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.
Another important correction to the historical record: Itzhak Stern, played in the movie by Ben Kingsley, was actually a composite of a number of people, including Mietek Pemper, who played a crucial role in putting Oskar Schindler in the position to save many people. Pemper had the unfortunate task of being forced to work as the assistant to Amon Goth, the sadistic commandant of the Krakow-Płaszow concentration camp. In that position, Pemper passed along valuable information to Oskar. As the German war effort neared collapse, Pemper told Schindler he needed to expand into armaments because only factories deemed vital to the war effort would be viewed worth saving, along with, it was hoped, the workers in those factories.
On April 18, 1945, the burial of the dead began. The staff members, who were now prisoners of the British, were ordered to do the work of burying the bodies. The British deliberately forced the SS staff to use only their bare hands to handle the corpses of prisoners who had died of contagious diseases. In the documentary film which was shown in the newsreels in theaters around the world, a British officer said that the Germans were being punished by not allowing them to use gloves to handle the bodies. According to Eberhard Kolb, 20 out of the 80 guards, who were forced to handle diseased bodies without wearing protective gear, died later and the majority of the deaths were from typhus.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
Mr. Le Drieullenac is a dark-haired, youngish man, limping on a heavy stick. He was wearing a dark-grey suit and looked like a typical British civilian in the purely military atmosphere of a court martial. He told the court that with most of his family he was arrested at St. Helier on the day before D-Day. For 18 months he had concealed a Russian officer prisoner and in addition had a hidden radio. He was first sent to Wilhelmshaven, where he was made a welder in the naval arsenal, and then went to Belsen with the rest of his arbeitskommando. From the evidence in this trial and from other sources it appears that as the Allied armies advanced into Germany the Germans shipped off all the foreign workers to the nearest concentration camp.
Soon after his marriage, Schindler quit working for his father and took a series of jobs, including a position at Moravian Electrotechnic and the management of a driving school. After an 18-month stint in the Czech army, where he rose to the rank of Lance-Corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army, Schindler returned to Moravian Electrotechnic, which went bankrupt shortly afterwards. His father's farm machinery business closed around the same time, leaving Schindler unemployed for a year. He took a job with Jarslav Simek Bank of Prague in 1931, where he worked until 1938.
The Bergen Belsen concentration camp was established in April 1943. Over the next year-and-a-half, five sub-camps were set up there. Jewish inmates of these camps were forced to perform hard labor for the Nazis. Bergen Belsen was infamous for its extremely unhygienic conditions; it was infested with lice and typhus. Its horrific conditions deteriorated near the end of the war, when tens of thousands of prisoners arrived at Bergen Belsen on death marches from the East.
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered the establishment of the Judenräte (“Jewish Councils”), comprising up to 24 men—rabbis and Jewish leaders. Heydrich’s order made these councils personally responsible in “the literal sense of the term” for carrying out German orders. When the Nazis sealed the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of German-occupied Poland’s 400 ghettos, in the fall of 1940, the Jews—then 30 percent of Warsaw’s population—were forced into 2.4 percent of the city’s area. The ghetto’s population reached a density of more than 200,000 persons per square mile (77,000 per square km) and 9.2 per room. Disease, malnutrition, hunger, and poverty took their toll even before the first bullet was fired.
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According to Herbert Stolpmann, who was a former German soldier working for the US military at Dachau after the liberation of the camp, some of the Dachau prisoners lived with families in the town of Dachau during the war and worked for them. Stolpmann's father-in-law owned the Bielmeier bakery, which supplied bread for the prisoners in the camp. Two Russian boys, aged 13 and 14, lived with the family and worked at the bakery, which was called an Arbeitskommando or Work Commando. When the boys reached the ages of 16 and 17, they were taken to the camp and executed. They had been sentenced to death after they were captured as Partisans, but under the German law, no one under the age of 16 could be executed. The Bielmeier family also had a French woman from the Dachau camp living with them; she was engaged to be married to an SS guard, but she was also taken away, never to be seen again.
