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.
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.
On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 people. 'All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.
The camp’s liberation was marked by the best and the worst of behavior by its victorious American liberators. Crazed by grief and anger at the appalling scenes on the day of the camp’s liberation, U.S. soldiers and camp inmates summarily executed some 520 of the camp’s German soldiers who had surrendered. After senior officers restored order, U.S. medical personnel began lifesaving measures for the most severely ill prisoners, and soldiers shared their rations and cigarettes with emaciated survivors.
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”.
Each barracks consists of five connecting rooms, in each of which fifty-two prisoners are lodged. Each room is equipped with fifty-two berths, in tiers of three, rough tables and benches. The floor is concrete. The prisoners sleep on straw sacks covered with a sheet which is changed once in two months. The walls are only a few inches thick, and the ill fitting windows offer almost no protection against the icy cold, wind or rain. For each fifty-two men a small washstand is provided, and the time allotted for washing, for the whole group, is only twenty-five minutes.
Approximately 30,00 Jewish men were arrested during the pogrom, allegedly for their own protection, and taken to the 3 major concentration camps in Germany, including 10,911 who were brought to Dachau and held as prisoners while they were pressured to sign over their property and leave the country. The majority of these Jews were released within a few weeks, after they promised to leave Germany within six months; most of them wound up in Shanghai, the only place that did not require a visa, because other countries, except Great Britain, refused to take them.
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. More than half of this number were in the main camp. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
To more than 1200 Jews Oscar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man full of flaws like the rest of us - the unlikeliest of all role models who started by earning millions as a war profiteer and ended by spending his last pfennig and risking his life to save his Jews. An ordinary man who even in the worst of circumstances did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. In the shadow of Auschwitz he kept the SS out and everyone alive.
After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Ghetto was completely destroyed. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to killing centers or concentration camps. This is a view of the remains of the ghetto, which the German SS dynamited to the ground. The Warsaw Ghetto only existed for a few years, and in that time, some 300,000 Polish Jews lost their lives there. #
^ "Headquarters Seventh Army Office of the Chief of Staff APO TSS, C/O Postmaster New York, NY 2 May 1945 Memorandum to: Inspector General, Seventh Army The Coming General directs that you conduct a formal investigation of alleged mistreatment of German guards at the Concentration Camp at Dachau, Germany, by elements of the XV Corps. A. WHITE Major General, G.S.C. Chief of Staff Testimony of: Capt. Richard F. Taylor 0-408680, Military Government, Detachment I-13, G-3". Archived from the original on 3 November 2014. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
Dr. R. Barton, "Belsen," History of the Second World War, Part 109, 1975, pp. 3025-3029; Barton confirmed this evaluation in testimony given in the 1985 and 1988 Toronto trials of German-Canadian publisher Ernst Zündel. On Barton's testimony in the first, 1985 trial, see: "View of Belsen was propaganda, trial told," The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Feb. 8, 1985, pp. M1, M5, and, "Disease killed Nazis' prisoners, MD says," Toronto Star, Feb. 8, 1985, p. A2; On Barton's testimony in the second, 1988 Zündel trial, see: Barbara Kulaszka, ed., Did Six Million Really Die?, pp. 175-180, and, R. Lenski, The Holocaust on Trial (1990), pp. 157-160; Among his other positions after the war, Barton was superintendent and consultant psychiatrist at Severalls Hospital (Essex, England), and director of the Rochester Psychiatric Center (New York).
The AFPU recruited from the ranks of the British Army. Many of the photographers and cameramen present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen were tough, hardened by their own experiences of combat. Yet they were deeply shocked by what they witnessed at the camp. AFPU cameraman and photographer Sergeant Mike Lewis came from a Jewish family and describes how witnessing the camp's liberation made real for him the stories of persecution he had been told by his parents. He also reflects on his own reaction to what he had witnessed.
The prisoners are divided into three classifications, each treated differently. The first class is picked at random. These men act as firemen, and their only routine consists of some drilling. The second class is made up of the majority of the prisoners, who receive the treatment outlined above. The third class is composed of leading Communists and all the Jews. This class performs the hardest work on the smallest rations. They receive no sheets to cover their straw sacks. For a long time they were confined to dilapidated barracks where on rainy days the water would stand six inches deep on the floor. They are beaten more than the other prisoners, and nearly all of the murders are perpetrated on members of this class. Even within the last-mentioned class, the Jews are segregated, because no Aryan is allowed to share sleeping accommodations with a Jew. The Jews are refused cigarettes, and the other prisoners are forbidden to converse with them. However, the solidarity among the prisoners makes it impossible to put this rule into effect: camaraderie between the Jews and the other confined men is very strong. The prisoners are allowed to write one letter, or postcard, a week, which has to be turned in to the authorities unsealed. Any remarks about the conditions at the camp means daily beatings and severe punishment in dark cells.
