Many of the prisoners at Bergen Belsen arrived there on death marches from other concentration camps. During Summer 1944, as the British and American Armies advanced in their fight against Germany from the West and the Soviet army advanced in its fight against Germany from the East, the Nazis began liquidating concentration camps, sending prisoners on death marches. They forced prisoners of concentration camps to march over long distances, under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were abused, and sometimes killed, by the guards that accompanied them.
All prisoners underwent the same fate when they entered the camp, they lost their legal status, their remaining possessions were confiscated, their hair was shaved off, and they were dressed in striped clothes. They were allocated a number as well as a coloured triangle, indicating what type of category they belonged to. The daily routine was filled with work, hunger, exhaustion, and fear of the brutality of the sadistic SS guards.
Dachau was never a camp that was specifically intended for murdering the Jews; the Nazi plan was to consolidate all the Jews into ghettos, from which they were later sent to the death camps. German Jews were sent to the Lodz ghetto in what is now Poland where they worked in factories until 1944; those who could no longer work were sent to the Chelmno death camp. In 1942, the Jews who were still living in Germany were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic and from there to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
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.
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.
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.
Evacuation of the camp began on April 21. After being deloused, inmates were transferred to Camp No. 2, which had been converted into a temporary hospital and rehabilitation camp. As each of the barracks was cleared, they were burned down to combat the spread of typhus. On May 19, evacuation was completed and two days later the ceremonial burning of the last barracks brought to an end the first stage of the relief operations. In July, 6,000 former inmates were taken by the Red Cross to Sweden for convalescence, while the rest remained in the newly-established displaced person (DP) camp to await repatriation or emigration.
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.
In 1944, Josiah DuBois, Jr. wrote a memorandum to then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which condemned the bureaucratic interference of U.S. State Department policies in obstructing the evacuation of Holocaust Refugees from Romania and Occupied France. The Report would spur the Roosevelt administration to create the War Refugee Board later that year.
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.”
In the last months of Hitler’s Reich, as the German armies retreated, the Nazis began marching the prisoners still alive in the concentration camps to the territory they still controlled. The Germans forced the starving and sick Jews to walk hundreds of miles. Most died or were shot along the way. About a quarter of a million Jews died on the death marches.
There are signs for the Bergen-Belsen Memorial on the A7/E45 and A352 motorways as well as the roads leading from them to the Memorial. The nearest motorway exits are the “Soltau-Ost” exit when coming from the north and the “Mellendorf" exit when coming from the west or south. It takes around 20 minutes to reach the Memorial from the “Soltau-Ost” exit via Bergen and around 35 minutes from the “Mellendorf” exit via Winsen/Aller.
For the prisoners, who worked under SS guards, the private firms they paid a daily rate to the SS Wirtshafts- Verwaltungshauptamt – WVHA - the prisoners however, received nothing, those who were ill were sent back to the main camp, usually to die. The firms received new, healthier labourers until these too could no longer meet the demands of their employers.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, thirty-one-year-old Schindler showed up in occupied Krakow. The ancient city, home to some 60,000 Jews and seat of the German occupation administration, the Generalgouvernement, proved highly attractive to German entrepreneurs, hoping to capitalize on the misfortunes of the subjugated country and make a fortune. Naturally cunning and none too scrupulous, Schindler appeared at first to thrive in these surroundings. In October 1939, he took over a run-down enamelware factory that had previously belonged to a Jew. He cleverly maneuvered his steps- acting upon the shrewd commercial advice of a Polish-Jewish accountant, Isaak Stern - and began to build himself a fortune. The small concern in Zablocie outside Krakow, which started producing kitchenware for the German army, began to grow by leaps and bounds. After only three months it already had a task-force of some 250 Polish workers, among them seven Jews. By the end of 1942, it had expanded into a mammoth enamel and ammunitions production plant, occupying some 45,000 square meters and employing almost 800 men and women. Of these, 370 were Jews from the Krakow ghetto, which the Germans had established after they entered the city.
Solidarity among the prisoners is strong. Although at every cross-examination the prisoners are tortured, the Nazis never succeeded in obtaining any traitorous information. Despite the fact that several attempts were made by the Commander to stir up hatred between the Christian prisoners and the Jewish minority, and although the Commander promised that any prisoner who harmed a Jew would be released, the Jews receive every encouragement, kindness and consideration from other prisoners.
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.