Oskar Schindler was born into a German Catholic family on April 28, 1908. After attending trade schools, he worked for his father’s farm machinery company. He worked for German intelligence and later joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime hero. During the war, however, he operated a factory that employed more than 1,000 Polish Jews, saving them from concentration camps and extermination. In 1993 his story was made into the Steven Spielberg feature film Schindler's List.
Most Holocaust historians define the Holocaust as the enactment, between 1941 and 1945, of the German state policy to exterminate the European Jews.[a] In Teaching the Holocaust (2015), Michael Gray, a specialist in Holocaust education, offers three definitions: (a) "the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust; (b) "the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945", which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe; and (c) "the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which includes all the Nazis' victims. The third definition fails, Gray writes, to acknowledge that only the Jewish people were singled out for annihilation.
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the Holocaust as the "systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators", distinguishing between the Holocaust and the targeting of other groups during "the era of the Holocaust". According to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, most historians regard the start of the "Holocaust era" as January 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. Other victims of the Holocaust era include those viewed as inferior, including for reasons of race or ethnicity (such as the Roma, ethnic Poles, Russians, and the disabled); and those targeted because of their beliefs or behavior (such as Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, and homosexuals). Hitler came to see the Jews as "uniquely dangerous to Germany", according to Peter Hayes, "and therefore uniquely destined to disappear completely from the Reich and all territories subordinate to it". The persecution and murder of other groups was much less consistent. For example, he writes, the Nazis regarded the Slavs as "sub-human", but their treatment consisted of "enslavement and gradual attrition", while "some Slavs—Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians, some Ukrainians—[were] allotted a favored place in Hitler's New Order".
Similarly, in Ordinary Men (1992), Christopher Browning examined the deeds of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei ("order police"), used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews, as well as mass deportations to the death camps. The members of the battalion were middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military duty. They were given no special training. During the murder of 1,500 Jews from Józefów in Poland, their commander allowed them to opt out of direct participation. Fewer than 12 men out of a battalion of 500 did so. Influenced by the Milgram experiment on obedience, Browning argued that the men killed out of peer pressure, not bloodlust.
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.
In 1985, international attention was focused on Bergen-Belsen. The camp was hastily included in Ronald Reagan's itinerary when he visited West Germany after a controversy about a visit to a cemetery where the interred included members of the Waffen SS (see Bitburg controversy). Shortly before Reagan's visit on May 5, there had been a large memorial event on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the camp's liberation, which had been attended by German president Richard von Weizsäcker and chancellor Helmut Kohl.:44 In the aftermath of these events, the parliament of Lower Saxony decided to expand the exhibition centre and to hire permanent scientific staff. In 1990, the permanent exhibition was replaced by a new version and a larger document building was opened.
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.
Until 1943, Bergen-Belsen was exclusively a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. In April 1943 the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA) which administered the concentration camp system, took over a portion of Bergen-Belsen and converted it first into a civilian residence camp and, later, into a concentration camp. Thus, while the German government placed the Bergen-Belsen camp complex within the concentration camp system, the WVHA initially gave it a special designation.
German communists, socialists and trade unionists were among the earliest opponents of the Nazis and among the first to be sent to concentration camps. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler issued the Commissar Order, which ordered the execution of all political commissars and Communist Party members captured. Nacht und Nebel ("Night and Fog") was a directive of Hitler in December 1941, resulting in the disappearance of political activists throughout the German-occupied territories.
The Germans required each ghetto to be run by a Judenrat, or Jewish council. Councils were responsible for a ghetto's day-to-day operations, including distributing food, water, heat, medical care, and shelter. The Germans also required councils to confiscate property, organize forced labor, and, finally, facilitate deportations to extermination camps. The councils' basic strategy was one of trying to minimize losses, by cooperating with German authorities, bribing officials, and petitioning for better conditions or clemency.
