Owing to repeated transports from the front, the camp was constantly overcrowded and the hygiene conditions were beneath human dignity. Starting from the end of 1944 up to the day of liberation, 15,000 people died, about half of all the prisoners held at KZ Dachau. Five hundred Soviet POWs were executed by firing squad. The first shipment of women came from Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish displaced persons emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last camp for Jewish displaced persons closed in 1957.
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler’s worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the first prisoners sent there were Communists.
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.
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.
Defined by the religion of their grandparents rather than by their own beliefs, Jews were viewed as having impure blood lines. The new laws were taught in schools, cementing anti-Semitism in German culture. Most Germans kept quiet, often benefiting when Jews lost jobs and businesses. Persecution of other minorities also escalated: the police were given new powers to arrest homosexuals and compulsory abortions were administered to women considered to be ‘hereditarily ill’.
Using gas vans, Chełmno had its roots in the Aktion T4 euthanasia program. Majdanek began as a POW camp, but in August 1942 it had gas chambers installed. A few other camps are occasionally named as extermination camps, but there is no scholarly agreement on the additional camps; commonly mentioned are Mauthausen in Austria and Stutthof. There may also have been plans for camps at Mogilev and Lvov.
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.
There was "practically no resistance" in the ghettos in Poland by the end of 1942, according to Peter Longerich. Raul Hilberg accounted for this by evoking the history of Jewish persecution: as had been the case before, appealing to their oppressors and complying with orders might avoid inflaming the situation until the onslaught abated. Henri Michel argued that resistance consisted not only of physical opposition but of any activity that gave the Jews humanity in inhumane conditions, while Yehuda Bauer defined resistance as actions that in any way opposed the German directives, laws, or conduct. Hilberg cautioned against overstating the extent of Jewish resistance, arguing that turning isolated incidents into resistance elevates the slaughter of innocent people into some kind of battle, diminishes the heroism of those who took active measures to resist, and deflects questions about the survival strategies and leadership of the Jewish community. Timothy Snyder noted that it was only during the three months after the deportations of July–September 1942 that agreement on the need for armed resistance was reached.
. There's a man sitting, is it a tank or whatever" --we couldn't distinguish at that time one thing from the other-- "he is speaking through a loudspeaker. His words are being translated. I think we were liberated." When I got up and walked outside, my eyes couldn't comprehend. It just didn't register. It's unbelievable. I couldn't believe this was really true, so I said to my sister that she has to grab me by my arm and do something physical so I realize I am really alive and we were liberated. It was the English army that liberated us.
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.
In January 1941, Dachau was designated a Class I camp and Buchenwald became a Class II camp; Mauthausen and Gusen in Austria were the only Class III camps in the Nazi system. The Class I designation meant that treatment of the inmates was less harsh and that prisoners had a better chance of being released. Dachau was the best of the Nazis camps, as far as the treatment of the prisoners was concerned.
Oskar Schindler was born April 28, 1908, in the city of Svitavy [Zwittau], in the Sudetenland, now part of the Czech Republic. The eldest of two children, Oskar’s father, Hans Schindler, was a farm-equipment manufacturer, his mother, Louisa, was a homemaker. Oscar and his sister, Elfriede, attended a German-language school where he was popular, though not an exceptional student. Forgoing the opportunity to attend college, he went to trade school instead, taking courses in several areas.
After the Nuremberg war crimes trials finished, the United States spearheaded the effort to end genocide and become a champion for the prevention of crimes against humanity. The U.S. pushed for greater international effort, helping to draft the 1948 Genocide Convention. President Harry Truman addressed Congress urging the Convention’s passage. He stressed the role the United States had to play in “outlawing the world-shocking crime of genocide.”
In autumn of 1945 a British Military Tribunal in Lüneburg tried 48 members of the Bergen-Belsen staff, including 37 SS personnel and eleven prisoner functionaries. The tribunal sentenced eleven of the defendants to death, including camp commandant Josef Kramer. Nineteen other defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison terms; the tribunal acquitted fourteen. On December 12, 1945, British military authorities executed Kramer and his co-defendants.
In April 1942, at the same time that the Jews were being sent to the death camps in the East, a new brick building called Baracke X was planned for the Dachau camp. It was designed to house a homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room, and four cremation ovens. The new Baracke X also has four disinfection gas chambers, designed to kill lice in clothing with the use of Zyklon-B, the same poison gas that was used to kill the Jews in the homicidal gas chambers at Majdanek and Auschwitz. The clothing was disinfected in all the Nazi camps in an attempt to prevent typhus which is spread by lice.
