Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover in Germany, was the first concentration camp to be liberated by British troops, on 15 April 1945. When soldiers of the 2nd Army arrived they found the camp littered with dead and dying prisoners. Around 60,000 starving people, many suffering from typhus and dysentery, required immediate aid. Despite the best efforts of the medical services, hundreds died in the days after the liberation. In the weeks that followed, British troops buried 10,000 bodies in mass graves. An estimated 70,000 Jews, Slavs, Roma, political prisoners, gays, Jehovah's witnesses and criminals were killed at Belsen.
On April 29, the day after the German guards completed their gruesome task of 10 days of burying the 10,000 decomposed bodies with their bare hands, they were taken to the prison in the city of Celle, which is 16 kilometers northwest of the camp. Also on that day, April 29, 1945, American soldiers entered the Dachau concentration camp and discovered bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus. The next day, 97 medical students arrived in Bergen-Belsen to help with the sick prisoners, and on May 4th, more British medical units arrived. On that same day, May 4, 1945, part of the German Army surrendered to the British in the area near the camp.
After its defeat in World War I, Germany was humiliated by the Versailles Treaty, which reduced its prewar territory, drastically reduced its armed forces, demanded the recognition of its guilt for the war, and stipulated it pay reparations to the allied powers. With the German Empire destroyed, a new parliamentary government called the Weimar Republic was formed. The republic suffered from economic instability, which grew worse during the worldwide depression after the New York stock market crash in 1929. Massive inflation followed by very high unemployment heightened existing class and political differences and began to undermine the government.
The first major camp to be encountered by Allied troops, Majdanek, was discovered by the advancing Soviets on 25 July 1944. Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were never liberated, but were destroyed by the Germans in 1943. Auschwitz was liberated, also by the Soviets, on 27 January 1945; Buchenwald by the Americans on 11 April; Bergen-Belsen by the British on 15 April; Dachau by the Americans on 29 April; Ravensbrück by the Soviets on 30 April; and Mauthausen by the Americans on 5 May. The Red Cross took control of Theresienstadt on 4 May, days before the Soviets arrived.
Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious and lethal of the concentration camps, was actually three camps in one: a prison camp (Auschwitz I), an extermination camp (Auschwitz II–Birkenau), and a slave labour camp (Auschwitz III–Buna-Monowitz). Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners faced what was called a Selektion. A German doctor presided over the selection of pregnant women, young children, the elderly, handicapped, sick, and infirm for immediate death in the gas chambers. As necessary, the Germans selected able-bodied prisoners for forced labour in the factories adjacent to Auschwitz, where one German company, IG Farben, invested 700 million Reichsmarks in 1942 alone to take advantage of forced labour, a capital investment. The conglomerate presumed that slave labour would be a permanent part of the German economy. Deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, these prisoners were literally worked to death. Periodically, they would face another Selektion. The Nazis would transfer those unable to work to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
This photo was taken in April 1945, after liberation. Originally designed as a prisoner of war and transit camp, Bergen-Belsen was to house 10,000 prisoners. From March 1944, Bergen-Belsen became a "regular concentration camp" with new prisoners arriving who were too sick to work at other camps. Some 35,000 to 40,000 inmates died of starvation, overcrowding, hard labor and disease or were killed.
All this and much more Mr. Le Drieullenac told the court. The effect on his hearers was to blanket to a great extent the impression they had received from the film which had shown the prisoners in the dock carting dead bodies like Smithfield porters carrying sides of mutton – bodies which could not have been heavier – to the burial pit, and then, with one man taking the legs and others the hands, throwing them into the pit. S.S. women also were engaged in this work, but probably the most horrible shot of all showed a bulldozer pushing piles of bodies towards the pit, the driver hanging on to the wheel with one hand and holding a handkerchief to his nose with the other.
During the last months before the liberation, the prisoners at Dachau had to live under extremely inhuman conditions, which even they would not have been able to imagine. The gigantic transports continually arriving from other Nazi camps evacuated in the face of the advancing Allied forces, brought human beings who were, for the most part, reduced to skeletons and exhausted to the point of death.
"For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future." Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface to the New Translation (New York: Hill and Wang, c2006), page xv.
The death marches served a dual purpose for the Nazis. On one hand, the Nazis intended for large numbers of Jewish prisoners to die on death marches. Indeed, about 250,000 prisoners, many of whom were Jews, died on death marches. On the other hand, the death marches were also an attempt to move concentration camp prisoners into Germany's borders, so that the Nazis could continue to exploit them for slave labor. Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany, such as Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Mauthausen.