Accompanied by Communist political prisoners, who served as guides, the Americans toured the prison camp and were shown the building, just outside the barbed wire enclosure, which housed the homicidal gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The Americans heard eye-witness accounts from Dachau survivors who said that prisoners had been gassed to death in the fake shower room; they also heard stories of how prisoners had been shoved into the crematory ovens while still alive. Bodies of fully-clothed dead inmates were found piled inside the new crematorium building and many more naked corpses were piled up outside. Outside the disinfection chambers, there was a huge pile of clothing waiting to be fumigated with Zyklon-B gas pellets.
After the takeover of Bavaria on 9 March 1933, Heinrich Himmler, then Chief of Police in Munich, began to speak with the administration of an unused gunpowder and munitions factory. He toured the site to see if it could be used for quartering protective-custody prisoners. The Concentration Camp at Dachau was opened 22 March 1933, with the arrival of about 200 prisoners from Stadelheim Prison in Munich and the Landsberg fortress (where Hitler had written Mein Kampf during his imprisonment). Himmler announced in the Münchner Neuesten Nachrichten newspaper that the camp could hold up to 5,000 people, and described it as "the first concentration camp for political prisoners" to be used to restore calm to Germany. It became the first regular concentration camp established by the coalition government of the National Socialist German Worker's Party (Nazi Party) and the German National People's Party (dissolved on 6 July 1933).
Raphael Lemkin, a holocaust survivor who worked on the Nuremberg Trials, coined the term genocide and spent 4 years pushing for it to be added to international law. As Champetier de Ribes, the French Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials explained “This [was] a crime so monstrous, so undreamt of in history throughout the Christian era up to the birth of Hitlerism that the term ‘genocide’ has had to be coined to define it.” Ultimately, in 1948 The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted, and it entered into force in 1951. The convention defined genocide in legal terms based on Lemkin’s work, and is the basis for genocide prevention efforts today.
After WWII had ended, photographs of the Holocaust stunned the public. Newspapers in the United States had reported on the oppression of the Jews in Germany during the war. In 1942, many newspapers were writing details of the Holocaust, but these stories were short and were not widely read. In 1943, after sources had confirmed the killings of at least two million Jews in concentration camps across Europe a Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans believed these reports to be true; 28% thought they were “just a rumor”. The reports were unconfirmed and sometimes denied by the United States government.
After the joint conquest of Poland, by Germany and the Soviet Union, in September 1939, numerous Polish resistance fighters were imprisoned, including 1,780 Catholic priests. When the Catholic Church complained about the harsh treatment the priests received in the concentration camps, all the priests were moved to Dachau because it was the mildest camp of all. Dachau was designated as the main camp for Catholic priests who had been arrested on various charges, including child molestation, and a total of 2,720 from 19 different nations were sent there. The priests did not have to work in the factories and were given special privileges.
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On 23 October 1943, 1,800 of these Jews arrived in Auschwitz where they were all immediately killed. During the undressing, prior to entering the gas chambers one woman throws her clothes at SS- Scharfuhrer Schillinger grabs his revolver and shoots him three times. She also shoots SS- Unterscharfuhrer Emmerich. Reinforcements were called, some women were shot, the rest are driven into the gas chamber and killed. Schillinger died on the way to the hospital, Emmerich recovered but was crippled.
On March 23, 1933, the German Congress passed another important law, called the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the power to rule by decree in case of an emergency. On that day, Germany still had a President and as Chancellor, Hitler was not yet the undisputed leader of Germany. The next day, on March 24, 1933, front page headlines in The Daily Express of London read "Judea Declares War on Germany - Jews of All the World Unite - Boycott of German Goods - Mass Demonstrations." The newspaper article mentioned that the boycott of German goods had already started.
Many of the former SS staff who survived the typhus epidemic were tried by the British at the Belsen trial. Over the period in which Bergen-Belsen operated as a concentration camp, at least 480 people had worked as guards or members of the commandant's staff, including around 45 women. From September 17 to November 17, 1945, 45 of those were tried by a military tribunal in Lüneburg. They included former commandant Josef Kramer, 16 other SS male members, 16 female SS guards and 12 former kapos (one of whom became ill during the trial). Among them were Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath, Hertha Ehlert, Ilse Lothe [de], Johanna Bormann and Fritz Klein. Many of the defendants were not just charged with crimes committed at Belsen but also earlier ones at Auschwitz. Their activities at other concentration camps such as Mittelbau-Dora, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, the Gross Rosen subcamps at Neusalz and Langenleuba, and the Mittelbau-Dora subcamp at Gross Werther were not subject of the trial. It was based on British military law and the charges were thus limited to war crimes. Substantial media coverage of the trial provided the German and international public with detailed information on the mass killings at Belsen as well as on the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.