On April 29, 1945, SS 2nd Lt. Heinrich Wicker surrendered the camp to the 42nd Rainbow Division of the US Seventh Army, which had found the camp on its way to take the city of Munich, 18 kilometers to the south. Accompanied by Red Cross representative Victor Maurer, 2nd Lt. Wicker surrendered the Dachau concentration camp to Brigadier General Henning Linden, commander of the 42nd Rainbow Division, under a white flag of truce. The 45th Thunderbird Division of the US Seventh Army also participated in the liberation of Dachau, arriving at the nearby SS garrison before the 42nd Division approached the installations's main entrance on the south side of the Dachau complex where 2nd Lt. Wicker was waiting to surrender the camp.
Throughout the 1930s, the legal, economic, and social rights of Jews were steadily restricted. On 1 April 1933, there was a boycott of Jewish businesses. On 7 April 1933, the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was passed, which excluded Jews and other "non-Aryans" from the civil service. Jews were disbarred from practising law, being editors or proprietors of newspapers, joining the Journalists' Association, or owning farms. In Silesia, in March 1933, a group of men entered the courthouse and beat up Jewish lawyers; Friedländer writes that, in Dresden, Jewish lawyers and judges were dragged out of courtrooms during trials. Jewish students were restricted by quotas from attending schools and universities. Jewish businesses were targeted for closure or "Aryanization", the forcible sale to Germans; of the approximately 50,000 Jewish-owned businesses in Germany in 1933, about 7,000 were still Jewish-owned in April 1939. Works by Jewish composers, authors, and artists were excluded from publications, performances, and exhibitions. Jewish doctors were dismissed or urged to resign. The Deutsches Ärzteblatt (a medical journal) reported on 6 April 1933: "Germans are to be treated by Germans only."
According to Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, the head of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem: “There was no person more deserving of Righteous Gentile status than Oskar Schindler, including Raoul Wallenberg.” Crowe agrees. “I think that Oskar Schindler’s heroism is unique because of the fact that what he did, both in Krakow and Brunnlitz, took place in the midst of the most horrible killing center in modern history. Moreover, while his most dramatic efforts took place during the last year of the war, Oskar Schindler’s efforts to help and later save Jews was a stance that evolved over three or four years.”
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.
Treatment inside the concentration camps were horrible. Prisoners were given tiny rations of food and forced into physical labor. They often slept more than three to a bed without pillows or blankets, even in the winter months. In many concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will, in many cases killing the prisoners in the process.
In early 1943, the Nazis implemented the liquidation of the Krakow Jewish population and opened up the Plaszow work camp, run by the notoriously sadistic commandant, Amon Göth. Schindler cultivated a relationship with Göth, and whenever any of his workers were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp or execution, Schindler managed to provide a black-market gift or bribe to save their lives.
As the tide of World War II turned against the Nazis, they began a systematic plan to eliminate or "liquidate" the ghettos they had established, by a combination of mass murder on the spot and transferring the remaining residents to extermination camps. When the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto on April 13, 1943, the remaining Jews fought back in what has become known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Jewish resistance fighters held out against the entire Nazi regime for 28 days, longer than many European countries had been able to withstand Nazi conquest.
All of the Dachau proceedings were conducted by US Army Military Tribunals in which the accused were presumed to be guilty; most of the interrogators, prosecutors and judges were Jews, many of whom were foreign-born American citizens. After the Jewish interrogators in the Malmédy trial were accused of torturing the Waffen-SS soldiers into confessing, a Congressional investigation was conducted, and by December 1957, all of the convicted men in this case had been released.
There were an additional 37,223 prisoners counted in the sub-camps near Dachau on April 26, 1945, the date of the last roll call. According to the US Army Report, there were approximately 7,000 prisoners who arrived at Dachau after April 26, 1945 who were not registered in the camp. They were prisoners from the sub-camps who had been evacuated to the main camp. One group of prisoners from a subcamp arrived on April 28th, escorted by Otto Moll, a notorious SS man who had formerly worked in the Auschwitz death camp.
On May 19th, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba with 937 passengers; almost all of them were Jews escaping with their lives. This was one of the last ships that left Germany before the outbreak of World War II. Most of the passengers had applied for U.S. visas and were only planning on staying in Cuba until they could enter into the United States. The U.S. State Department in Washington, the U.S. consulate in Havana, and the owner of the St. Louis were aware that they might not be able to enter Cuba, but the passengers were never told.
Steve Paulsson is a lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His doctoral thesis, 'Hiding in Warsaw: The Jews on the "Aryan side", 1940-1945', was co-winner of the 1998 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History, and is published by Yale University Press. He has also published articles on the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden in 1943, and on Polish-Jewish relations. He was senior historian in the Holocaust Exhibition Project Office at the Imperial War Museum, 1998-2000.
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."
