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.
After the joint conquest of Poland, by Germany and the Soviet Union, in September 1939, numerous Polish resistance fighters were imprisoned, including 1,780 Catholic priests. When the Catholic Church complained about the harsh treatment the priests received in the concentration camps, all the priests were moved to Dachau because it was the mildest camp of all. Dachau was designated as the main camp for Catholic priests who had been arrested on various charges, including child molestation, and a total of 2,720 from 19 different nations were sent there. The priests did not have to work in the factories and were given special privileges.
Before World War II, Germany considered mass deportation from Europe of German, and later European, Jewry. Among the areas considered for possible resettlement were British Palestine and French Madagascar. After the war began, German leaders considered deporting Europe's Jews to Siberia. Palestine was the only location to which any German relocation plan produced results, via the Haavara Agreement between the Zionist Federation of Germany and the German government. This resulted in the transfer of about 60,000 German Jews and $100 million from Germany to Palestine, but it ended with the outbreak of World War II. In May 1940 Madagascar became the focus of new deportation efforts because it had unfavorable living conditions that would hasten deaths. Several German leaders had discussed the idea in 1938, and Adolf Eichmann's office was ordered to carry out resettlement planning, but no evidence of planning exists until after the fall of France in June 1940. But the inability to defeat Britain prevented the movement of Jews across the seas, and the end of the Madagascar Plan was announced on 10 February 1942.
The display, which was reworked in 2003, takes the visitor through the path of new arrivals to the camp. Special presentations of some of the notable prisoners are also provided. Two of the barracks have been rebuilt and one shows a cross-section of the entire history of the camp, since the original barracks had to be torn down due to their poor condition when the memorial was built. The other 32 barracks are indicated by concrete foundations. The memorial includes four chapels for the various religions represented among the prisoners.
Prof. Dr. Klaus Schilling, a renowned expert on malaria, was persuaded to come out of retirement in order to conduct medical experiments on approximately 1,200 Dachau prisoners in an attempt to find a cure for malaria after German troops began fighting the Allies in North Africa. Hundreds died as a result of Dr. Schilling's experiments, including a few who died from malaria and others who died from other diseases after being weakened by malaria. The subjects for the malaria experiments were the Catholic priests in the camp because they were not required to work, and would not be missed in the labor force if they died.
After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Ghetto was completely destroyed. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to killing centers or concentration camps. This is a view of the remains of the ghetto, which the German SS dynamited to the ground. The Warsaw Ghetto only existed for a few years, and in that time, some 300,000 Polish Jews lost their lives there. #
Dachau was liberated by American troops on April 29, 1945. Among their most-gruesome discoveries were railroad cars filled with Jewish prisoners who had died en route to the camp and had been left to decompose. American and British media coverage of Dachau and other newly liberated camps—which included photographs published in magazines and newsreel footage shown in cinemas—profoundly shaped the public’s understanding of the atrocities that had occurred.
In 1988, West Germany allocated another $125 million for reparations. Companies such as BMW, Deutsche Bank, Ford, Opel, Siemens, and Volkswagen faced lawsuits for their use of forced labor during the war. In response, Germany set up the "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" Foundation in 2000, which paid €4.45 billion to former slave laborers (up to €7,670 each). In 2013, Germany agreed to provide €772 million to fund nursing care, social services, and medication for 56,000 Holocaust survivors around the world. The French state-owned railway company, the SNCF, agreed in 2014 to pay $60 million to Jewish-American survivors, around $100,000 each, for its role in the transport of 76,000 Jews from France to extermination camps between 1942 and 1944.
While the labour camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek used inmates for slave labour to support the German war effort, the extermination camps at Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor had one task alone: killing. At Treblinka a staff of 120, of whom only 30 were SS (the Nazi paramilitary corps), killed some 750,000 to 925,000 Jews during the camp’s 17 months of operation. At Belzec German records detail a staff of 104, including about 20 SS, who killed some 500,000 Jews in less than 10 months. At Sobibor they murdered between 200,000 and 250,000. These camps began operation during the spring and summer of 1942, when the ghettos of German-occupied Poland were filled with Jews. Once they had completed their missions—murder by gassing, or “resettlement in the east,” to use the language of the Wannsee protocols—the Nazis closed the camps. There were six extermination camps, all in German-occupied Poland, among the thousands of concentration and slave-labour camps throughout German-occupied Europe.
During the war, Emilie joined Oskar in Krakow, and by the war’s end, the couple was penniless, having used his fortune to bribe authorities and save his workers. The day after the war ended, Schindler and his wife fled to Argentina with the help of the Schindlerjuden to avoid prosecution for his previous spying activities. For more than a decade, Schindler tried farming, only to declare bankruptcy in 1957. He left his wife and traveled to West Germany, where he made an unsuccessful attempt in 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 after his death in 1974, at age 66, Oskar Schindler was interred in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In 1993, Steven Spielberg brought the story of Oskar Schindler to the big screen with his film, Schindler's List.
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.