Several resistance groups were formed, such as the Jewish Combat Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto and the United Partisan Organization in Vilna. Over 100 revolts and uprisings occurred in at least 19 ghettos and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The best known is the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, when around 1,000 poorly armed Jewish fighters held the SS at bay for four weeks.[q] During a revolt in Treblinka on 2 August 1943, inmates killed five or six guards and set fire to camp buildings; several managed to escape. In the Białystok Ghetto on 16 August 1943, Jewish insurgents fought for five days when the Germans announced mass deportations. On 14 October 1943, Jewish prisoners in Sobibór, including Jewish-Soviet prisoners of war, attempted an escape, killing 11 SS officers and a couple of Ukrainian camp guards. Around 300 escaped, but 100 were recaptured and shot. On 7 October 1944, 300 Jewish members of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, who learned they were about to be killed, attacked their guards and blew up crematorium IV. Three SS officers were killed, one of whom was stuffed into an oven, as was a German kapo. None of the Sonderkommando rebels survived the uprising.
Nobody slept that night. The camp was alive with bonfires and we all wanted to bivouac out of doors, near the flames. Dachau had been transformed into a nomad camp. The Americans had distributed canned food, and we heated it in the coals of the fires. We also got some bread, taken from the last reserves in the kitchens. But I for one was not hungry, and most of us did not think of eating. We were drunk with our freedom.
As late as 19 April 1945, prisoners were sent to KZ Dachau; on that date a freight train from Buchenwald with nearly 4,500 was diverted to Nammering. SS troops and police confiscated food and water, which local townspeople tried to give to the prisoners. Nearly three hundred dead bodies were ordered removed from the train and carried to a ravine over 400 metres (.25 mi) away. The 524 prisoners who had been forced to carry the dead to this site were then shot by the guards, and buried along with those who had died on the train. Nearly 800 bodies went into this mass grave.
The Holocaust was the murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jews. While the Nazi persecution of the Jews began in 1933, the mass murder was committed during World War II. It took the Germans and their accomplices four and a half years to murder six million Jews. They were at their most efficient from April to November 1942 – 250 days in which they murdered some two and a half million Jews. They never showed any restraint, they slowed down only when they began to run out of Jews to kill, and they only stopped when the Allies defeated them. More...
According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, "[a]ll the serious research" confirms that between five and six million Jews died. Early postwar calculations were 4.2 to 4.5 million from Gerald Reitlinger; 5.1 million from Raul Hilberg; and 5.95 million from Jacob Lestschinsky. In 1986 Lucy S. Dawidowicz used the pre-war census figures to estimate 5.934 million. Yehuda Bauer and Robert Rozett in the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) estimated 5.59–5.86 million. A 1996 study led by Wolfgang Benz suggested 5.29 to 6.2 million, based on comparing pre- and post-war census records and surviving German documentation on deportations and killings. Martin Gilbert arrived at a minimum of 5.75 million. The figures include over one million children.
Conditions in the camp were good by concentration camp standards, and most prisoners were not subjected to forced labor. However, beginning in the spring of 1944 the situation deteriorated rapidly. In March, Belsen was redesignated an Ehrholungslager [Recovery Camp], where prisoners of other camps too sick to work were brought, though none received medical treatment. As the German Army retreated in the face of the advancing Allies, the concentration camps were evacuated and their prisoners sent to Belsen. The facilites in the camp were unable to accommodate the sudden influx of thousands of prisoners and all basic services - food, water and sanitation - collapsed, leading to the outbreak of disease. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in March 1945, along with other prisoners in a typhus epidemic.
A hedonist and gambler by nature, Schindler soon adopted a profligate lifestyle, carousing into the small hours of the night, hobnobbing with high ranking SS-officers, and philandering with beautiful Polish women. Schindler seemed to be no different from other Germans who had come to Poland as part of the occupation administration and their associates. The only thing that set him apart from other war-profiteers, was his humane treatment of his workers, especially the Jews.
The secretary of the Communist party, Deputy Joseph Goetz, was frequently taken out for a cross-examination. He always returned to his cell covered with wounds, and the orderly at the barracks refused to dress them. Every night at 10 o’clock, Steinbrenner, one of the overseers, entered the cell with five other special policemen equipped with long oxtails. They beat him into unconsciousness. The mattress, drenched with blood, was put out to dry in the sun every second day. After having gone through this torture for more than two weeks, Goetz was killed in his cell. His coffin was made in the cabinet-makers’ workshop by his former friends. In the meantime, his corpse lay in a coal cellar, the bleeding head wrapped in newspapers.