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at a lakeside villa in Berlin to organize the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Around the table were 15 men representing government agencies necessary to implement so bold and sweeping a policy. The language of the meeting was clear, but the meeting notes were circumspect:
After attending a series of trade schools in Brno and marrying Emilie Pelzl in 1928, Schindler held a variety of jobs, including working in his father's farm machinery business in Svitavy, opening a driving school in Sumperk, and selling government property in Brno. He also served in the Czechoslovak army and in 1938 attained the rank of lance corporal in the reserves. Schindler began working with the Amt Auslands/Abwehr (Office of the Military Foreign Intelligence) of the German Armed Forces in 1936. In February 1939, five months after the German annexation of the Sudetenland, he joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime rescuer. During World War II, Schindler would rescue more than 1,000 Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's largest camp complex.
The most famous American at Dachau was Rene Guiraud. After being given intensive specialized training, Lt. Guiraud was parachuted into Nazi-occupied France, along with a radio operator. His mission was to collect intelligence, harass German military units and occupation forces, sabotage critical war material facilities, and carry on other resistance activities. Guiraud organized 1500 guerrilla fighters and developed intelligence networks. During all this, Guiraud posed as a French citizen, wearing civilian clothing. He was captured and interrogated for two months by the Gestapo, but revealed nothing about his mission. After that, he was sent to Dachau where he participated in the camp resistance movement along with the captured British spies. Two weeks after the liberation of the camp, he "escaped" from the quarantined camp and went to Paris where he arrived in time to celebrate V-E day.
Schindler never developed any ideologically motivated resistance against the Nazi regime. However, his growing revulsion and horror at the senseless brutality of the Nazi persecution of the helpless Jewish population wrought a curious transformation in the unprincipled opportunist. Gradually, the egoistic goal of lining his pockets with money took second place to the all-consuming desire of rescuing as many of his Jews as he could from the clutches of the Nazi executioners. In the long run, in his efforts to bring his Jewish workers safely through the war, he was not only prepared to squander all his money but also to put his own life on line.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
After attending primary and secondary school, Schindler enrolled in a technical school, from which he was expelled in 1924 for forging his report card. He later graduated, but did not take the Abitur exams that would have enabled him to go to college or university. Instead, he took courses in Brno in several trades, including chauffeuring and machinery, and worked for his father for three years. A fan of motorcycles since his youth, Schindler bought a 250-cc Moto Guzzi racing motorcycle and competed recreationally in mountain races for the next few years.
The Nazis brought their own strain of radical ruthlessness to these ideas. They glorified war and saw the uncompromising struggle for survival between nations and races as the engine of human progress. They rejected morality as a Jewish idea, which had corrupted and weakened the German people. They maintained that a great nation such as Germany had the right and duty to build an empire based on the subjugation of 'inferior races'. They looked eastwards to Poland and Russia (where, as it happened, the great majority of European Jews lived) for the territorial expansion of their 'living space' (Lebensraum).
Political dissidents, trade unionists, and Social Democrats were among the first to be arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. Under the Weimar government, centuries-old prohibitions against homosexuality had been overlooked, but this tolerance ended violently when the SA (Storm Troopers) began raiding gay bars in 1933. Homosexual intent became just cause for prosecution. The Nazis arrested German and Austrian male homosexuals—there was no systematic persecution of lesbians—and interned them in concentration camps, where they were forced to wear special yellow armbands and later pink triangles. The goal of persecuting male homosexuals was either for reeducation—what might now be called conversion therapy—or punishment. Jehovah’s Witnesses were a problem for the Nazis because they refused to swear allegiance to the state, register for the draft, or utter the words “Heil Hitler.” As a result, the Nazis imprisoned many of the roughly 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. They could be released from concentration camps if they signed a document renouncing their faith and promising not to proselytize. Few availed themselves of that option, preferring martyrdom to apostasy. Germans of African descent—many of whom, called “Rhineland bastards” by the Nazis, were the offspring of German mothers and French colonial African troops who had occupied the Rhineland after World War I—were also persecuted by the Nazis. Although their victimization was less systematic, it included forced sterilization and, often, internment in concentration camps. The fear was that they would “further pollute” and thereby diminish the race. The Nazis also singled out the Roma and Sinti, pejoratively known as Gypsies. They were the only other group that the Nazis systematically killed in gas chambers alongside the Jews. For the Roma and Sinti, too, racial pollution and their depiction as asocials was the justification for their persecution and murder.
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.