After the death marches of the winter of 1945—forced evacuations of prisoners from concentration and extermination camps in the east—conditions at Bergen-Belsen deteriorated rapidly, and its death toll climbed. Originally it was designed for 10,000 prisoners but, by war’s end, with the arrival of Jewish prisoners forcibly evacuated from Auschwitz and other eastern camps, it held about 60,000 people, most of whom lacked any food or shelter. Although Bergen-Belsen contained no gas chambers, more than 35,000 people died between January and mid-April 1945 from starvation, overwork, disease, and, toward the war’s end, a typhus epidemic brought about by some of the most squalid, fetid living conditions of any of Germany’s camps. Anne Frank, whose wartime diary later became world-famous, died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.
Mr. Le Drieullenac is a dark-haired, youngish man, limping on a heavy stick. He was wearing a dark-grey suit and looked like a typical British civilian in the purely military atmosphere of a court martial. He told the court that with most of his family he was arrested at St. Helier on the day before D-Day. For 18 months he had concealed a Russian officer prisoner and in addition had a hidden radio. He was first sent to Wilhelmshaven, where he was made a welder in the naval arsenal, and then went to Belsen with the rest of his arbeitskommando. From the evidence in this trial and from other sources it appears that as the Allied armies advanced into Germany the Germans shipped off all the foreign workers to the nearest concentration camp.
Oskar Schindler, (born April 28, 1908, Svitavy [Zwittau], Moravia, Austria-Hungary [now in the Czech Republic]—died October 9, 1974, Hildesheim, West Germany), German industrialist who, aided by his wife and staff, sheltered approximately 1,100 Jews from the Nazis by employing them in his factories, which supplied the German army during World War II.
Polish authorities protested against a scene in which soldiers dressed in Polish uniforms executed Jewish prisoners. The poles didn't have any "Quisling army" during the war. The scene was trimmed and now shows the rifles and the arms of the soldiers in question. Even so, both versions apparently remained in circulation as Danish TV originally showed the original version, and Swedish TV the trimmed version within weeks of each other. See more »
You see, when Bergen-Belsen was liberated these people were let loose. So we were wandering. We were wandering from one place to another. And there were warehouses. We came to a building, and we walked in, and I still see rows and rows and shelves of handbags, ladies' handbags. As we were walking over there to reach those shelves, I sort of stepped on something. And I said to my friend, "Look! There's a body!" You see, somebody, one of these inmates who wandered to these warehouses and dropped dead from exhaustion or something. And she says, "What do you want me to do about it?" I said, "Let's carry it out." She said, "Are you crazy? You can't carry that out." and she took a few packages of these linens and dropped it on (the body). And then we went to the shelves, and she wanted a handbag. And I wasn't in the mood anymore for the handbag. She pulled out one handbag. It was an alligator handbag. She says, "Take this one." I took it, and she took another one, and we walked out. And I remember, as we left the place, I just threw back the bag. I said, "I don't want it." - and walked away. And this only came back. I never thought about it.
There were massive efforts to help the survivors with food and medical treatment, led by Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of 2nd Army, and James Johnston, the Senior Medical Officer. Despite their efforts, about another 9,000 died in April, and by the end of June 1945 another 4,000 had died. (After liberation 13,994 people died.):305
British servicemen Denis Norden and Eric Sykes, who later became popular comedians, stumbled upon the camp in 1945 shortly after liberation; "Appalled, aghast, repelled - it is difficult to find words to express how we felt as we looked upon the degradation of some of the inmates not yet repatriated," Sykes later wrote. "They squatted in their thin, striped uniforms, unmoving bony structures who could have been anywhere between 30 and 60 years old, staring ahead with dead, hopeless eyes and incapable of feeling any relief at their deliverance."
In fall 1941, the Nazis began transporting Jews out of the ghetto. Most of them were sent to the Bełżec extermination camp and killed. On 13 March 1943, the ghetto was liquidated and those still fit for work were sent to the new concentration camp at Płaszów. Several thousand not deemed fit for work were sent to extermination camps and killed. Hundreds more were killed on the streets by the Nazis as they cleared out the ghetto. Schindler, aware of the plans because of his Wehrmacht contacts, had his workers stay at the factory overnight to prevent them coming to harm. Schindler witnessed the liquidation of the ghetto and was appalled. From that point forward, says Schindlerjude Sol Urbach, Schindler "changed his mind about the Nazis. He decided to get out and to save as many Jews as he could."
On 6 January 1942, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, sent out diplomatic notes about German atrocities. The notes were based on reports about bodies surfacing from poorly covered graves in pits and quarries, as well as mass graves found in areas the Red Army had liberated, and on witness reports from German-occupied areas. The following month, Szlama Ber Winer escaped from the Chełmno concentration camp in Poland, and passed detailed information about it to the Oneg Shabbat group in the Warsaw Ghetto. His report, known by his pseudonym as the Grojanowski Report, had reached London by June 1942. Also in 1942, Jan Karski sent information to the Allies after being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto twice.[s] On 27 April 1942, Vyacheslav Molotov sent out another note about atrocities. In late July or early August 1942, Polish leaders learned about the mass killings taking place inside Auschwitz. The Polish Interior Ministry prepared a report, Sprawozdanie 6/42, which said at the end:
One of the witnesses to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British soldiers on April 15, 1945 was Iolo Lewis, a 20-year-old soldier from Wales. He recalled that, as he arrived at Belsen, Commandant Kramer and his assistant, Irma Grese, were standing at the gates to greet them. Most of the SS men, who were the guards in the camp, had escaped before the British arrived. Commandant Josef Kramer and 80 of the SS men and women had volunteered to remain in the camp to carry out their duties. He said that he counted 13,000 unburied corpses at the time of the liberation, and that the haunting memory never left him, particularly the pearly colour of the piled-up bodies, small, like the bodies of children.
Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.
The wounds of the Holocaust–known in Hebrew as Shoah, or catastrophe–were slow to heal. Survivors of the camps found it nearly impossible to return home, as in many cases they had lost their families and been denounced by their non-Jewish neighbors. As a result, the late 1940s saw an unprecedented number of refugees, POWs and other displaced populations moving across Europe.
German-occupied Denmark rescued most of its own Jews by spiriting them to Sweden by sea in October 1943. This was possible partly because the German presence in Denmark was relatively small. Moreover, while anti-Semitism in the general population of many other countries led to collaboration with the Germans, Jews were an integrated part of Danish culture. Under these unique circumstances, Danish humanitarianism flourished.
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.
The whole corner where the barracks stand is enclosed by a high wire entanglement. The prisoners are warned that these are live wires, but this is a false alarm. This enclosed area is about 1,800 feet square, and contains a pool filled with muddy water, which, shrewdly photographed, appeared in the Munich Illustrierte Zeitung of July 16, 1933, as a swimming pool for the prisoners. From this enclosure leads a gangway, also protected by barbed wire and machine guns, to a spacious workshop, part of which is the kitchen and the other part drill-room and mess hall. Farther away are the guard houses, equipped with heating facilities. They are the officers’ quarters and contain workshops for cobblers, cabinet-makers, etc.
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.
Many of the naked corpses found in the camp were left out until May 13, two weeks after the liberation, so that American Congressmen, newspaper reporters and as many American soldiers as possible could view the horror. Thirty male citizens from the town of Dachau were brought to the camp and forced to view the rotting corpses, even though the typhus epidemic was still raging in the camp, and the Germans had not been vaccinated.
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.
On April 15, 1945, British troops entered Bergen Belsen. They liberated some 60,000 prisoners, many of whom were on the verge of death. During the first weeks after liberation, close to 500 people in Bergen Belsen died every day. From liberation day until June 20, an estimated 14,000 people died from the terrible conditions that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis during the war.
Policies differed widely among Germany’s Balkan allies. In Romania it was primarily the Romanians themselves who slaughtered the country’s Jews. Toward the end of the war, however, when the defeat of Germany was all but certain, the Romanian government found more value in living Jews who could be held for ransom or used as leverage with the West. Bulgaria deported Jews from neighbouring Thrace and Macedonia, which it occupied, but government leaders faced stiff opposition to the deportation of native Bulgarian Jews, who were regarded as fellow citizens.
The logistics of the mass murder turned Germany into what Michael Berenbaum called a "genocidal state". Eberhard Jäckel wrote in 1986 that it was the first time a state had thrown its power behind the idea that an entire people should be wiped out.[h] Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was to be exterminated, and complex rules were devised to deal with Mischlinge ("mixed breeds": half and quarter Jews). Bureaucrats identified who was a Jew, confiscated property, and scheduled trains to deport them. Companies fired Jews and later used them as slave labor. Universities dismissed Jewish faculty and students. German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; other companies built the crematoria. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were ordered to surrender all personal property, which was catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany for reuse or recycling. Through a concealed account, the German National Bank helped launder valuables stolen from the victims.
My father supervised work parties in which Irma Grese was forced to carry corpses for burial and he described her as really beautiful but utterly evil. Most of the SS guards were evil and Dad had trouble stopping his men from shooting them out of hand, especially when the SS prisoners protested about having to work in burial details. He was tempted to do so himself. He told me that Bergen-Belsen brought home to him what they had been fighting, evil from the pit of hell itself.
The superior race was the "Aryans," the Germans. The word Aryan, "derived from the study of linguistics, which started in the eighteenth century and at some point determined that the Indo-Germanic (also known as Aryan) languages were superior in their structures, variety, and vocabulary to the Semitic languages that had evolved in the Near East. This judgment led to a certain conjecture about the character of the peoples who spoke these languages; the conclusion was that the 'Aryan' peoples were likewise superior to the 'Semitic' ones" (Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 36).
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. 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.
A favorite stunt of the Nazis is to order newly arrived prisoners into a dark room and make them stand with their faces against the wall while volleys are fired into the air. Whenever a new transport comes, some prisoners are picked out and horribly beaten with wired oxtails. On April 12 a transport from Nuremberg arrived with three Jewish prisoners. These, and another Jew who had been imprisoned for some time, were led out of the camp on evening. A few minutes later a volley of shots was heard. All were killed by shots fired through their temples at close range. These men were Arthur Kahn, Dr. Benario, a man named Goldman from Nuremberg, and Edwin Kahn from Munich. The last did not die immediately, and was able to make a statement to the effect that no attempt to escape had been made. Nevertheless, the next morning the prisoners were addressed by an overseer. He began by insulting the Jews: “They successfully tried to mislead and to stir up hatred and strife among the German people. But when they have to share your lot and wield pick and shovel as you do, they try to escape.” Three of the four prisoners were shot by the Second-in-Command, Erpsmüller, who boasted about the deed before the prisoners and remarked, “I am opposed to torture for the Jews. Bugs are not exterminated by tearing out their legs, but are trampled upon.”
When the British and Canadians advanced on Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the German army negotiated a truce and exclusion zone around the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. On April 11, 1945 Heinrich Himmler (the Reichsführer SS) agreed to have the camp handed over without a fight. SS guards ordered prisoners to bury some of the dead. The next day, Wehrmacht representatives approached the British and were brought to VIII Corps. At around 1 a.m. on April 13, an agreement was signed, designating an area of 48 square kilometers (19 square miles) around the camp as a neutral zone. Most of the SS were allowed to leave. Only a small number of SS men and women, including the camp commandant Kramer, remained to "uphold order inside the camp". The outside was guarded by Hungarian and regular German troops. Due to heavy fighting near Winsen and Walle, the British were unable to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 14, as originally planned. The camp was liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945.:253 The first two to reach the camp were a British Special Air Service officer, Lieutenant John Randall, and his jeep driver, who were on a reconnaissance mission and discovered the camp by chance.