David M. Crowe’s book Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind The List should be considered a classic in investigative and historical research. Based on interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors saved by Oskar Schindler and with access to documents unavailable to Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, Crowe sheds light on one of the most dramatic and important stories to come out of World War II.
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.
In his book From Belsen to Buckingham Palace Paul Oppenheimer tells of the events leading up to the internment of his whole family at the camp and their incarceration there between February 1944 and April 1945, when he was aged 14–15. Following publication of the book, Oppenheimer personally talked to many groups and schools about the events he witnessed. This work is now continued by his brother Rudi, who shared the experiences.
50,000 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen. 60,000 prisoners were liberated by the Allies in April, 1945. The Bergen-Belsen staff, largely intact at the time of liberation, were tried in 1945 by a British military tribunal in Luneburg, Germany. Among those tried were the camp Kommandant, Josef Kramer, and a 22-year old female S.S. guard, Irma Grese, who was accused by camp inmates of shooting prisoners and beating them with a homemade whip. Forty-five staff were tried; fourteen were acquitted.
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.
There were no charges of killing prisoners in a gas chamber brought against the accused in the proceedings against the staff members of the Dachau camp, which were conducted by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau in November 1945, although a film of the gas chamber was shown at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on November 29, 1945, while the Dachau tribunal was in progress. This documentary film was taken by the Allies, under the direction of famed Hollywood director George Stevens; it showed the pipes through which the gas flowed into the gas chamber and the control wheels which regulated the flow of gas that came out of the shower heads.
By the late 1930s there was a desperate search for countries of refuge. Those who could obtain visas and qualify under stringent quotas emigrated to the United States. Many went to Palestine, where the small Jewish community was willing to receive refugees. Still others sought refuge in neighbouring European countries. Most countries, however, were unwilling to receive large numbers of refugees.
By May 19, 1945, all the former prisoners had been evacuated to the nearby Army barracks and on May 21, 1945, the last hut at the Bergen-Belsen camp was burned to the ground. The horror that was Bergen-Belsen had been completely wiped off the face of the earth. Today the former camp is a landscaped park with heather, which blooms in August, covering the mass graves. Most of the visitors to the Memorial Site are German students who come on tour buses.
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
Historians differ on the date of the decision to murder Jews systematically, the so-called “final solution to the Jewish question.” There is debate about whether there was one central decision or a series of regional decisions in response to local conditions. In either case, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, its former ally, in June of 1941, the Nazis began the systematic killing of Jews.
On April 15, 1945, the British army liberated Belsen. However, it was unable to rescue the inmates. On that liberation day the British found 10,000 unburied corpses and 40,000 sick and dying prisoners. Among the 40,000 living inmates, 28,000 died after the liberation. The inmates were abandoned in Bergen-Belsen by the Germans, left behind for death to come.
Killing on a mass scale using gas chambers or gas vans was the main difference between the extermination and concentration camps. From the end of 1941, the Germans built six extermination camps in occupied Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chełmno, and the three Operation Reinhard camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. Maly Trostenets, a concentration camp in the Reichskommissariat Ostland, became a killing centre in 1942. Gerlach writes that over three million Jews were murdered in 1942, the year that "marked the peak" of the mass murder of Jews. At least 1.4 million of these were in the General Government area of Poland.
Part of Spielberg’s reluctance to make Schindler's List was that he didn’t feel that he was prepared or mature enough to tackle a film about the Holocaust. So he tried to recruit other directors to make the film. He first approached director Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor whose own mother was killed in Auschwitz. Polanski declined, but would go on to make his own film about the Holocaust, The Pianist, which earned him a Best Director Oscar in 2003. Spielberg then offered the movie to director Sydney Pollack, who also passed.
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
Rzepliñski, Andrzej (25 March 2004). "Prosecution of Nazi Crimes in Poland in 1939–2004" (PDF). First International Expert Meeting on War Crimes, Genocide, and Crimes against Humanity. Lyon, France: International Criminal Police Organization – Interpol General Secretariat. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
One of the alleged survivors of Dachau is Martin Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew born in 1911, who settled in the town of Dachau after the war and married a German woman. He lives in a very nice house in the heart of Old Town Dachau, and up until May 2003 he would come to the Memorial Site every day to talk with the tourists. As many American tourists learned, he expected a donation and would get angry if he was handed less than $20. Although Martin told the tourists that he was a prisoner at Dachau for 3 years before the camp was liberated, the staff at the Museum claims that there is no record of him being incarcerated there.
Starting out with 45 employees, the company grew to more than 1,700 at its peak in 1944. Initially, Schindler hired Jewish workers because they were a less expensive Polish workforce. But as Nazi atrocities against the Jewish community increased, Schindler’s attitude changed. With the help of Stern, he found reasons to hire more Jewish workers, regardless of their abilities. By 1942, nearly half of his employees were Jewish and were known as Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews). When the Nazis began to relocate Krakow’s Jews to labor camps, Itzhak Stern and several hundred other employees were among them. Schindler raced to the train station and confronted an SS officer, arguing that his workers were essential to the war effort. After several tense minutes of dropping names and making veiled threats, Schindler was able to free his workers and escort them back to the factory.
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187