Until 1943, Bergen-Belsen was exclusively a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. In April 1943 the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA) which administered the concentration camp system, took over a portion of Bergen-Belsen and converted it first into a civilian residence camp and, later, into a concentration camp. Thus, while the German government placed the Bergen-Belsen camp complex within the concentration camp system, the WVHA initially gave it a special designation.
While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently. The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
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.
Immediately after liberation, West European Jews who survived the Holocaust generally returned to their countries of origin. Holocaust survivors who tried to return to their homes in Eastern Europe faced many more difficulties. The Nazi destruction in the East had been all-encompassing. Many survivors, particularly in Eastern Europe, continued to encounter antisemitism when they returned to their communities. In some places survivors who had returned home met with violent hostility. In Kielce, 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust were killed by local Poles in a pogrom on July 4, 1946.
The photo above shows some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau. The second man from the left, who is wearing a cardigan sweater and a coat, is Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent from Belgium, who was hiding his identity by using the name Patrick O'Leary. He was one of five British SOE agents who had survived the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen in Austria and Natzweiler in Alsace before being transferred to Dachau. Guérisse greeted Lt. William P. Walsh and 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead of the 45th Infantry Division and took them on a tour of the camp, showing them the gas chamber and the ovens in the crematorium.
As for Schindler's wife Emilie, who also played a huge (but publicly understated) role in saving hundreds of Jews during World War II, she continued to live in Argentina, scraping by with the help of the Schindler Jews and the government of Argentina. Towards the end of her life and in failing health, she asked to live her remaining days in Germany. Although a home was secured for her in Bavaria in the summer of 2001, she would never live in it. Soon after she became critically ill and died on October 5, 2001 in a Berlin hospital. She was just shy of her 94th birthday.
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.
"Ceremony Recalls Victims of Bergen-Belsen," The Week in Germany (New York: German Information Center), April 27, 1990, p. 6; A figure of 50,000 is also given in Time magazine, April 29, 1985, p. 21; According to a stone memorial at the Belsen camp site, 30,000 Jews were "exterminated" there; A semi-official Polish account published in 1980 reported 48,000 Belsen "victims." Czeslaw Pilichowski, No Time Limit for These Crimes (Warsaw: Interpress, 1980), pp. 154-155.
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.
Dachau prisoners were used as forced laborers. At first, they were employed in the operation of the camp, in various construction projects, and in small handicraft industries established in the camp. Prisoners built roads, worked in gravel pits, and drained marshes. During the war, forced labor utilizing concentration camp prisoners became increasingly important to German armaments production.
In August 1944, a new section was created and this became the so-called "women's camp". By November 1944 this camp received around 9,000 women and young girls. Most of those who were able to work stayed only for a short while and were then sent on to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. The first women interned there were Poles, arrested after the failed Warsaw Uprising. Others were Jewish women from Poland or Hungary, transferred from Auschwitz. Among those who never left Bergen-Belsen were Margot and Anne Frank, who died there in February or March 1945.