The composition of the inmates reflected the Nazis’ changing choice of victims. The first inmates were Social Democrats, Communists, and other political prisoners. Throughout its existence, Dachau remained a “political camp,” in which political prisoners retained a prominent role. Later victims included Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews were brought to Dachau after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Initially, Jews could be freed if they had a way out of Germany. When the systematic killing of Jews began in 1942, many were sent from Dachau to the extermination camps. Dachau received Jews again after the “death marches” of the winter of 1944–45. These marches, following the forcible evacuation of the extermination camps, were one of the final phases of the Holocaust.
Some 28,000 prisoners died of disease and other causes in the weeks after the British army liberated the camp on April 15, 1945. The British were forced to bury thousands of corpses in mass graves hastily excavated on the site. Bergen-Belsen was the first major Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by the Western Allies, and its horrors gained instant notoriety. Forty-eight members of the camp staff were tried and 11 of them, including SS commandant Josef Kramer, the “Beast of Belsen,” were sentenced to death by a British military court and hanged. After the war, Bergen-Belsen became the largest displaced-person camp in Germany. Most of its residents later immigrated to Israel.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.
... The notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where 50,000 inmates were supposedly murdered. Actually, about 7,000 inmates died during the period when the camp existed, from 1943 to 1945. Most of them died in the final months of the war as a result of disease and malnutrition -- consequences of the bombings that had completely disrupted normal deliveries of medical supplies and food. The British commander who took control of the camp after the capitulation testified that crimes on a large scale had not taken place at Bergen-Belsen.
Overnight on November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis incited a pogrom against Jews in Austria and Germany called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, or literally translated from German, "Crystal Night"). This included the pillaging and burning of synagogues, the breaking of windows of Jewish-owned businesses and the looting of those stores. In the morning, broken glass littered the ground. Many Jews were physically attacked or harassed, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Many of the soldiers who first entered the camp were desperate to try and alleviate the prisoners' starvation by giving them army rations. This first intake of food was fatal for many prisoners, who were too weak to digest it. One of the British Army's most important tasks, as Major Dick Williams explains, was to find a safer and more appropriate way of providing food for the starving prisoners.
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As the mass shootings continued in Russia, the Germans began to search for new methods of mass murder. This was driven by a need to have a more efficient method than simply shooting millions of victims. Himmler also feared that the mass shootings were causing psychological problems in the SS. His concerns were shared by his subordinates in the field. In December 1939 and January 1940, another method besides shooting was tried. Experimental gas vans equipped with gas cylinders and a sealed compartment were used to kill the disabled and mentally-ill in occupied Poland. Similar vans, but using the exhaust fumes rather than bottled gas, were introduced to the Chełmno extermination camp in December 1941, and some were used in the occupied Soviet Union, for example in smaller clearing actions in the Minsk ghetto. They also were used for murder in Yugoslavia.
While these massacres were happening, the Nazis elsewhere were laying plans for an overall 'solution to the Jewish question'. Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans, which were then driven to nearby sites where the bodies were plundered and burnt. 250,000 Jews were killed this way at Chelmno and 15,000 at Semlin.
On April 16, 1945 Soviets surrounded Berlin, Germany’s capital. When the Soviets began advancing towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Then on May 7th, Germany surrendered to the Western Allies in Reims, France and a few days later to the Soviets in Berlin. All told more than 60 million people, or about 3% of the world’s population at the time, were killed during the course of the Second World War.
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, began construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. Prisoners were forced to do this work, starting with the destruction of the old munitions factory, under terrible conditions. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged until 1945. Dachau thus remained in operation for the entire period of the Third Reich.
Historians are divided about the motivations of the members of these mobile killing units. American historian Christopher Browning described one such unit, Police Battalion 101, as ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances in which conformity, peer pressure, careerism, obedience to orders, and group solidarity gradually overcame moral inhibitions. American writer Daniel Goldhagen viewed the very same unit as “willing executioners,” sharing Hitler’s vision of genocidal anti-Semitism and finding their tasks unpleasant but necessary. The diversity of the killers has challenged Goldhagen’s view that the motivation was a distinct form of German anti-Semitism. Yet both Browning and Goldhagen concurred that none of these killers faced punishment if he asked to be excused. Individuals had a choice whether to participate or not. Almost all chose to become killers.