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, a famous scene depicts Oskar Schindler departing his factory at the end of the war and crying without consolation over his inability to save even more lives. (The scene was even parodied in an episode of Seinfeld.) “The idea that Oskar collapsed sobbing into Itzhak Stern’s arms and bemoaned his failure to save more Jews is preposterous,” writes Crowe. “Oskar was proud of all he had done to save Brunnlitz’s Jews and said so in his speech earlier that evening.”
Medical experiments conducted on camp inmates by the SS were another distinctive feature. At least 7,000 prisoners were subjected to experiments; most died as a result, during the experiments or later. Twenty-three senior physicians and other medical personnel were charged at Nuremberg, after the war, with crimes against humanity. They included the head of the German Red Cross, tenured professors, clinic directors, and biomedical researchers. Experiments took place at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. Some dealt with sterilization of men and women, the treatment of war wounds, ways to counteract chemical weapons, research into new vaccines and drugs, and the survival of harsh conditions.
Although she struggled with resentment towards her late husband for his womanizing and marital neglect, Emilie still had profound love for Schindler. Revealing her internal dialogue when she visited his tomb almost 40 years after his passing, she had said to him: "At last we meet again . . .I have received no answer, my dear, I do not know why you abandoned me . . . But what not even your death or my old age can change is that we are still married, this is how we are before God. I have forgiven you everything, everything. . ."
Meanwhile, beginning in the fall of 1939, Nazi officials selected around 70,000 Germans institutionalized for mental illness or disabilities to be gassed to death in the so-called Euthanasia Program. After prominent German religious leaders protested, Hitler put an end to the program in August 1941, though killings of the disabled continued in secrecy, and by 1945 some 275,000 people deemed handicapped from all over Europe had been killed. In hindsight, it seems clear that the Euthanasia Program functioned as a pilot for the Holocaust.
We continued to sing, to laugh, to dream, before the flames of the bonfires. We knew nothing as yet of the three hundred dead, twice the daily average of the last weeks before the liberation. We could not foresee that this figure would go even higher in the months to come and that our captivity was still far from being over. We could not admit that there were some among us who would never leave Dachau alive, as its inexorable law demanded. Dachau was to become in a way the symbol of all Europe, which believed itself freed, but was really only changing masters.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
In August 1944 a new section was added, to serve as a women’s camp, consisting of twelve barracks, 4,000 Jewish women prisoners from Hungary and Poland were brought there, but after a short stay they were sent to Buchenwald and Flossenburg camps, to perform forced labour. Most of the women returned to Bergen-Belsen sick or exhausted by the hard labour that they had been forced to do.
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.
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).
Indelibly scarred by the savagery and suffering he confronted during World War II—in England during the Blitz; in war-torn Southeast Asia and Europe; and, especially, in Bergen-Belsen—George Rodger did not work as a war photographer again. He did, however, continue to travel and photograph around the world in the decades after the war—particularly in Africa, where he made some of his most celebrated pictures.
Though classified as an armaments factory, the Brünnlitz plant produced just one wagonload of live ammunition in just under eight months of operation. By presenting bogus production figures, Schindler justified the existence of the subcamp as an armaments factory. This facilitated the survival of over 1,000 Jews, sparing them the horrors and brutality of conventional camp life. Schindler left Brünnlitz only on May 9, 1945, the day that Soviet troops liberated the camp.
The Third Reich first used concentration camps as places of unlawful incarceration of political opponents and other "enemies of the state". Large numbers of Jews were not sent there until after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Although death rates were high, the camps were not designed as killing centers. After war broke out in 1939, new camps were established, some outside Germany in occupied Europe. In January 1945, the SS reports had over 700,000 prisoners in their control, of which close to half had died by the end of May 1945 according to most historians. Most wartime prisoners of the camps were not Germans but belonged to countries under German occupation.
However, Schindler's financial woes continued, and he went bankrupt in 1958. He left his wife Emilie in Argentina to find fortune back in Germany, but despite his efforts, his various businesses repeatedly failed. Again, he had to depend on the charity of the Schindler Jews, many of whom he was still in contact with, to support his well being. In 1963, the same year he declared bankruptcy, he was honored by the State of Israel as Righteous Among the Nations, an award for non Jews who helped save Jews during the Holocaust. A year later, he had a heart attack and spent time recuperating in a hospital.
On April 29, the day after the German guards completed their gruesome task of 10 days of burying the 10,000 decomposed bodies with their bare hands, they were taken to the prison in the city of Celle, which is 16 kilometers northwest of the camp. Also on that day, April 29, 1945, American soldiers entered the Dachau concentration camp and discovered bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus. The next day, 97 medical students arrived in Bergen-Belsen to help with the sick prisoners, and on May 4th, more British medical units arrived. On that same day, May 4, 1945, part of the German Army surrendered to the British in the area near the camp.
