Working together with both Commandant Kramer and chief inmate representative Kuestermeier, Colonel Hanns Schmidt responded by arranging for the local volunteer fire department to provide water. He also saw to it that food supplies were brought to the camp from abandoned rail cars. Schmidt later recalled that Kramer "did not at all impress one as a criminal type. He acted like an upright and rather honorable man. Neither did he strike me as someone with a guilty conscience. He worked with great dedication to improve conditions in the camp. For example, he rounded up horse drawn vehicles to bring food to the camp from rail cars that had been shot up." /17
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.
Although Dachau was in existence for 12 years, most people know only the horror described by the soldiers in the 42nd Rainbow Infantry Division and the 45th Thunderbird Infantry Division after they had liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Three weeks before, on April 9, 1945, a bomb had hit the camp, knocking out a water main and the source of electricity. There was no running water in the camp and drinking water had to be brought in by trucks. There was no water for the showers, nor any water to flush the toilets. There was however, one last vestige of what the camp had been like before Germany was bombed back to the Stone age: fresh flowers in a vase in the undressing room for the gas chamber.
In March 1943, the Krakow ghetto was being liquidated, and all the remaining Jews were being moved to the forced-labor camp of Plaszow, outside Krakow. Schindler prevailed upon SS-Haupsturmführer Amon Goeth, the brutal camp commandant and a personal drinking companion, to allow him to set up a special sub-camp for his own Jewish workers at the factory site in Zablocie. There he was better able to keep the Jews under relatively tolerable conditions, augmenting their below-subsistence diet with food bought on the black market with his own money. The factory compound was declared out of bounds for the SS guards who kept watch over the sub-camp.
Lewis said that his comrades pushed cigarettes and sweets through the wire to the inmates who fell on them so ferociously that some were left dead on the ground, torn to pieces in the sordid scramble. The Hungarian Wehrmacht soldiers, who had been assigned to guard the camp during the transition, shot into the mob and killed numerous people. Lt. Lawrence Alsen, a British soldiers who was at the camp on the day of the liberation, told his son Niall after the war that "In some respects, the Hungarians were worse than the Germans."
Ghastly images recorded by Allied photographers at Belsen in mid-April 1945 and widely reproduced ever since have greatly contributed to the camp's reputation as a notorious extermination center. In fact, the dead of Bergen-Belsen were, above all, unfortunate victims of war and its turmoil, not deliberate policy. It can even be argued that they were as much victims of Allied as of German measures.
A tablet at the camp commemorates the liberation of Dachau by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on 29 April 1945. Others claim that the first forces to enter the main camp were a battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division commanded by Felix L. Sparks. There is an on-going disagreement as to which division, the 42nd or the 45th, actually liberated Dachau because they seem to have approached by different routes and by the American Army’s definition, anyone arriving at such a camp within 48 hours was a liberator. General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp after it was liberated, but not Dachau.
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.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
In October 1944, after the SS transferred the Emalia Jews to Plaszow, Schindler sought and obtained authorization to relocate his plant to Brünnlitz (Brnenec) in Moravia, and reopen it exclusively as an armaments factory. One of his assistants drew several versions of a list of up to 1,200 Jewish prisoners needed to work in the new factory. These lists came to be known collectively as “Schindler's List.” Schindler met the specifications required by the SS to classify Brünnlitz as a subcamp of Gross-Rosen concentration camp and thereby facilitated the survival of around 800 Jewish men whom the SS deported from Plaszow via Gross-Rosen to Brünnlitz and between 300 and 400 Jewish women from Plaszow via Auschwitz.
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years '41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or brutal treatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
A final and complete deterioration of the prisoners living conditions set in when tens of thousands of prisoners poured in – survivors of the death marches who had been evacuated from the camps in the east. These included 20,000 women prisoners from the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps who had passed through the Gross- Rosen concentration camp on the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
The excuse for setting up concentration camps, including the Dachau camp, was the hysteria following the burning of the Reichstag, which was the Congressional building in Berlin, on the night of February 27, 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Hermann Goering accused the Communists of starting the fire in protest of the appointment of Hitler as the Chancellor and the scheduled Congressional election to confirm his appointment, but the Communists claimed that the Nazis had set the fire themselves in order to begin a reign of terror. The arrests of Communists and Social Democrats began even before the fire was put out.
Due to the number of sub-camps over a large area that comprised the Dachau concentration camp complex, many Allied units have been officially recognized by the United States Army Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as liberating units of Dachau, including: the 4th Infantry Division, 36th Infantry Division, 42nd Infantry Division, 45th Infantry Division, 63rd Infantry Division, 99th Infantry Division, 103rd Infantry Division, 10th Armored Division, 12th Armored Division, 14th Armored Division, 20th Armored Division, and the 101st Airborne Division.
By January 1946, 18,000 members of the SS were being confined at the camp along with an additional 12,000 persons, including deserters from the Russian army. The occupants of one barracks rioted as 271 of the Russian deserters were to be loaded onto trains that would return them to Russian-controlled lands, as agreed at the Yalta Conference. Ten of the soldiers, who had been captured in German Army uniforms, committed suicide during the riot. Twenty-one others attempted suicide, apparently with razor blades. Many had "cracked heads" inflicted by 500 American and Polish guards, in the attempt to bring the situation under control. Inmates barricaded themselves inside and set fire to the building, tore off their clothing, and linked arms to resist being removed from the building. Some begged American soldiers to shoot them. Tear gas was used by the soldiers before rushing the building.
During World War II the main camp was supplemented by about 150 branches scattered throughout southern Germany and Austria, all of which collectively were called Dachau. (This southern system complemented the camps for central and northern Germany, at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen.) In the course of Dachau’s history, at least 160,000 prisoners passed through the main camp, and 90,000 through the branches. Incomplete records indicate that at least 32,000 of the inmates died there from disease, malnutrition, physical oppression, and execution, but countless more were transported to the extermination camps in German-occupied Poland.
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.
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.