During the first three weeks the camp was under the command of the regular police fore. Then the Nazis appeared one night to take over control. Their leader made a speech to his followers, of which the following quotations are of interest: “Always remember that no human beings are here, only swine.”—“Whoever does not wish to see blood may go home immediately.”—“No one who does harm to a prisoner need fear reprimand.”—“The more you shoot, the fewer we must feed.”
No matter the ethical background of a student, the lesson that true good and true evil exist in the world is invaluable. This can be a difficult concept to convey without controversy. The concept of what is good and what is evil is not constant. This changes from person to person based on belief. There is, however, an area of absolutes that ought to be discussed so that students can know where and when to take a stand and for what cause. There are a few examples from history that can be used to have this discussion productively. One such example is the Nazi Holocaust. This terrifying case has absolutes that do not change. Thus persons and events from World War II can be used as examples of good and evil, and therefore can lead to productive discussions of ethics. A very good text to use in order to encourage this discussion is Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally.
The Memorial Site on the grounds of the former concentration camp was established in 1965 on the initiative of and in accordance with the plans of the surviving prisoners who had joined together to form the Comité International de Dachau. The Bavarian state government provided financial support. Between 1996 and 2003 a new exhibition on the history of the Dachau concentration camp was created, following the leitmotif of the "Path of the Prisoners".
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Russian Prisoners of War were sent to Dachau. On Hitler's orders, Russian POWs who were determined to be Communist Commissars were executed at Dachau and other major concentration camps in Germany. The Communist Soviet Union had both political Commissars and military Commissars whose job it was to keep their citizens or soldiers in line. The military Commissars were stationed behind the front lines in order to urge reluctant Soviet soldiers forward since only one out of every 5 men had been furnished with a rifle. The Soviet soldiers were expected to pick up a rifle after another soldier had been shot; those who tried to retreat were shot by the Commissars. If captured, the Commissars were under orders to organize an escape or otherwise create havoc in the POW camp.
As we moved down along the west side of the concentration camp and approached the southwest corner, three people approached down the road under a flag of truce. We met these people about 75 yards north of the southwest entrance to the camp. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and assistant camp commander and that they had come into the camp on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of turning the camp over to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative acted as interpreter and stated that there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower. He said he had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 half-crazed prisoners of war in the camp, many of them typhus infected. He asked if I were an officer of the American army, to which I replied, “Yes, I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42d Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the American army.”
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”.
In the final days of the war, just before the entry of the Russian army into Moravia, Schindler managed to smuggle himself back into Germany, into Allied-controlled territory. The wartime industrial tycoon was by now penniless. Jewish relief organizations and groups of survivors supported him modestly over the years, helping finance his (in the long run, unsuccessful) emigration to South America. When Schindler visited Israel in 1961, the first of seventeen visits, he was treated to an overwhelming welcome from 220 enthusiastic survivors. He continued to live partly in Israel and partly in Germany. After his death in Hildesheim, Germany, in October 1974, the mournful survivors brought the remains of their rescuer to Israel to be laid to eternal rest in the Catholic Cemetery of Jerusalem. The inscription on his grave says: 'The unforgettable rescuer of 1,200 persecuted Jews".
The prisoners are kept occupied at hard labor, building roads and laying out drilling and shooting grounds. Some of the prisoners were harnessed for weeks to a heavy roller which they had to tow nine hours a day without a rest period. Others were compelled to stand the whole day in cold water excavating quagmire to lay the foundation for a swimming pool for the guards. The work was continually speeded up by lashing and kicking the prisoners, and many times men collapsed and had to be carried back to the camp for a short rest.
The camp was divided into eight sections: a detention camp, two women's camps, a special camp, neutrals camp, "star" camp, Hungarian camp and a tent camp. Polish Jews with citizenship papers from foreign countries lived in the special camp. The detention camp held prisoners brought from other camps to construct Bergen-Belsen. Approximately 4,000 Jewish prisoners, primarily Dutch, lived in the "Star" camp, so named because the prisoners wore the Star of David on their clothing instead of camp uniforms. The Hungarian camp housed more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews. The tent camp housed the overflow of sick, debilitated female prisoners from the hospital camp. Bergen-Belsen's most famous prisoners-Anne Frank and her sister Margo-lived in the tent camp.