Schloss, a business man from Nuremberg, was killed in less than three days by blows on the testicles. The torturing was supervised by Commander Erpsmüller. The Jews were forced to scrub especially befouled toilets with their bare hands. A lawyer, Rosenfelder, was made to dab his face with the excrement. Two other prisoners were forced to clean some barbed-wire entanglements placed in the bed of a brook. They were forced to work without shoes or gloves, so that both came back to camp benumbed with cold and with their hands and feet severely lacerated.
December 8, 1941 - In occupied Poland, near Lodz, Chelmno extermination camp becomes operational. Jews taken there are placed in mobile gas vans and driven to a burial place while carbon monoxide from the engine exhaust is fed into the sealed rear compartment, killing them. The first gassing victims include 5,000 Gypsies who had been deported from the Reich to Lodz.
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.
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.
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.
While there were only 23 main camps between 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime established some 20,000 other camps used for forced labor, transit or temporary internment. During the Holocaust it is estimated that 6 million Jews were slaughtered along with, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3 million Polish Catholics, 700,000 Serbians, 250,000 Gypsies, Sinti, and Lalleri, 80,000 Germans (for political reasons), 70,000 German handicapped, 12,000 homosexuals, and 2,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The total number of deaths in the first five months of 1945 was almost half the total deaths in the 12-year history of the camp. The death rate in the other Nazi concentration camps also rose dramatically in the last months of the war, as the typhus epidemic spread throughout Germany. American POWs in German camps were saved from the epidemic by booster shots of typhus vaccine sent to them from America by the International Red Cross. The Germans were conducting experiments at the Buchenwald camp in an effort to develop a vaccine for typhus, but had not been successful. After the war, the doctors who had attempted to develop a typhus vaccine at Buchenwald were put on trial as war criminals at Nuremberg in the Doctor's Trial conducted by Americans.
On arrival at Belsen with his kommondo on the night of what he believes was April 5, he was placed in a hut which was in a state of filth and overcrowding which nobody in the outside world ever dreamed could exist before Belsen was discovered. The next morning, after a roll-call lasting from 3.30 to 9, he inspected the next hut, a long, low building. Looking through a hole where a window had been, he saw one or two bodies lying about in the water on the floor of what had been the wash-place. Looking through other windows he saw piles of bodies systematically stacked, each one’s head resting on the chest of the man or woman below. The whole building was full of corpses.
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.
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.
These experiments were usually exceptionally painful and unneeded. For example, Nazi Dr. Sigmund Rascher subjected some prisoners to high altitude experiments using pressure chambers, while he forced others to undergo freezing experiments so that their reactions to hypothermia could be observed. Still, other prisoners were forced to drink saltwater during efforts to determine its drinkability.
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.
Dachau was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. Among their most-gruesome discoveries were railroad cars filled with Jewish prisoners who had died en route to the camp and had been left to decompose. American and British media coverage of Dachau and other newly liberated camps—which included photographs published in magazines and newsreel footage shown in cinemas—profoundly shaped the public’s understanding of the atrocities that had occurred.
With the appointment in January 1933 of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, and the establishment of the Third Reich, German leaders proclaimed the rebirth of the Volksgemeinschaft ("people's community"). Nazi policies divided the population into two groups: the Volksgenossen ("national comrades") who belonged to the Volksgemeinschaft, and the Gemeinschaftsfremde ("community aliens") who did not. Enemies were divided into three groups: the "racial" or "blood" enemies, such as the Jews and Roma; political opponents of Nazism, such as Marxists, liberals, Christians, and the "reactionaries" viewed as wayward "national comrades"; and moral opponents, such as gay men, the work shy, and habitual criminals. The latter two groups were to be sent to concentration camps for "re-education", with the aim of eventual absorption into the Volksgemeinschaft. "Racial" enemies could never belong to the Volksgemeinschaft; they were to be removed from society.
While the Nazis murdered other national and ethnic groups, such as a number of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, and gypsies, only the Jews were marked for systematic and total annihilation. Jews were singled out for "Special Treatment" (Sonderbehandlung), which meant that Jewish men, women and children were to be methodically killed with poisonous gas. In the exacting records kept at the Auschwitz death camp, the cause of death of Jews who had been gassed was indicated by "SB," the first letters of the two words that form the German term for "Special Treatment."
Außenlager Hambühren-Ovelgönne (Lager III, Waldeslust) at Hambühren south of Winsen was in use from August 23, 1944 to February 4, 1945. It was an abandoned potash mine, now intended as an underground production site for Bremen plane manufacturer Focke-Wulf. Around 400 prisoners, mostly female Polish or Hungarian Jews, were forced to prepare the facility and to help lay train tracks to it. This was done for the company Hochtief.:204