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.
The first buildings in the Dachau concentration camp complex consisted of the remnants of an old WWI munitions factory that was located in the northeastern portion of the town. These buildings, with a capacity of about 5,000 prisoners, served as the main camp structures until 1937, when prisoners were forced to expand the camp and demolish the original buildings.
German students over the age of 12 are required to tour a concentration camp as part of the on-going education of the present generation of German citizens in the evil perpetrated by the Nazi regime over 60 years ago. German soldiers are also required to tour the former concentration camps. Most visitors associate Dachau with the death of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, although the majority of the inmates at Dachau were Catholics.
In 1997 a suitcase belonging to Schindler containing historic photographs and documents was discovered in the attic of the apartment of Ami and Heinrich Staehr in Hildesheim. Schindler had stayed with the couple for a few days shortly before his death in 1974. Staehr's son Chris took the suitcase to Stuttgart, where the documents were examined in detail in 1999 by Dr. Wolfgang Borgmann, science editor of the Stuttgarter Zeitung. Borgmann wrote a series of seven articles, which appeared in the paper from 16 to 26 October 1999 and were eventually published in book form as Schindlers Koffer: Berichte aus dem Leben eines Lebensretters ; eine Dokumentation der Stuttgarter Zeitung (Schindler's Suitcase: Report on the Life of a Rescuer). The documents and suitcase were sent to the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem in Israel for safekeeping in December 1999.
The anti-Hitler movement inside Germany, which included German communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, was the largest indigenous resistance movement of any country during the whole war. Only in Germany was an attempt made to assassinate their leader. Around 800,000 were sent to prison at one time or another for active resistance to the regime. While the western allies did all in their power to help other resistance movements, ie in France and the Netherlands, they did nothing to help or encourage the movement in Germany which in all probability could have ended the war sooner. But the Allies were intent on unconditional surrender and refused to make any deals at all with Germans. Accordingly the Allies viewed all Germans as bad, not only Nazis.
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."
My late father was one of those who helped liberate the camp. He said the stench of the place went out 10 miles and was utterly revolting. Now you asked if there was a gas Chamber. There was a gas chamber on the site. It was underground with a ramp leading down to it from a wooden building above. Because the number of bodies was so great, the colonel made the snap decision to bulldoze the Gas chamber complex and use it as a huge grave pit. My Dad supervised the bulldozers that ripped off the roof and engineers blew up the interior walls. The place then became a grave pit for thousands of corpses. I believe there is a photographic record.
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas [de], who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
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.
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.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses, including those of Anne and Margot Frank, lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name "Belsen" emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site.