Gun did not explain how these 300 prisoners died on the night of the liberation of the camp, but he did write that the prisoners had weapons and that the International Committee of Dachau had made sure that the prisoners who had cooperated with the German guards were not allowed to escape. Others may have died from eating too much of the canned food and chocolate given to them by the Americans, and undoubtedly there were deaths among the 900 prisoners sick with typhus in the infirmary.
Gun wrote that the International Committee of Dachau, headed by Patrick O'Leary, had set up its headquarters at 9 a.m. on April 29th in Block 1, the barracks building that was the closest to the gate house of the prison compound. This was the building that housed the camp library. Gun also wrote that Lt. Heinrich Skodzensky had arrived at Dachau on April 27th and on the day of liberation, he had remained in the gate house all that day.
In 1939, shortly after the war began, the Germans initiated the T4 Program—framed euphemistically as a “euthanasia” program—for the murder of intellectually or physically disabled and emotionally disturbed Germans who by their very existence violated the Nazi ideal of Aryan supremacy. They were termed “life unworthy of life.” An economic justification was also employed as these Germans were considered “useless eaters.” The Nazis pioneered the use of gas chambers and mass crematoria under this program. The murder of the disabled was the training ground for key personnel who were to later staff the death camps of Aktion Reinhard. The German public protested these murders. The Roman Catholic bishop of Münster, Clemens August, Graf von Galen, preached against them, and the T4 program was formally halted. Nonetheless, the murder and sterilization of these German “Aryans” continued secretly throughout the war.
The worst killer was typhus, but typhoid fever and dysentery also claimed many lives. Aggravating the situation was a policy during the final months of transferring already sick inmates from other camps to Belsen, which was then officially designated a sick or convalescence camp (Krankenlager). The sick women of Auschwitz, for example, were transferred to Belsen in three groups in November-December 1944. /12
The room fell silent as Olsson told of witnessing firsthand the horror of the "death factories" created by the Nazis. She told stories of German soldiers being ordered to shoot babies in their mother's arms-killing both mother and child-to not waste two bullets. She spoke of seeing the Angel of Death-Dr. Josef Mengele-and the hospital where he experimented on young Jewish children by infecting them with diseases such as tuberculosis.
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
The survivors who lived in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen came extremely close to death. After the Nazis had killed their parents, spouses, siblings and children, the survivors' determination to continue, and start new families, provides the answer to the Nazis' attempt to annihilate European Jewry. Reflect on what you have learned about marriage and childbirth in Bergen Belsen. In your mind, what fact, testimony or picture most symbolizes this determination?
More than 9,000 Jews with citizenship papers or passports from Latin American countries, entry visas for Palestine, or other documents making them eligible for emigration, arrived in late 1943 and 1944 from Poland, France, Holland and other parts of Europe. During the final months of the war, several groups of these "exchange Jews" were transported from Axis-occupied Europe. German authorities transferred several hundred to neutral Switzerland, and at least one group of 222 Jewish detainees was transferred from Belsen (by way of neutral Turkey) to British-controlled Palestine. /2
My sister recently told me of a story I did not know where while at Bergen-Belsen, post liberation, a Jewish lady who was delerious came to my grandfather asking for food and/or cigarettes (we presume the cigarettes were a bartering tool) while holding onto the dead body of her child and that it was clear that her child had been dead for quite a while but that the woman still cared for it as if it was alive."
Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover in Germany, was the first concentration camp to be liberated by British troops, on 15 April 1945. When soldiers of the 2nd Army arrived they found the camp littered with dead and dying prisoners. Around 60,000 starving people, many suffering from typhus and dysentery, required immediate aid. Despite the best efforts of the medical services, hundreds died in the days after the liberation. In the weeks that followed, British troops buried 10,000 bodies in mass graves. An estimated 70,000 Jews, Slavs, Roma, political prisoners, gays, Jehovah's witnesses and criminals were killed at Belsen.
Denazification courts were created by the Allies to try members of the SS and other Nazi organisations. Between 1947 and 1949 these courts initiated proceedings against at least 46 former SS staff at Belsen. Around half of these were discontinued, mostly because the defendants were considered to have been forced to join the SS.:39 Those who were sentenced received prison terms of between four and 36 months or were fined. As the judges decided to count the time the defendants had spent in Allied internment towards the sentence, the terms were considered to have already been fully served.