The Roma refer to the genocide of the Romani people as the Pořajmos. Because they are traditionally a private people with a culture based on oral history, less is known about their experience than that of any other group. Bauer writes that this can be attributed to the Roma's distrust and suspicion, and to their humiliation because some of the taboos in Romani culture regarding hygiene and sex were violated at Auschwitz. In May 1942, the Roma were placed under similar laws to the Jews. On 16 December 1942, Himmler issued a decree that "Gypsy Mischlinge [mixed breeds], Roma Gypsies, and members of the clans of Balkan origins who are not of German blood" should be sent to Auschwitz, unless they had served in the Wehrmacht. He adjusted the order on 15 November 1943; in the occupied Soviet areas, "sedentary Gypsies and part-Gypsies are to be treated as citizens of the country. Nomadic Gypsies and part-Gypsies are to be placed on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps." Bauer argues that this adjustment reflected Nazi ideology that the Roma, originally an Aryan population, had been "spoiled" by non-Romani blood.
At the Bergen-Belsen camp, a sign had been put up outside the gate to warn the British liberators that there was typhus in the camp, but there was no sign at Dachau since there was no danger to the Americans who had all been vaccinated against typhus and other diseases before going overseas. The American liberators assumed that the emaciated bodies that they found piled up in the camp were the bodies of prisoners who had been deliberately starved to death.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
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:
Almost all Jews within areas occupied by the Germans were killed. There were 3,020,000 Jews in the Soviet Union in 1939, and the losses were 1–1.1 million. Around one million Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in the occupied Soviet territories. Of Poland's 3.3 million Jews, about 90 percent were killed. Many more died in the ghettos of Poland before they could be deported. The death camps accounted for half the number of Jews killed; 80–90 percent of death-camp victims are estimated to have been Jews. At Auschwitz-Birkenau the Jewish death toll was 1.1 million; Treblinka 870,000–925,000; Bełżec 434,000–600,000; Chełmno 152,000–320,000; Sobibór 170,000–250,000; and Majdanek 79,000.
The camp included an administration building that contained offices for the Gestapo trial commissioner, SS authorities, the camp leader and his deputies. These administration offices consisted of large storage rooms for the personal belongings of prisoners, the bunker, roll-call square where guards would also inflict punishment on prisoners (especially those who tried to escape), the canteen where prisoners served SS men with cigarettes and food, the museum containing plaster images of prisoners who suffered from bodily defects, the camp office, the library, the barracks, and the infirmary, which was staffed by prisoners who had previously held occupations such as physicians or army surgeons.
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.
In the summer of 1941, the camp physician at Dachau was ordered to register those prisoners who were sick or unable to work. Some weeks later, a medical commission from Berlin arrived to pass judgement, and during the winter of 1941 -1942 “invalid transports” departed from Dachau in quick succession to the Hartheim castle, near Linz. Hartheim was one of the murder facilities included in the euthanasia programme. There 3166 inmates from Dachau were gassed.
In spite of the Jewish "holy war" against the Nazis, there were no Jews sent to a concentration camp solely because they were Jewish during the first five and a half years that the Nazi concentration camps were in existence. Jews were sent to Dachau from day one, but it was because they were Communists or trade union leaders, not because they were Jewish. The first Jews to be taken into "protective custody," simply because they were Jews, were arrested during the pogrom on the night of November 9th & 10th in 1938, which the Nazis named Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
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.
In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners in concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
One of the most remarkable humanitarian acts performed by Oskar and Emilie Schindler involved the case of 120 Jewish male prisoners from Goleszow, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. The men had been working there in a quarry plant that belonged to the SS-operated company “German Earth and Stone Works.” With the approach of the Russian front in January 1945, they were evacuated from Goleszow and transported westward in sealed cattle-wagons, without food or water. At the end of a seven-day grueling journey in the dead of winter, the SS guards finally stationed the two sealed cattle-cars with their human cargo at the gates of Brunnlitz. Emilie Schindler was just in time to stop the SS camp commandant from sending the train back. Schindler, who had rushed back to the camp from some food-procuring errand outside, barely managed to convince the commandant that he desperately needed the people who were locked in the train for work.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
After the Nuremberg war crimes trials finished, the United States spearheaded the effort to end genocide and become a champion for the prevention of crimes against humanity. The U.S. pushed for greater international effort, helping to draft the 1948 Genocide Convention. President Harry Truman addressed Congress urging the Convention’s passage. He stressed the role the United States had to play in “outlawing the world-shocking crime of genocide.”
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.
These outdoor 'wild' camps were little more than improvised barbed-wire stockades where prisoners were subjected to military-style drills and random beatings. The storm troopers soon discovered that desperate family members would gather up whatever money they could find to ransom their loved ones out of the place. Thus began a lucrative practice of hauling off prisoners simply to hold them until sufficient ransom was received.
On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 people. 'All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organize as soon as they are released.
"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."
Peter Hayes (How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader, 2015): "The Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe, has come to be regarded as the emblematic event of Twentieth Century ... Hitler's ideology depicted the Jews as uniquely dangerous to Germany and therefore uniquely destined to disappear completely from the Reich and all territories subordinate to it. The threat posted by supposedly corrupting but generally powerless Sinti and Roma was far less, and therefore addressed inconsistently in the Nazi realm. Gay men were defined as a problem only if they were German or having sex with Germans or having sex with Germans and considered 'curable' in most cases. ... Germany's murderous intent toward the handicapped inhabitants of European mental institutions ... was more comprehensive ... but here, too, implementation was uneven and life-saving exceptions permitted, especially in Western Europe. Not only were some Slavs—Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians, some Ukrainians—allotted a favored place in Hitler's New Order, but the fate of most of the other Slavs the Nazis derided as sub-humans ... consisted of enslavement and gradual attrition, not the prompt massacre meted out to the Jews after 1941."