Shipments of Jews to the camps had priority over anything but the army's needs on the German railways, and continued even in the face of the increasingly dire military situation at the end of 1942. Army leaders and economic managers complained about this diversion of resources and the killing of skilled Jewish workers, but Nazi leaders rated ideological imperatives above economic considerations.
If I had sufficient sleeping accommodation at my disposal, then the accommodation of the detainees who have already arrived and of those still to come would appear more possible. In addition to this question a spotted fever and typhus epidemic has now begun, which increases in extent every day. The daily mortality rate, which was still in the region of 60-70 at the beginning of February, has in the meantime attained a daily average of 250-300 and will increase still further in view of the conditions which at present prevail.
The first commander of Dachau, Hilmar Wäckerle, was dismissed from his position by Heinrich Himmler after charges of murder were brought against him by a Munich court for the deaths of several prisoners who had died after being severely punished. Another Dachau Commandant, Alex Piorkowski, was also dismissed by Himmler and was expelled from the Nazi party for breaking the strict rules set by Eicke.
Uprisings broke out in some extermination camps. The few remaining Jews kept alive to dispose of bodies and sort possessions realised the number of transportees was reducing and they would be next. Civilian uprisings occurred across Poland as mainly young Jews, whose families had already been murdered, began to resist Nazi oppression. With reports of rebellion and mass murder in the British press, the situation in the camps could no longer be be ignored.
The number of Afro-Germans in Germany when the Nazis came to power is variously estimated at 5,000–25,000. It is not clear whether these figures included Asians. Although blacks, including prisoners of war, in Germany and German-occupied Europe were subjected to incarceration, sterilization, murder, and other abuse, there was no programme to kill them all as there was for the Jews.
Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain paid a historic visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in June 2015. The Queen visited the camp on the last day of an official state visit to Germany to pay respects to the individuals exterminated there by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was the first time that the 89-year-old Monarch had visited a concentration camp. The Queen met with British army veterans, who shared horror stories of their first impressions upon arrival at the camp in April 1945. Official sources reported that the Queen had a “personal and reflective” visit to the camp, accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip.
On November 2, 2014 the heavy metal gate bearing the slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei" (work sets you free) was stolen from the Dachau memorial site under cover of darkness. Security officials who supposedly keep a 24 hour watch on the memorial site believe that the heist was well orchestrated and planned out, and took place between the hours of midnight and 5:30am on Sunday November 2. Estimates place the weight of the gate at at least 250 lbs, so officials believe that multiple people took part in the theft.
In France Jews under Fascist Italian occupation in the southeast fared better than the Jews of Vichy France, where collaborationist French authorities and police provided essential support to the understaffed German forces. The Jews in those parts of France under direct German occupation fared the worst. Although allied with Germany, the Italians did not participate in the Holocaust until Germany occupied northern Italy after the overthrow of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1943.
A victim of Nazi medical experimentation. A victim's arm shows a deep burn from phosphorus at Ravensbrueck, Germany, in November of 1943. The photograph shows the results of a medical experiment dealing with phosphorous that was carried out by doctors at Ravensbrueck. In the experiment, a mixture of phosphorus and rubber was applied to the skin and ignited. After twenty seconds, the fire was extinguished with water. After three days, the burn was treated with Echinacin in liquid form. After two weeks the wound had healed. This photograph, taken by a camp physician, was entered as evidence during the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg. #
After the regular guards had escaped from the camp on the day before the liberation, 128 SS soldiers who had been imprisoned in a special wing of the Dachau bunker were released and ordered to serve as guards until the Americans arrived to take over the camp. 2nd Lt. Wicker had stayed behind when the other guards escaped because his mother was staying at the Dachau garrison, visiting him. Wicker's mother reported him missing after the war, and it is presumed that he was killed after he surrendered the camp to the Americans.
During the liberation of the sub-camps surrounding Dachau, advance scouts of the U.S. Army's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, a segregated battalion consisting of Nisei, 2nd generation Japanese-Americans, liberated the 3,000 prisoners of the "Kaufering IV Hurlach" slave labor camp. Perisco describes an Office of Strategic Services (OSS) team (code name LUXE) leading Army Intelligence to a "Camp IV" on 29 April. "They found the camp afire and a stack of some four hundred bodies burning ... American soldiers then went into Landsberg and rounded up all the male civilians they could find and marched them out to the camp. The former commandant was forced to lie amidst a pile of corpses. The male population of Landsberg was then ordered to walk by, and ordered to spit on the commandant as they passed. The commandant was then turned over to a group of liberated camp survivors". The 522nd's personnel later discovered the survivors of a death march headed generally southwards from the Dachau main camp to Eurasburg, then eastwards towards the Austrian border on 2 May, just west of the town of Waakirchen.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.