The biblical term shoah (Hebrew: שׁוֹאָה), meaning "destruction", became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jews, first used in a pamphlet in 1940, Sho'at Yehudei Polin ("Sho'ah of Polish Jews"), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland. On 3 October 1941 the cover of the magazine The American Hebrew used the phrase "before the Holocaust", apparently to refer to the situation in France, and in May 1943 The New York Times, discussing the Bermuda Conference, referred to the "hundreds of thousands of European Jews still surviving the Nazi Holocaust". In 1968 the Library of Congress created a new category, "Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)". The term was popularized in the United States by the NBC mini-series Holocaust (1978), about a fictional family of German Jews, and in November 1978 the President's Commission on the Holocaust was established. As non-Jewish groups began to include themselves as Holocaust victims too, many Jews chose to use the terms Shoah or Churban instead.[g] The Nazis used the phrase "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage).
Eicke urged his SS men to treat all inmates as dangerous "Enemies of the State." He repeatedly lectured them: "There behind the barbed-wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't leave yourself open in any way. Show these 'Enemies of the State' your teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the 'Enemies of the State' must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings."
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.
Britain's attitude to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled areas was strongly influenced by its role as the mandatory power in Palestine, where it had to mediate between Jewish and Arab interests. In December 1941, the Struma, a ship carrying 769 Jewish refugees, left the Romanian port of Constantsa hoping to reach Palestine. Towed into Istanbul harbour when its engines failed, it became the subject of diplomatic discussions between Britain and Turkey. Britain's chief concern was to discourage what it regarded as an undesirable traffic, and it proposed that the ship be returned to Romania. After ten weeks of wrangling the Struma was towed out to sea, its engines still disabled, where it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. There was one survivor.
In effort to counter the strength and influence of spiritual resistance, Nazi security services monitored clergy very closely.:141–2 Priests were frequently denounced, arrested and sent to concentration camps, often simply on the basis of being "suspected of activities hostile to the State" or that there was reason to "suppose that his dealings might harm society".:142 Despite SS hostility to religious observance, the Vatican and German bishops successfully lobbied the regime to concentrate clergy at one camp and obtained permission to build a chapel, for the priests to live communally and for time to be allotted to them for the religious and intellectual activity. Priests Barracks at Dachau were established in Blocks 26, 28 and 30, though only temporarily. 26 became the international block and 28 was reserved for Poles – the most numerous group.:145–6
These evacuations were regarded as provisional or "temporary solutions" ("Ausweichmöglichkeiten").[p] The final solution would encompass the 11 million Jews living not only in territories controlled by Germany, but elsewhere in Europe and adjacent territories, such as Britain, Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, and Hungary, "dependent on military developments". There was little doubt what the final solution was, writes Peter Longerich: "the Jews were to be annihilated by a combination of forced labour and mass murder".
On April 17, 1945, two days after the first British soldiers arrived, British Medical units were at the scene. The first thing they did was to set up a hospital area in the barracks of the German Army training camp nearby. Also on that date, the British arrested the entire personnel of the SS Commandant's office, the 50 men and 30 women who had voluntarily stayed behind to help the British manage the catastrophe. A Jewish Camp Committee was organized by the survivors, under the leadership of Josef Rosensaft.
Despite, wide reporting of Holocaust atrocities including gas chambers, many prominent analysts doubted the authenticity of these reports. Prominently, Roger Allen, a member of the British Foreign Office discounted intelligence reports on the use of gas chambers in Polish extermination camps because he could “never understand what the advantage of a gas chamber over a simple machine gun or over starving people would be.”
The camp of huts near Fallingbostel became known as Stalag XI-B and was to become one of the Wehrmacht's largest POW camps, holding up to 95,000 prisoners from various countries. In June 1940, Belgian and French POWs were housed in the former Bergen-Belsen construction workers' camp. This installation was significantly expanded from June 1941, once Germany prepared to invade the Soviet Union, becoming an independent camp known as Stalag XI-C (311). It was intended to hold up to 20,000 Soviet POWs and was one of three such camps in the area. The others were at Oerbke (Stalag XI-D (321)) and Wietzendorf (Stalag X-D (310)). By the end of March 1942, some 41,000 Soviet POWs had died in these three camps of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. By the end of the war, the total number of dead had increased to 50,000. When the POW camp in Bergen ceased operation in early 1945, as the Wehrmacht handed it over to the SS, the cemetery contained over 19,500 dead Soviet prisoners.