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 the summer of 1943, Stalag XI-C (311) was dissolved and Bergen-Belsen became a branch camp of Stalag XI-B. It served as the hospital for all Soviet POWs in the region until January 1945. Other inmates/patients were Italian military internees from August 1944 and, following the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, around 1,000 members of the Polish Home Army were imprisoned in a separate section of the POW camp.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning "sacrifice by fire." The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were "racially superior" and that the Jews, deemed "inferior," were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
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.
Weather at the time of liberation was unseasonably cool and temperatures trended down through the first two days of May; on 2 May, the area received a snowstorm with 10 centimetres (4 in) of snow at nearby Munich. Proper clothing was still scarce and film footage from the time (as seen in The World at War) shows naked, gaunt people either wandering on snow or dead under it.
My father supervised work parties in which Irma Grese was forced to carry corpses for burial and he described her as really beautiful but utterly evil. Most of the SS guards were evil and Dad had trouble stopping his men from shooting them out of hand, especially when the SS prisoners protested about having to work in burial details. He was tempted to do so himself. He told me that Bergen-Belsen brought home to him what they had been fighting, evil from the pit of hell itself.
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)
Before reaching the concentration camp, the 45th Thunderbird Division had discovered an abandoned train, with no engine, on a branch railroad line which at that time ran from the Dachau station along Freisinger Street in the direction of the camp. Inside the 39 train cars were the corpses of prisoners who had been evacuated from Buchenwald on April 7, 1945 and, because of heavy bombing and strafing by Allied planes in the last days of the war, had not reached Dachau until three weeks later, two days before the American soldiers arrived.
The government defined a Jewish person as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents, not someone who had religious convictions. This meant that people who had never practiced, or hadn’t practiced Judaism in many years, or even converted to Christianity were subjected to persecution. Although anti-semitism was pervasive in 1930s Germany, these restrictions frequently extended to any person the Nazis considered to be “non-Aryan”.
Prisoners continued to die, in spite of the medical treatment provided by the Red Cross and the British Army. Nine thousand died in the first two weeks after the British arrived, and another 4000 died in May. The bodies were thrown into unmarked mass graves, even though the identities of these prisoners were known. Today none of the mass graves at Bergen-Belsen has a stone with the names of those who are buried there.
The opening of the camp, with a capacity for 5,000 prisoners was announced by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer SS at a press conference held on 20 March 1933. The first group of so-called protective-custody, consisting mainly of Communists and Social Democrats was brought to the camp on 22 March 1933. They were guarded by Bavarian state police until the camp was taken over by the SS on 11 April 1933.
The top Nazis on trial at Nuremberg were stunned and claimed that they were hearing about the Dachau gas chamber for the first time. Some of the footage from this film is currently being shown at the Dachau Museum, although in May 2003, the staff at the Memorial Site was telling visitors that the Dachau gas chamber had actually been designed so that the introduction of poison gas was done by pouring Zyklon-B pellets onto the floor of the gas chamber through two chutes on the outside wall of the building.
When SS chief Heinrich Himmler learned of the typhus outbreak at Bergen-Belsen, he immediately issued an order to all appropriate officials requiring that "all medical means necessary to combat the epidemic should be employed ... There can be no question of skimping either with doctors or medical supplies." However, the general breakdown of order that prevailed on Germany by this time made it impossible to implement the command. /13
December 11, 1941 - Hitler declares war on the United States. President Roosevelt then asks Congress for a declaration of war on Germany saying, "Never before has there been a greater challenge to life, liberty and civilization." The U.S.A. then enters the war in Europe and will concentrate nearly 90 percent of its military resources to defeat Hitler.
The camp administration did nothing to house the prisoners who were streaming in. Most of them had no roof over their heads, and were without water and food. There was now total chaos in Bergen- Belsen and a typhus epidemic broke out, in the month of March alone 18,168 prisoners perished in the camp and the number of deaths for the period from January to mid-April 1945 was 35,000.
Fermented blackberry and raspberry leaves from the Dachau farm were used to create German tea, reducing dependency on imports. Work was done on growing German pepper and gladioli flowers were grown in great quantities for their vitamin C. The gladioli leaves were dried and pulverized, then combined with a mixture of spices, beef fat and cooking salt to make a food supplement for SS soldiers.
The first prisoners arrived in Dachau on March 22, 1933, two days after the acting Munich Chief of Police and Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler announced the camp’s creation. Many of the initial prisoners were Social Democrats and German Communists, the latter group having been blamed for the February 27 fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began systematically clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for 'deportation to the East'. The killing of the Polish Jews, code-named 'Project Reinhardt', was carried out in three camps: Treblinka, near Warsaw (850,000 victims); Belzec, in south-eastern Poland (650,000 victims); and Sobibor, in east-central Poland (250,000 victims). Some Jews from western Europe were sometimes taken to these camps as well, but most were killed at the biggest and most advanced of the death camps, Auschwitz.
The British forced the former SS camp personnel to help bury the thousands of dead bodies in mass graves. Some civil servants from Celle and Landkreis Celle were brought to Belsen and confronted with the crimes committed on their doorstep.:262 Military photographers and cameramen of No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit documented the conditions in the camp and the measures of the British Army to ameliorate them. Many of the pictures they took and the films they made from April 15 to June 9, 1945 were published or shown abroad. Today, the originals are in the Imperial War Museum. These documents had a lasting impact on the international perception and memory of Nazi concentration camps to this day.:243 According to Habbo Knoch, head of the institution that runs the memorial today: "Bergen-Belsen [...] became a synonym world-wide for German crimes committed during the time of Nazi rule.":9