The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
The gates of the camp had been locked again, and the liberators of the first hour, on their way again, were already far off, toward Munich, toward the south, pursuing their war. Guards had been placed on the other side of the barbed wire. No one was allowed out any more, Already, at the end of this first day, the Americans wondered what they would do with his rabble of lepers.
In 1935 Schindler joined the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei; SdP) and the next year began collecting counterintelligence for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. In 1938 he was arrested by Czechoslovak authorities on charges of espionage and sentenced to death. After the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany late that year as part of the Munich Agreement, Schindler was pardoned by the Reich and rose through the ranks of the Abwehr. His application for membership in the Nazi Party—thought to have been submitted out of pragmatism rather than ideological affinity—was accepted in 1939. That year, on the heels of the German invasion and occupation of Poland, Schindler journeyed to Kraków, where he became active in the emerging black market. Thanks to the network of German contacts he had arranged through liberal bribes, he secured the lease of a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory. He renamed the facility Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik Oskar Schindler (known as Emalia) and commenced production with a small staff. Three months later he had several hundred employees, seven of whom were Jewish. By 1942 nearly half of the workers at the expanded plant were Jewish. (Ostensibly “cheap labour,” Schindler paid their salaries to the SS.)
The evacuation of prisoners from the sub-camps to the main Dachau camp had begun in March 1945, in preparation for surrendering the prisoners to the Allies. The evacuated prisoners had to walk for several days to the main camp because Allied bombs were destroying the railroad tracks as fast as the Germans could repair them. The few trains that did bring prisoners to Dachau, including a train load of women and children, were bombed or strafed by American planes, killing many of the prisoners.
German students over the age of 12 are required to tour a concentration camp as part of the on-going education of the present generation of German citizens in the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime over 60 years ago. German soldiers are also required to tour the former concentration camps. Most visitors associate Dachau with the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, although the majority of the inmates at Dachau were Catholics.
But in the spring of 1945, photographs and eyewitness accounts from the liberation of camps like Bergen-Belsen afforded the disbelieving world outside of Europe its first glimpse into the abyss of Nazi depravity. All these years later, after countless reports, books, oral histories and documentary films have constructed a terrifyingly clear picture of the Third Reich's vast machinery of murder, it's difficult to grasp just how shocking these first revelations really were. The most horrific rumors about what was happening to the Jews and millions of other "undesirables—Catholics, pacifists, homosexuals, Slavs—in Nazi-occupied lands paled before the reality revealed by the liberation of the camps.
Another Polish courier, Jan Karski, reached the west in November 1942, carrying messages from Jewish leaders in Poland. He had himself witnessed the conditions in the Warsaw ghetto and in what he believed to be the Belzec death camp, and was eager to inform the world. Karski saw the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and US President Roosevelt, but they seemed to be more interested in military intelligence than in atrocity stories. Partly as a result of Karski's mission, however, the Allies agreed to a joint declaration, read to the British Parliament on 17 December, which acknowledged Nazi war crimes and threatened punishment for the perpetrators. Subsequently millions of leaflets were dropped in the course of bombing raids on German cities to inform Germans of the facts, but these had little or no effect.
"In the spring of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II and the liberation of the infamous German concentration camps, a child was born in Bergen Belsen, the place where only a short time earlier tens of thousands had perished. This child was the first of over two thousand who were born in and around Bergen Belsen, of parents who had survived the Holocaust.
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, a famous scene depicts Oskar Schindler departing his factory at the end of the war and crying without consolation over his inability to save even more lives. (The scene was even parodied in an episode of Seinfeld.) “The idea that Oskar collapsed sobbing into Itzhak Stern’s arms and bemoaned his failure to save more Jews is preposterous,” writes Crowe. “Oskar was proud of all he had done to save Brunnlitz’s Jews and said so in his speech earlier that evening.”
In November, attacks erupted against Jewish businesses. At least 91 Jews died and 267 synagogues were destroyed in a centrally coordinated plot passed off as spontaneous violence across Germany. Thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps and were only released if they agreed to leave the Nazi territory. Many Jews decided to flee, though options were limited. Britain agreed to house Jewish children, eventually taking in 10,000 minors, but refused to change its policy for Jewish adults.
The Memorial Site on the grounds of the former concentration camp was established in 1965 on the initiative of and in accordance with the plans of the surviving prisoners who had joined together to form the Comité International de Dachau. The Bavarian state government provided financial support. Between 1996 and 2003 a new exhibition on the history of the Dachau concentration camp was created, following the leitmotif of the "Path of the Prisoners".
The Polish government-in-exile in London learned about the extermination camps from the Polish leadership in Warsaw, who from 1940 "received a continual flow of information about Auschwitz", according to historian Michael Fleming. This was in large measure thanks to Captain Witold Pilecki of the Polish Home Army, who allowed himself to be arrested in Warsaw and spent 945 days in Auschwitz from September 1940 until April 1943, organizing the resistance movement inside the camp.
