As U.S. Army troops neared the Dachau sub-camp at Landsberg on 27 April 1945, the SS officer in charge ordered that 4,000 prisoners be murdered. Windows and doors of their huts were nailed shut. The buildings were then doused with gasoline and set afire. Prisoners who were naked or nearly so were burned to death, while some managed to crawl out of the buildings before dying. Earlier that day, as Wehrmacht troops withdrew from Landsberg am Lech, towns people hung white sheets from their windows. Infuriated SS troops dragged German civilians from their homes and hanged them from trees.
The ramp appeared to lead up to the crematorium ovens. I am not surprised that the commandant and the guards were not charged with gassing prisoners because the evidence had been destroyed by the British, but that was academic because they had enough evidence to hang Kramer and Grese a hundred times over. As my Dad's colonel said to him: "They'll have a legal trial and a legal hanging..."
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.
But if the 10,000 bodies found in the camp by the British liberators weren't victims of mass gassing, how did so many die in such a short time? It was easy for viewers of the British documentary film, made immediately after the liberation, to believe that the emaciated corpses were those of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death by the evil Nazis, especially because the film made no mention of epidemics in the overcrowded camp, or that the camp was right in the middle of a war zone and had even been hit in an Allied bombing attack.
A protest meeting in the Bergen-Belsen camp, September 1947. For five years following the end of the war, British authorities maintained the camp as a "Displaced Persons" center. During this period it flourished as a major black market center. At this pro-Zionist gathering of 4,000 Jews, camp leader Joseph Rosensaft speaks against British policy in Palestine.
Prisoners were divided into categories. At first, they were classified by the nature of the crime for which they were accused, but eventually were classified by the specific authority-type under whose command a person was sent to camp.:53 Political prisoners who had been arrested by the Gestapo wore a red badge, "professional" criminals sent by the Criminal Courts wore a green badge, Cri-Po prisoners arrested by the criminal police wore a brown badge, "work-shy and asocial" people sent by the welfare authorities or the Gestapo wore a black badge, Jehovah's Witnesses arrested by the Gestapo wore a violet badge, homosexuals sent by the criminal courts wore a pink badge, emigrants arrested by the Gestapo wore a blue badge, "race polluters" arrested by the criminal court or Gestapo wore badges with a black outline, second-termers arrested by the Gestapo wore a bar matching the color of their badge, "idiots" wore a white armband with the label Blöd (Stupid), and Jews, whose incarceration in the Dachau concentration camp dramatically increased after Kristallnacht, wore a yellow badge, combined with another color.:54–69
On May 8, 1945, the war in Europe ended, and the next day Schindler and his wife fled the country with the help of several of the Schindlerjuden, as the Jews he saved came to be known. Schindler was wanted for war crimes in Czechoslovakia due to his earlier espionage activities. In 1949 they settled in Argentina with several of the Jewish families they had saved. Having spent the bulk of his profiteering fortune on bribes, Schindler unsuccessfully attempted to farm. He went bankrupt in 1957 and the next year traveled alone to West Germany, where he made an abortive entry into the cement business. Schindler spent the rest of his life supported by donations from the Schindlerjuden. He was named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in 1962 and was interred in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
Demographic statistics vary but they are in the same general range. History will likely never know how many people were interned or died there, due to periods of disruption. One source gives a general estimate of over 200,000 prisoners from more than 30 countries for the Third Reich's years, of whom two-thirds were political prisoners, including many Catholic priests, and nearly one-third were Jews. 25,613 prisoners are believed to have died in the camp and almost another 10,000 in its subcamps, primarily from disease, malnutrition and suicide. In late 1944, a typhus epidemic occurred in the camp caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding, which caused more than 15,000 deaths. It was followed by an evacuation, in which large numbers of the prisoners died. Toward the end of the war, death marches to and from the camp caused the deaths of numerous unrecorded prisoners. After liberation, prisoners weakened beyond recovery by the starvation conditions continued to die. Two thousand cases of "the dread black typhus" had already been identified by 3 May, and the U.S. Seventh Army was "working day and night to alleviate the appalling conditions at the camp". Prisoners with typhus, a louse-borne disease with an incubation period from 12 to 18 days, were treated by the 116th Evacuation Hospital, while the 127th would be the general hospital for the other illnesses. There were 227 documented deaths among the 2,252 patients cared for by the 127th.
Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht, or the “night of broken glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested. From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.
One prisoner, Aaron, son of a Bamberg attorney, died of his injuries a few days later. The official cause of death, which in every other case was agreed upon between the camp commanders and the Special Police, could not in this case be made to appear as “Shot while trying to escape,” or “Found hanged in his cell,” since the body showed no marks of shooting or hanging. The Commander, however, found a way out of this fix: that very night the shed in which the corpse was laid out was burned down. The corpse was sufficiently scorched to destroy the marks of the beating, and the official announcement read, “Died of heart disease.” The body was delivered to the parents in a sealed coffin.
The photograph below shows Dachau prisoners marching in single file, as they pass the newly constructed administration building that now houses the Museum at Dachau. These prisoners might be on their way to the factories which were just outside the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate on the west side of the administration building, or they might be marching to pick up construction materials. Usually, an orchestra was playing at Dachau as the prisoners marched to work.
Some ghettos were initially open, which meant that Jews could leave the area during the daytime but had to be back by a curfew. Later, all ghettos became closed, meaning that Jews were not allowed to leave under any circumstances. Major ghettos were located in the cities of Polish cities of Bialystok, Lodz, and Warsaw. Other ghettos were found in present-day Minsk, Belarus; Riga, Latvia; and Vilna, Lithuania. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw. At its peak in March 1941, some 445,000 were crammed into an area just 1.3 square miles in size.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Schindler left his wife and traveled to Krakow, hoping to profit from the impending war. Looking for business opportunities, he quickly became involved in the black market. By October, Schindler used his charm and doled out “gifts of gratitude” (contraband goods) to bribe high-ranking German officers. Wanting to expand his business interests, Schindler obtained a former Jewish enamelware factory to produce goods for the German military.
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian unit. At the time of liberation, the camp had been without food or water for three to five days. As Matthew Nesbitt, a Canadian liberator, recounted, "…the first thing we had to do when we got to camp. Prior to even distributing the food. And that was to make sure we used the guards to separate the living from the dead, from the huts, because first of all, if we are going to save anybody, we had to know who was alive and who had to be buried…The only way you could do that was to go into each individual hut and shake whoever was on that little slab…if they didn't move, they were dead."
The workers who constructed the original buildings were housed in camps near Fallingbostel and Bergen, the latter being the so-called Bergen-Belsen Army Construction Camp. Once the military complex was completed in 1938/39, the workers' camp fell into disuse. However, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht began using the huts as a prisoner of war (POW) camp.