By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.
In town there are still parts of the Schleißheimer canal remaining today. This canal was built in the mid-eighteenth century as part of the northern Munich canal system to which the Nymphenburger Canal belongs as well. It functioned as a transportation route between Dachau and Schleißheim. The building material recovered from the demolition of three wings of the Dachau castle was transported to Schleißheim this way.
“At this point in the war and in his life, I think Oskar Schindler was absolutely determined to do everything he could to save as many Jews as he could regardless of the cost, either personal or financial,” writes Crowe. “During the last two years of the war, he had undergone a dramatic moral transformation, and, in many ways, he came more and more to associate himself with his Jews than with other Germans.”
Most of the regular SS guards and the administrative staff had fled from the camp the next day and there was no one left to oversee the burial of the bodies. No precise figures are available, but the train had started out with approximately 4,500 to 6,000 prisoners on board and between 1,300 and 2,600 had made it to Dachau still alive. Some of the dead had been buried along the way, or left in rows alongside the tracks. The gruesome sight of the death train, with some of the corpses in the open cars riddled by bullets, so affected the young soldiers of the 45th Thunderbird Division that they executed Waffen-SS soldiers stationed at the Dachau garrison after they had surrendered.
When British tanks reached the camp Mr. Le Drieullenac was having his first meal for five days – grass. In the whole ten days there he had about one pint of soup in a mug which he took from a pile of effects of the dead. There was no water to wash the mug, but he did get one drink by climbing over the dead bodies in the washroom. The grass meal was got when the Germans on the last day moved him with some comrades to better quarters, this apparently being done to make a more favourable impression on the British troops. This motive was also, it would seem, behind the efforts which the Germans forced the prisoners to make to get rid of the bodies in the course of which Mr. Le Drieullenac said, the number of dead buried ran into five figures.
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.
To start with, Dachau was used as a place of internment for opponents of the regime - mostly communists, social democrats and trade unionists. Political prisoners managed to gain all the significant positions in the prison's administration and to maintain them throughout the camp's existence, which meant that in many cases they were able to help other prisoners. Later on, they were joined by other groups of prisoners - Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma and homosexuals. The number of Jewish prisoners also grew. After Kristallnacht, over 10 000 Jews from all over Germany were brought to Dachau. They were released a few weeks later after promising to leave Germany. Most of them, following their experiences in the concentration camp, were only too glad to emigrate.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
Last week the jubilance of impending victory was sobered by the grim facts of the atrocities which the Allied troops were uncovering all over Germany. For 12 years since the Nazis seized power, American have heard charges of German brutality. Made skeptical by World War I "atrocity propaganda," many people refused to put much faith in stories about the inhuman Nazi treatment of prisoners.
Eleven of the defendants were sentenced to death. They included Kramer, Volkenrath and Klein. The executions by hanging took place on December 13, 1945 in Hamelin. Fourteen defendants were acquitted (one was excluded from the trial due to illness). Of the remaining 19, one was sentenced to life in prison but he was executed for another crime. Eighteen were sentenced to prison for periods of one to 15 years; however, most of these sentences were subsequently reduced significantly on appeals or pleas for clemency. By June 1955, the last of those sentenced in the Belsen trial had been released.:37 Nine other members of the Belsen personnel were tried by later military tribunals in 1946 and 1948.
While there were only 23 main camps between 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime established some 20,000 other camps used for forced labor, transit or temporary internment. During the Holocaust it is estimated that 6 million Jews were slaughtered along with, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3 million Polish Catholics, 700,000 Serbians, 250,000 Gypsies, Sinti, and Lalleri, 80,000 Germans (for political reasons), 70,000 German handicapped, 12,000 homosexuals, and 2,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Following the German invasion and occupation of Poland, Schindler moved to Krakow from Svitavy in October 1939. Taking advantage of the German occupation program to “Aryanize” and “Germanize” Jewish-owned and Polish-owned businesses in the so-called General Government (Generalgouvernement), he bought Rekord Ltd., a Jewish-owned enamelware manufacturer, in November 1939. He converted its plant to establish the Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik Oskar Schindler (German Enamelware Factory Oskar Schindler), also known as Emalia.
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.
Jewish prisoners were concentrated at Bergen-Belsen, hitherto not known as one of the worst camps; but in the chaotic final months of the war conditions were allowed to deteriorate catastrophically. When British troops came across the camp on 15 April 1945, they encountered 10,000 unburied corpses, a raging typhus epidemic and 60,000 sick and dying prisoners crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.
The word “Holocaust,” from the Greek words “holos” (whole) and “kaustos” (burned), was historically used to describe a sacrificial offering burned on an altar. Since 1945, the word has taken on a new and horrible meaning: the mass murder of some 6 million European Jews (as well as millions of others, including Gypsies and homosexuals) by the German Nazi regime during the Second World War. To the anti-Semitic Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Jews were an inferior race, an alien threat to German racial purity and community. After years of Nazi rule in Germany, during which Jews were consistently persecuted, Hitler’s “final solution”–now known as the Holocaust–came to fruition under the cover of world war, with mass killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland.
On March 22, 1933, a few weeks after Adolf Hitler had been appointed Reich Chancellor, a concentration camp for political prisoners was set up in Dachau. This camp served as a model for all later concentration camps and as a "school of violence" for the SS men under whose command it stood. In the twelve years of its existence over 200.000 persons from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in the numerous subsidary camps. 41.500 were murdered. On April 29 1945, American troops liberated the survivors.
Marc Coyle (?) reached the camp two days before I did and was a guard so as soon as I got there I looked him up and he took me to the crematory. Dead SS troops were scattered around the grounds, but when we reached the furnace house we came upon a huge stack of corpses piled up like kindling, all nude so that their clothes wouldn't be wasted by the burning. There were furnaces for burning six bodies at once and on each side of them was a room twenty feet square crammed to the ceiling with more bodies - one big stinking rotten mess. Their faces purple, their eyes popping, and with a ludicrous (?) grin on each one. They were nothing but bones & skin. Coyle had assisted at ten autopsies the day before (wearing a gas mask) on ten bodies selected at random. Eight of them had advanced T.B., all had Typhus and extreme malnutrition symptoms. There were both women and children in the stack in addition to the men.
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
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."
The economic strains of the Great Depression led some in the German medical establishment to advocate murder (euphemistically called "euthanasia") of the "incurable" mentally and physically disabled as a cost-saving measure to free up funds for the curable. By the time the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party,[j] came to power in 1933, there was already a tendency to seek to save the racially "valuable", while ridding society of the racially "undesirable". The party had originated in 1920 as an offshoot of the völkisch movement, and it adopted that movement's antisemitism. Early antisemites in the party included Dietrich Eckart, publisher of the Völkischer Beobachter, the party's newspaper, and Alfred Rosenberg, who wrote antisemitic articles for it in the 1920s. Rosenberg's vision of a secretive Jewish conspiracy ruling the world would influence Hitler's views of Jews by making them the driving force behind communism. The origin and first expression of Hitler's antisemitism remain a matter of debate. Central to his world view was the idea of expansion and lebensraum (living space) for Germany. Open about his hatred of Jews, he subscribed to the common antisemitic stereotypes. From the early 1920s onwards, he compared the Jews to germs and said they should be dealt with in the same way. He viewed Marxism as a Jewish doctrine, said he was fighting against "Jewish Marxism", and believed that Jews had created communism as part of a conspiracy to destroy Germany.
Immediately after the war, in the Spring of 1945, the majority of Americans believed that there had been homicidal gas chambers in most of the Nazi concentration camps, certainly in Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. After seeing the horrible newsreels of thousands of dead bodies in the camps, there was no doubt in most people's minds that the Nazis had carried out mass gassings in Germany, as well as in the death camps in what is now Poland. Even today, news reports confirm that there were gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, as well as at Buchenwald and Dachau.
Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program. After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.
Another 350 suffered the same fate in early 1944, this left 350 detainees in the camp, of whom 266 were in possession of immigration permits to Palestine, 34 were United States citizens and 50 had South American papers. These prisoners were not assigned to work teams and no contact was permitted between them and other groups of Bergen- Belsen prisoners.
Dachau (German pronunciation: [ˈdaxaʊ]) is a town in Upper Bavaria, in the southern part of Germany. It is a major district town—a Große Kreisstadt—of the administrative region of Upper Bavaria, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north-west of Munich. It is now a popular residential area for people working in Munich with roughly 45,000 inhabitants. The historic centre of town with its 18th-century castle is situated on an elevation and visible over a great distance.
"Bergen-Belsen," Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), vol. 4, pp. 610-612; Colonel Schmidt, the German officer who worked to alleviate conditions in Belsen during the final weeks and also arranged for the camp's surrender to the British, estimated that "altogether about 8,000 people" died in the camp. (This figure may, however, only include victims of the final chaotic weeks under German control.) Source: Signed report by Oberst a.D. Hanns Schmidt to Kurt Mehner and Lt. Colonel Bechtold, Braunschweig, March 3, 1981. (Cited above.) Photocopy in author's possession.
The biblical term shoah (Hebrew: שׁוֹאָה), meaning "destruction", became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jews, first used in a pamphlet in 1940, Sho'at Yehudei Polin ("Sho'ah of Polish Jews"), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland. On 3 October 1941 the cover of the magazine The American Hebrew used the phrase "before the Holocaust", apparently to refer to the situation in France, and in May 1943 The New York Times, discussing the Bermuda Conference, referred to the "hundreds of thousands of European Jews still surviving the Nazi Holocaust". In 1968 the Library of Congress created a new category, "Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)". The term was popularized in the United States by the NBC mini-series Holocaust (1978), about a fictional family of German Jews, and in November 1978 the President's Commission on the Holocaust was established. As non-Jewish groups began to include themselves as Holocaust victims too, many Jews chose to use the terms Shoah or Churban instead.[g] The Nazis used the phrase "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage).