The German view of the Roma as hereditary criminals and "asocials" was reflected in their classification in the concentration camps, where they were usually counted among the asocials and given black triangles to wear. According to Niewyk and Nicosia, at least 130,000 died out of nearly one million in German-occupied Europe. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calculates at least 220,000. Ian Hancock, who specializes in Romani history and culture, argues for between 500,000 and 1,500,000. The treatment of the Roma was not consistent across German-occupied territories. Those in France and the Low Countries were subject to restrictions on movement and some confinement to collection camps, while those in Central and Eastern Europe were sent to concentration camps and murdered by soldiers and execution squads. Before being sent to the camps, the Roma were herded into ghettos, including several hundred into the Warsaw Ghetto. Further east, teams of Einsatzgruppen tracked down Romani encampments and murdered the inhabitants on the spot, leaving no records of the victims. After the Germans occupied Hungary, 1,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz.[x]
Of course, over time, we received help from outside. But we laid the foundation for this new community, we built it and ran it ourselves. We received food and books from outside, but we did the work and we can be proud of our efforts, Those who survived will always remember April 15, 1945 as their second birthday - in many ways more important than their first."5
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.
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.
SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas became the first commandant of the Bergen-Belsen camp in the spring of 1943; SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer replaced him in December 1944. The number of SS functionaries in Bergen-Belsen varied over the course of the camp's existence. The SS succeeded in destroying many of the camp's files, including those on personnel.
In many instances, their imprisonment was a result of the emergency decree that Adolf Hitler proposed and President Paul Von Hindenberg approved on February 28, 1933. The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State (commonly called the Reichstag Fire Decree) suspended the civil rights of German civilians and prohibited the press from publishing anti-government materials.
In the weeks that followed liberation, the British burnt down the typhus - infested barracks in the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen. They transferred the former prisoners who had not died in the weeks that followed liberation to the military camp, where there were better living conditions. Many survivors remained at Bergen Belsen after liberation, because they did not want to return to their homes or because they had no homes to return to. The British registered these survivors, and Bergen Belsen began to operate as a DP (Displaced Persons) camp for them. Many Jews who survived other Nazi camps, or who survived the Holocaust in hiding or by fleeing to the Soviet Union, moved to the DP camp at Bergen Belsen.
As discrimination against Jews increased, German law required a legal definition of a Jew and an Aryan. Promulgated at the annual Nazi Party rally in Nürnberg on September 15, 1935, the Nürnberg Laws—the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour and the Law of the Reich Citizen—became the centrepiece of anti-Jewish legislation and a precedent for defining and categorizing Jews in all German-controlled lands. Marriage and sexual relations between Jews and citizens of “German or kindred blood” were prohibited. Only “racial” Germans were entitled to civil and political rights. Jews were reduced to subjects of the state. The Nürnberg Laws formally divided Germans and Jews, yet neither the word German nor the word Jew was defined. That task was left to the bureaucracy. Two basic categories were established in November: Jews, those with at least three Jewish grandparents; and Mischlinge (“mongrels,” or “mixed breeds”), people with one or two Jewish grandparents. Thus, the definition of a Jew was primarily based not on the identity an individual affirmed or the religion he or she practiced but on his or her ancestry. Categorization was the first stage of destruction.
Established in March 1933, Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp.12 The camp originally housed political prisoners and those opposed to the Nazi regime. Individuals and groups who were considered inferior to Germans, such as Jehovah Witnesses, Gypsies and homosexuals were sent to Dachau. The first Jews imprisoned at Dachau were sent there because they were considered enemies of the Reich.13 Over time, more Jews were sent to Dachau than any other group.
It is estimated that approximately 3,000 Jews died on the Plantages. When the camp officials felt that these internees were too ill and too weak to work, they would march them into a lake (since drained) , regardless of the time of year. They were forced to stay in the water until dead. Those who remained conscious were placed in wheelbarrows, brought back to camp, where they died a few hours later.
While these massacres were happening, the Nazis elsewhere were laying plans for an overall 'solution to the Jewish question'. Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans, which were then driven to nearby sites where the bodies were plundered and burnt. 250,000 Jews were killed this way at Chelmno and 15,000 at Semlin.
Owing to the severe refugee crisis mainly caused by the expulsions of ethnic Germans, the camp was from late 1948 used to house 2000 Germans from Czechoslovakia (mainly from the Sudetenland). This settlement was called Dachau-East, and remained until the mid-1960s. During this time, former prisoners banded together to erect a memorial on the site of the camp, finding it unbelievable that there were still people (refugees) living in the former camp.
The camp was originally designed for holding German and Austrian political prisoners and Jews, but in 1935 it began to be used also for ordinary criminals. Inside the camp there was a sharp division between the two groups of prisoners; those who were there for political reasons and therefore wore a red tag, and the criminals, who wore a green tag. The political prisoners who were there because they disagreed with Nazi Party policies, or with Hitler, naturally did not consider themselves criminals. Dachau was used as the chief camp for Christian (mainly Catholic) clergy who were imprisoned for not conforming with the Nazi Party line.
This has been a terrible day at the Belsen trial. First this morning all the courtroom, court, prisoners, press, and German spectators saw the films taken in camp by the British Army Film Photographic Unit just after British troops had liberated it. Then followed the evidence by the only Briton known to survive the camp—a Jersey schoolmaster named Harold Osmand le Drieullenac of St. Helier.
In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them: