the barracks of the SS garrison and set up a command post called Eastman which they occupied until 1973. On the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, all available American soldiers were brought to Dachau so that they could be eye-witnesses to the existence of the homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.
On the night of 9-10 November 1938, Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr Josef Goebbels organised the violent outburst known as Kristallnacht ('Crystal Night', the night of broken glass). While the police stood by, Nazi stormtroopers in civilian clothes burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes throughout Germany and Austria, terrorising and beating men, women and children. Ninety-one Jews were murdered and over 20,000 men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Afterwards the Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks to pay for the damage.
German-occupied Denmark rescued most of its own Jews by spiriting them to Sweden by sea in October 1943. This was possible partly because the German presence in Denmark was relatively small. Moreover, while anti-Semitism in the general population of many other countries led to collaboration with the Germans, Jews were an integrated part of Danish culture. Under these unique circumstances, Danish humanitarianism flourished.
In her book Five Chimneys the Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel later recalled the SS troops in fits of destructive insanity, blindly beating the sick women, kicking the pregnant: 'Kramer himself had lost his calm. A strange gleam lurked in his small eyes, and he worked like a madman. I saw hin throw himself at one unfortunate woman and with a single stroke of his truncheon shatter her skull ..'
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. More than half of this number were in the main camp. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27th. Of the 937 passengers on board, only 28 passengers were allowed into Cuba. 22 of these passengers were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas, 4 were Spanish citizens and 2 were Cuban nationals, all with valid documents. This story gained a lot of publicity; it was spread throughout Europe and the United States. The U.S. newspapers reported the story compassionately, but only a handful suggested that the refugees should come to the United States. The United States government decided not to take the steps to permit the passengers into the country.
In addition to workers, Schindler moved 250 wagon loads of machinery and raw materials to the new factory. Few if any useful artillery shells were produced at the plant. When officials from the Armaments Ministry questioned the factory's low output, Schindler bought finished goods on the black market and resold them as his own. The rations provided by the SS were insufficient to meet the needs of the workers, so Schindler spent most of his time in Kraków, obtaining food, armaments, and other materials. His wife Emilie remained in Brünnlitz, surreptitiously obtaining additional rations and caring for the workers' health and other basic needs. Schindler also arranged for the transfer of as many as 3,000 Jewish women out of Auschwitz to small textiles plants in the Sudetenland in an effort to increase their chances of surviving the war.
On 24 April 1945, just days before the U.S. troops arrived at the camp, the commandant and a strong guard forced between 6,000 and 7,000 surviving inmates – on a death march from Dachau south to Eurasburg, then eastwards towards the Tegernsee; liberated two days after Hitler's death by a Nisei-ethnicity U.S. Army artillery battalion. Any prisoners who could not keep up on the six-day march were shot. Many others died of exhaustion, hunger and exposure. Months later a mass grave containing 1,071 prisoners was found along the route.
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.
A book entitled "Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army" was released only days after the camp was liberated. The information in this book was obtained from interviews with the Dachau survivors; half of the prisoners at Dachau on the day it was liberated had only been there for two weeks or less and some had arrived only the day before. The following quote is from page 48 of this book:
There is no question that Oskar Schindler was appalled by the murder of Jewish children when the Krakow ghetto was closed but Crowe argues “evidence suggests that he had already chosen his path sometime before this tragedy” and that the murders “simply made him more determined to help as many Jews as he could.” In a film, of course, it is more challenging to portray gradual determination rather than a single moment that inspires action. However, Crowe writes, “In the end, there was no one, dramatic transforming moment when Oskar Schindler decided to do everything he could to save his Jewish workers.”
Oskar Schindler did not create “Schindler’s List.” In 1944, with Germany threatened militarily, exterminating Jews increased in many places, but a strategy to move factories deemed vital to the war effort also emerged. Oskar Schindler convinced German authorities his factory was vital and that he needed trained workers. But Schindler did not author or dictate the list of who would go on the transport, as was dramatically depicted in the Steven Spielberg film.
At first a single barrack accommodated only 180 persons, but later the overcrowding became intolerable, and bunks filled all available space. At the north end of Dachau stood the disinfection buildings and an Angora rabbit farm. The camp had a unique feature, the Dachau museum, containing plaster-images of prisoners marked by bodily defects or other strange characteristics.
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.
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case. Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees. This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency. The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.