Bergen-Belsen SS-women. On the right the notorious Herta Bothe, after the war charged with having committed war crimes. She had a good time shooting at weak female prisoners carrying food containers from the kitchen to the block with her pistol. And she often beat sick girls with a wooden stick. At the Bergen-Belsen Trial she got imprisonment for 10 years.
While Bergen-Belsen contained no gas chambers, an estimated 50,000 people died of starvation, overwork, disease, brutality and sadistic medical experiments. By April 1945, more than 60,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Belsen in two camps located 1.5 miles apart. Camp No. 2 was opened only a few weeks before the liberation on the site of a military hospital and barracks.
On March 7, 1933, an important law was passed by the newly-elected German Congress, which called for all high-level government officials in the German states to be appointed by the Nazis and for all state government positions to be supervised by the Nazis in the event of an emergency. Germany was already in an emergency situation and Article 48 of the German Constitution had already been invoked. Under this new law, Heinrich Himmler was appointed the acting Chief of Police in Munich, although his real job was Reichsführer-SS, the leader of Hitler's elite private Army.
The first Jewish prisoners came as known political opponents of the Nazis. At Dachau, as elsewhere, they received even worse treatment than the other prisoners. Gradually, more and more groups were arrested and brought to Dachau, Jehovah’s Witness, Gypsies, who like the Jews were classified as racially inferior, Clergymen who resisted the Nazi coercion of the churches and Homosexuals and many others who had been denounced for making critical remarks against the Nazi regime.
An Inspector General report resulting from a US Army investigation conducted between 3 and 8 May 1945 and titled, "American Army Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau," found that 21 plus "a number" of presumed SS men were killed with others being wounded after their surrender had been accepted. In addition, 25 to 50 SS guards were estimated to have been killed by the liberated prisoners. Lee Miller visited the camp just after liberation, and photographed several guards who were killed by soldiers or prisoners.
Many Jews attempted to flee Germany, and thousands succeeded by immigrating to such countries as Belgium, Czechoslovakia, England, France and Holland. It was much more difficult to get out of Europe. Jews encountered stiff immigration quotas in most of the world's countries. Even if they obtained the necessary documents, they often had to wait months or years before leaving. Many families out of desperation sent their children first.
In the 1930s, the political landscape of Europe changed dramatically with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party. Sensing the shift in political momentum, Schindler joined a local pro-Nazi organization and began collecting intelligence for the German military. He was arrested by Czech authorities in 1938, charged with spying and sentenced to death but was released shortly thereafter, when Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Schindler would take advantage of this second chance.
In April 1942, at the same time that the Jews were being sent to the death camps in the East, a new brick building called Baracke X was planned for the Dachau camp. It was designed to house a homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room, and four cremation ovens. The new Baracke X also has four disinfection gas chambers, designed to kill lice in clothing with the use of Zyklon-B, the same poison gas that was used to kill the Jews in the homicidal gas chambers at Majdanek and Auschwitz. The clothing was disinfected in all the Nazi camps in an attempt to prevent typhus which is spread by lice.
As a member of the Nazi Party and the Abwehr intelligence service, Schindler was in danger of being arrested as a war criminal. Bankier, Stern, and several others prepared a statement he could present to the Americans attesting to his role in saving Jewish lives. He was also given a ring, made using gold from dental work taken out of the mouth of Schindlerjude Simon Jeret. The ring was inscribed "Whoever saves one life saves the world entire." To escape being captured by the Russians, Schindler and his wife departed westward in their vehicle, a two-seater Horch, initially with several fleeing German soldiers riding on the running boards. A truck containing Schindler's mistress Marta, several Jewish workers, and a load of black market trade goods followed behind. The Horch was confiscated by Russian troops at the town of Budweis, which had already been captured by Russian troops. The Schindlers were unable to recover a diamond that Oskar had hidden under the seat. They continued by train and on foot until they reached the American lines at the town of Lenora, and then travelled to Passau, where an American Jewish officer arranged for them to travel to Switzerland by train. They moved to Bavaria in Germany in the fall of 1945.
In nearly every country overrun by the Nazis, the Jews were forced to wear badges marking them as Jews, they were rounded up into ghettos or concentration camps and then gradually transported to the killing centers. The death camps were essentially factories for murdering Jews. The Germans shipped thousands of Jews to them each day. Within a few hours of their arrival, the Jews had been stripped of their possessions and valuables, gassed to death, and their bodies burned in specially designed crematoriums. Approximately 3.5 million Jews were murdered in these death camps.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and in March of that year the first Nazi concentration camp opened in the town of Dachau, just outside Munich, a major city in southern Germany. The camp initially housed political prisoners, and its first group of detainees consisted primarily of socialists and communists. Hilmar Wäckerle (1899-1941), an official in the “Schutzstaffel” (a Nazi paramilitary organization commonly known as the SS), served as the first commandant of Dachau.
Italy introduced some antisemitic measures, but there was less antisemitism there than in Germany, and Italian-occupied countries were generally safer for Jews than German-occupied territories. In some areas, the Italian authorities even tried to protect Jews, such as in the Croatian areas of the Balkans. But while Italian forces in Russia were not as vicious towards Jews as the Germans, they did not try to stop German atrocities either. There were no deportations of Italian Jews to Germany while Italy remained an ally. Several forced labor camps for Jews were established in Italian-controlled Libya. Almost 2,600 Libyan Jews were sent to camps, where 562 died.
The survivors at Bergen Belsen, living under improved conditions, began to establish educational institutions shortly after liberation. They set up an elementary school as early as July 1945. After three years the number of pupils in the elementary school had grown to 340. This number was impressive considering that most children did not survive the Holocaust. In December 1945 the survivors founded a high school, where studies were carried out with the help of soldiers from the Jewish Brigade. Over the course of time the number of pupils in the high school reached 200. The school also included a yeshiva (institute of higher Jewish learning). The DP camp also had kindergartens, an orphanage and ORT vocational training institutions.There was a lively theatrical life in Bergen Belsen. In addition, the main Jewish newspaper in British-occupied Germany, "Unzer Sztyme" ("Our Voice") was published there.
In her book Five Chimneys the Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel later recalled the SS troops in fits of destructive insanity, blindly beating the sick women, kicking the pregnant: 'Kramer himself had lost his calm. A strange gleam lurked in his small eyes, and he worked like a madman. I saw hin throw himself at one unfortunate woman and with a single stroke of his truncheon shatter her skull ..'
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
From the evidence it became clear how this was done. After a sleepless night – for sleep in the huts was impossible – the men were driven to a hut where the dead were collected. They were instructed by what the witness called the “language of blows, which was universal.” Their duty was to take strips of blankets, tie them to a corpse, and, four men to a corpse, drag it across the main road of the camp along dusty paths to the burial pit. In the midst of this work, which lasted three days without sleep, food, or water till the British arrived, one Hungarian guard at the exit from the hut containing the bodies began shooting all prisoners if they did not come out dragging a body at the double. During the last three days the Hungarian guards were almost continuously shooting at prisoners, sometimes single shots, sometimes fusillades.
There were an additional 37,223 prisoners counted in the sub-camps near Dachau on April 26, 1945, the date of the last roll call. According to the US Army Report, there were approximately 7,000 prisoners who arrived at Dachau after April 26, 1945 who were not registered in the camp. They were prisoners from the sub-camps who had been evacuated to the main camp. One group of prisoners from a subcamp arrived on April 28th, escorted by Otto Moll, a notorious SS man who had formerly worked in the Auschwitz death camp.
In early 1943, the Nazis implemented the liquidation of the Krakow Jewish population and opened up the Plaszow work camp, run by the notoriously sadistic commandant, Amon Göth. Schindler cultivated a relationship with Göth, and whenever any of his workers were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp or execution, Schindler managed to provide a black-market gift or bribe to save their lives.
American soldiers stare down at a mass grave in Nordhausen concentration camp © Originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, Auschwitz was greatly expanded in 1941 with the addition of a much larger camp at nearby Birkenau. In all, Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps held 400,000 registered prisoners including 205,000 Jews, 137,000 Poles, 21,000 Gypsies, 12,000 Soviet POWs and 25,000 others (including a few British POWs). In this largest and worst of all the Nazi concentration camps, 210,000 prisoners died of starvation and abuse.
Concentration camps began to incarcerate ‘habitual criminals’ in addition to political prisoners. Goebbels stepped up anti-Semitic propaganda with a traveling exhibition which cast Jews as the enemy. Nearly half a million people attended. Some guessed worse would come. Winston Churchill criticised British relations with Germany, warning of ‘great evils of racial and religious intolerance’, though many colleagues complained of his ‘harping on’ about Jews.
Czeslawa Kwoka, age 14, appears in a prisoner identity photo provided by the Auschwitz Museum, taken by Wilhelm Brasse while working in the photography department at Auschwitz, the Nazi-run death camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died during World War II. Czeslawa was a Polish Catholic girl, from Wolka Zlojecka, Poland, who was sent to Auschwitz with her mother in December of 1942. Within three months, both were dead. Photographer (and fellow prisoner) Brasse recalled photographing Czeslawa in a 2005 documentary: "She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn't understand why she was there and she couldn't understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn't interfere. It would have been fatal for me." #
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them: