Hundreds of prisoners suffered and died, or were executed in medical experiments conducted at KZ Dachau, for which Sigmund Rascher was in charge. Hypothermia experiments involved exposure to vats of icy water or being strapped down naked outdoors in freezing temperatures. Attempts at reviving the subjects included scalding baths, and forcing naked women to copulate with the unconscious victim. Nearly 100 prisoners died during these experiments. The original records of the experiments were destroyed "in an attempt to conceal the atrocities".[a]
On April 15, 1945, the British army liberated Belsen. However, it was unable to rescue the inmates. On that liberation day the British found 10,000 unburied corpses and 40,000 sick and dying prisoners. Among the 40,000 living inmates, 28,000 died after the liberation. The inmates were abandoned in Bergen-Belsen by the Germans, left behind for death to come.
In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent “selection”; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim “euthanasia” killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.
Dan Stone, a specialist in the historiography of the Holocaust, lists ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, black Germans, and homosexuals as among the groups persecuted by the Nazis; he writes that the occupation of eastern Europe can also be viewed as genocidal. But the German attitude toward the Jews was different in kind, he argues. The Nazis regarded the Jews not as racially inferior, deviant, or enemy nationals, as they did other groups, but as a "Gegenrasse: a 'counter-race', that is to say, not really human at all". The Holocaust, for Stone, is therefore defined as the genocide of the Jews, although he argues that it cannot be "properly historically situated without understanding the 'Nazi empire' with its grandiose demographic plans".[d] Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia, in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (2000), favour a definition that focuses on the Jews, Roma, and Aktion T4 victims: "The Holocaust—that is, Nazi genocide—was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of entire groups determined by heredity. This applied to Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped."
The political situation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe after World War I (1914–1918) contributed to the rise of virulent antisemitism. Many Germans did not accept that their country had been defeated, which gave birth to the stab-in-the-back myth. This insinuated that it was disloyal politicians, chiefly Jews and communists, who had orchestrated Germany's surrender. Inflaming the anti-Jewish sentiment was the apparent over-representation of Jews in the leadership of communist revolutionary governments in Europe, such as Ernst Toller, head of a short-lived revolutionary government in Bavaria. This perception contributed to the canard of Jewish Bolshevism.
The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah,[b] was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by local collaborators, systematically murdered some six million European Jews—around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe—between 1941 and 1945.[a][c] Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event during the Holocaust era, in which Germany and its collaborators persecuted and murdered other groups, including Slavs (chiefly ethnic Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and Soviet citizens), the Roma, the "incurably sick", political and religious dissenters such as communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, and gay men.[d] Taking into account all the victims of Nazi persecution, the death toll rises to over 17 million.
During the first year, the camp held about 4,800 prisoners. Initially the internees were primarily German Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, as well as "asocials" and repeat criminal offenders. During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and then usually because they belonged to one of the above groups or had completed prison sentences after being convicted for violating the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
On April 18, 1945, the burial of the dead began. The staff members, who were now prisoners of the British, were ordered to do the work of burying the bodies. The British deliberately forced the SS staff to use only their bare hands to handle the corpses of prisoners who had died of contagious diseases. In the documentary film which was shown in the newsreels in theaters around the world, a British officer said that the Germans were being punished by not allowing them to use gloves to handle the bodies. According to Eberhard Kolb, 20 out of the 80 guards, who were forced to handle diseased bodies without wearing protective gear, died later and the majority of the deaths were from typhus.
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years '41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1940, the German army expanded Hitler’s empire in Europe, conquering Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Beginning in 1941, Jews from all over the continent, as well as hundreds of thousands of European Gypsies, were transported to the Polish ghettoes. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked a new level of brutality in warfare. Mobile killing units called Einsatzgruppenwould murder more than 500,000 Soviet Jews and others (usually by shooting) over the course of the German occupation.
In many instances, their imprisonment was a result of the emergency decree that Adolf Hitler proposed and President Paul Von Hindenberg approved on February 28, 1933. The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State (commonly called the Reichstag Fire Decree) suspended the civil rights of German civilians and prohibited the press from publishing anti-government materials.
When he learned what had happened, Schindler at first managed to secure the release of the men from the Gross-Rosen camp. He then proceeded to send his personal German secretary to Auschwitz to negotiate the release of the women. The latter managed to obtain the release of the Jewish women by promising to pay 7 RM daily per worker. This is the only recorded case in the history of the extermination camp that such a large group of people were allowed to leave alive while the gas chambers were still in operation.
For a long time, however, remembering Bergen-Belsen was not a political priority. Periods of attention were followed by long phases of official neglect. For much of the 1950s, Belsen "was increasingly forgotten as a place of remembrance". Only after 1957 did large groups of young people visit the place where Anne Frank had died. After anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled on the Cologne synagogue over Christmas 1959, German chancellor Konrad Adenauer followed a suggestion by Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, and visited the site of a former concentration camp for the first time. In a speech at the Bergen-Belsen memorial, Adenauer assured the Jews still living in Germany that they would have the same respect and security as everyone else.:42 Afterwards, the German public saw the Belsen memorial as primarily a Jewish place of remembrance. Nevertheless, the memorial was redesigned in 1960–61. In 1966, a document centre was opened which offered a permanent exhibition on the persecution of the Jews, with a focus on events in the nearby Netherlands – where Anne Frank and her family had been arrested in 1944. This was complemented by an overview of the history of the Bergen-Belsen camp. This was the first ever permanent exhibit anywhere in Germany on the topic of Nazi crimes.:42 However, there was still no scientific personnel at the site, with only a caretaker as permanent staff. Memorial events were only organized by the survivors themselves.
The SS: The SS was a military-style group of Nazis, founded in 1925, who were like Hitler's personal bodyguards. They were in charge of overseeing the killing of people in the camps. Part of the SS called the Einsatzgruppen were put in charge of killing many people, before the extermination camps were opened to carry this out on a much greater scale. The SS also took control of intelligence, security and the police force.
Another former inmate, Moshe Peer, recalled a miraculous escape from death as an eleven-year-old in the camp. In a 1993 interview with a Canadian newspaper, the French-born Peer claimed that he "was sent to the [Belsen] camp gas chamber at least six times." The newspaper account went on to relate: "Each time he survived, watching with horror as many of the women and children gassed with him collapsed and died. To this day, Peer doesn't know how he was able to survive." In an effort to explain the miracle, Peer mused: "Maybe children resist better, I don't know." (Although Peer claimed that "Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz," he acknowledged that he and his younger brother and sister, who were deported to the camp in 1944, all somehow survived internment there.) /37
According to a newspaper article by Mark Muckenfuss in The Press-Enterprise, Cecil Davis was a B17 pilot who was shot down during a bombing raid, and subsequently sent to a POW camp. He was with a group of American Prisoners of War who got lost while marching through the German countryside in late April 1945; the lost POWs were picked up by a patrol and dropped off at the Dachau "death camp" for three or four days. Davis was assigned to work in the crematorium where he saw the bodies of children that were being burned in "gas ovens."
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187