In the first half of 1944, the “star camp” also took in small transports of Jews from various other countries. These included 200 Jews from Tunisia, Tripoli, and Benghazi , who until then had been held in the Fossoli di Carpi camp in Italy: 200 Jewish women from the Drancy transit camp in France, whose husbands were French prisoners-of –war, being held by the Germans, and several hundred Jews from Yugoslavia and Albania.
The survivors who lived in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen came extremely close to death. After the Nazis had killed their parents, spouses, siblings and children, the survivors' determination to continue, and start new families, provides the answer to the Nazis' attempt to annihilate European Jewry. Reflect on what you have learned about marriage and childbirth in Bergen Belsen. In your mind, what fact, testimony or picture most symbolizes this determination?
Never one to miss a chance to make money, he marched into Poland on the heels of the SS. He dived headfirst into the black-market and the underworld and soon made friends with the local Gestapo bigwigs, softening them up with women, money and illicit booze. His newfound connections helped him acquire a factory which he ran with the cheapest labor around: Jewish.
The never-ending rumors surrounding these early concentration camps instilled a nagging sense of fear among all Germans that helped to extinguish all potential opposition and criticism of Hitler's regime. However, the greatest challenge to Hitler would not come from his political opponents but from within his own ranks. By early 1934, a storm trooper rebellion was brewing that threatened to ruin everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
On 23 October 1943, 1,800 of these Jews arrived in Auschwitz where they were all immediately killed. During the undressing, prior to entering the gas chambers one woman throws her clothes at SS- Scharfuhrer Schillinger grabs his revolver and shoots him three times. She also shoots SS- Unterscharfuhrer Emmerich. Reinforcements were called, some women were shot, the rest are driven into the gas chamber and killed. Schillinger died on the way to the hospital, Emmerich recovered but was crippled.
A few days later a transport arrived with 200 prisoners from northern Bavaria, some of whom were at once inhumanly beaten. Among these prisoners were twelve Jews who were picked out immediately and brought to the guard room. They were stripped of their clothing, their heads were wrapped in blankets to smother their cries and they were beaten barbarously. Later, after kicks on the testicles and further beating, they were driven to the barracks. The body of each, from the waist to the knee, was one complete wound. The entire scene took place in the presence of a high police official, Dr. Frank, and fifteen Special Police headed by Steinbrenner, Hofmann and Kantschuster.
At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease. During the summer of 1944, even as the events of D-Day (June 6, 1944) and a Soviet offensive the same month spelled the beginning of the end for Germany in the war, a large proportion of Hungary’s Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz, and as many as 12,000 Jews were killed every day.
... In Bergen-Belsen, for example, thousands of corpses of Jewish prisoners were found by British soldiers on the day of liberation, which gave the impression that this was one of the notorious extermination camps. Actually, many Jews in Bergen-Belsen as well as in the satellite camps of Dachau died in the last weeks before the end of the war as a result of the quickly improvised retransfers and evacuations of Jewish workers from the still existing ghettos, work camps and concentration camps in the East (Auschwitz) ...
The roots of Hitler’s particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitism are unclear. Born in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I. Like many anti-Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in 1918. Soon after the war ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers’ Party, which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), known to English speakers as the Nazis. While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote the memoir and propaganda tract “Mein Kampf”(My Struggle), in which he predicted a general European war that would result in “the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany.”
A British documentary film shows healthy Jewish liberated prisoners lined up, screaming at the top of their lungs at the SS men and women as they go about their macabre task. On the day that the German civilians were brought to the camp, the Jewish women in the camp screamed at them as the Germans were forced to watch the loading of the corpses. Later the Bergen residents were forced to evacuate their homes and former Jewish prisoners moved in; the Germans were ordered to leave all their silverware, china and linens for the use of the former prisoners.
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. In trying to assess the causes of the conditions found in Belsen one must be alerted to the tremendous visual display, ripe for purposes of propaganda, that masses of starved corpses presented.
While the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies, only the Jews were marked for systematic and total annihilation. Jews were singled out for "Special Treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), which meant that Jewish men, women and children were to be methodically killed with poisonous gas. In the exacting records kept at the Auschwitz death camp, the cause of death of Jews who had been gassed was indicated by "SB," the first letters of the two words that form the German term for "Special Treatment."
Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief of the German police. By July 1933, German concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength.
Over the next days the surviving prisoners were deloused and moved to a nearby German Panzer army camp, which became the Bergen-Belsen DP (displaced persons) camp. Over a period of four weeks, almost 29,000 of the survivors were moved there. Before the handover, the SS had managed to destroy the camp's administrative files, thereby eradicating most written evidence.