You see, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated these people were let loose. So we were wandering. We were wandering from one place to another. And there were warehouses. We came to a building, and we walked in, and I still see rows and rows and shelves of handbags, ladies' handbags. As we were walking over there to reach those shelves, I sort of stepped on something. And I said to my friend, "Look! There's a body!" You see, somebody, one of these inmates who wandered to these warehouses and dropped dead from exhaustion or something. And she says, "What do you want me to do about it?" I said, "Let's carry it out." She said, "Are you crazy? You can't carry that out." and she took a few packages of these linens and dropped it on (the body). And then we went to the shelves, and she wanted a handbag. And I wasn't in the mood anymore for the handbag. She pulled out one handbag. It was an alligator handbag. She says, "Take this one." I took it, and she took another one, and we walked out. And I remember, as we left the place, I just threw back the bag. I said, "I don't want it." - and walked away. And this only came back. I never thought about it.
Medical experiments conducted on camp inmates by the SS were another distinctive feature. At least 7,000 prisoners were subjected to experiments; most died as a result, during the experiments or later. Twenty-three senior physicians and other medical personnel were charged at Nuremberg, after the war, with crimes against humanity. They included the head of the German Red Cross, tenured professors, clinic directors, and biomedical researchers. Experiments took place at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. Some dealt with sterilization of men and women, the treatment of war wounds, ways to counteract chemical weapons, research into new vaccines and drugs, and the survival of harsh conditions.
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.
According to Marcus J. Smith, a US military doctor who was assigned to Dachau after it was liberated, there was an "experimental farm, the Plantage" just outside the concentration camp. Smith wrote in his book "The Harrowing of Hell" that "When the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) inspected, he seemed particularly interested in the Plantage, discoursing enthusiastically on the medicinal value of herbs."
I was surprised to find records, going back for two or three years, of large quantities of food cooked daily for distribution. I became convinced, contrary to popular opinion, that there had never been a policy of deliberate starvation. This was confirmed by the large numbers of well-fed inmates. Why then were so many people suffering from malnutrition?... The major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs.
The British troops who liberated the Belsen camp three weeks before the end of the war were shocked and disgusted by the many unburied corpses and dying inmates they found there. Horrific photos and films of the camp's emaciated corpses and mortally sick inmates were quickly circulated around the globe. Within weeks the British military occupation newspaper proclaimed: "The story of that greatest of all exhibitions of 'man's inhumanity to man' which was Belsen Concentration Camp is known throughout the world." (note 1)
The shaven-headed prisoners in blue-striped clothes were numbers, not persons, stripped of their humanity and individual personalities. They were referred to as "pigs" and "filth" and other obscenity-laced names. Jews especially were referred to as "filth-Jews" or "trash-Jews." Upon first entering Dachau and being registered, a Jew would be asked: "The name of the whore that shitted you out?" – to which they had to give their mother's name or be beaten.
Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.
The photo above shows some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau. The second man from the left, who is wearing a cardigan sweater and a coat, is Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent from Belgium, who was hiding his identity by using the name Patrick O'Leary. He was one of five British SOE agents who had survived the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen in Austria and Natzweiler in Alsace before being transferred to Dachau. Guérisse greeted Lt. William P. Walsh and 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead of the 45th Infantry Division and took them on a tour of the camp, showing them the gas chamber and the ovens in the crematorium.
In August 1944 a new section was added, to serve as a women’s camp, consisting of twelve barracks, 4,000 Jewish women prisoners from Hungary and Poland were brought there, but after a short stay they were sent to Buchenwald and Flossenburg camps, to perform forced labour. Most of the women returned to Bergen-Belsen sick or exhausted by the hard labour that they had been forced to do.
Albert Goering loathed all of Nazism's inhumanity and at the risk of his career, fortune and life, used his name and connections to save hundreds of Jews and and political dissidents during the Second World War. After the war Albert Goering - savior of victims of the tyranny his brother helped create - was imprisoned for several years for his name alone. But his story is almost unknown: he was shoved into obscurity by the enormity of his brother's crimes.
In January 1941, Dachau was designated a Class I camp and Buchenwald became a Class II camp; Mauthausen and Gusen in Austria were the only Class III camps in the Nazi system. The Class I designation meant that treatment of the inmates was less harsh and that prisoners had a better chance of being released. Dachau was the best of the Nazis camps, as far as the treatment of the prisoners was concerned.
The death marches served a dual purpose for the Nazis. On one hand, the Nazis intended for large numbers of Jewish prisoners to die on death marches. Indeed, about 250,000 prisoners, many of whom were Jews, died on death marches. On the other hand, the death marches were also an attempt to move concentration camp prisoners into Germany's borders, so that the Nazis could continue to exploit them for slave labor. Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany, such as Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Mauthausen.
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.
After WWII had ended, photographs of the Holocaust stunned the public. Newspapers in the United States had reported on the oppression of the Jews in Germany during the war. In 1942, many newspapers were writing details of the Holocaust, but these stories were short and were not widely read. In 1943, after sources had confirmed the killings of at least two million Jews in concentration camps across Europe a Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans believed these reports to be true; 28% thought they were “just a rumor”. The reports were unconfirmed and sometimes denied by the United States government.
On 26 April 1945 prisoner Karl Riemer fled the Dachau concentration camp to get help from American troops and on 28 April Victor Maurer, a representative of the International Red Cross, negotiated an agreement to surrender the camp to U.S. troops. That night a secretly formed International Prisoners Committee took over the control of the camp. Units of 3rd Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Felix L. Sparks, were ordered to secure the camp. On 29 April Sparks led part of his battalion as they entered the camp over a side wall. At about the same time, Brigadier General Henning Linden led the 222nd Infantry Regiment of the 42nd (Rainbow) Infantry Division soldiers including his aide, Lieutenant William Cowling, to accept the formal surrender of the camp from German Lieutenant Heinrich Wicker at an entrance between the camp and the compound for the SS garrison. Linden was traveling with Marguerite Higgins and other reporters, as a result, Linden's detachment generated international headlines by accepting the surrender of the camp. More than 30,000 Jews and political prisoners were freed, and since 1945 adherents of the 42nd and 45th Division versions of events have argued over which unit was the first to liberate Dachau.:201:283
The stench had become intolerable; wrapped in my cloak, a priceless possession, I went out in search of air, to stretch out, to sleep in the open. The ground was muddy and cold, so I kept walking. In front of me, a pile of corpses balanced carefully on one another, rose geometrically like a haystack. There was no more room in the crematoria so they piled up the corpses out here.
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas [de], who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.