British troops guard Alex Pickowski, Camp Commandant of Dechau concentration camp © The discovery of Belsen brought home the shocking truth about Nazi atrocities, but the facts had been known for some time. As early as the summer of 1941, British signals intelligence had intercepted and decoded radio messages from German police units co-operating with the Einsatzgruppen, and details of the killings of Jews were included in the monthly summaries that were sent to Churchill. Churchill responded with a speech on August 24 1941 in which he called the massacres 'a crime without a name' but erroneously identified the victims as 'Russian patriots defending their native soil'. Otherwise, these facts were not made public.
A portion of the concrete-lined ditch on the left in the photo above has been reconstructed and today visitors can cross a bridge which has been built over the ditch and the Würm river canal in the northwest corner of the camp in order to provide access to the gas chamber area which was outside the prison compound and hidden from the inmates by a line of poplar trees.
New arrivals at Dachau were never told how long they would be imprisoned, a factor that weakened their morale and left them more vulnerable to the remolding that would follow. Often, their journey to Dachau marked the first time they had ever been arrested or involved with police. Many had been sent there by the Gestapo upon vague accusations or denunciations by persons who simply disliked them or who wanted to settle an old score. Some were even arrested on suspicion they might commit a crime in the future.
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Throughout German-occupied territory the situation of the Jews was desperate. They had meagre resources and few allies and faced impossible choices. A few people came to their rescue, often at the risk of their own lives. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, in an effort to save Hungary’s sole remaining Jewish community. Over the next six months, he worked with other neutral diplomats, the Vatican, and Jews themselves to prevent the deportation of these last Jews. Elsewhere, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a French Huguenot village, became a haven for 5,000 Jews. In German-occupied Poland, where it was illegal to aid Jews and where such action was punishable by death, the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews) rescued a similar number of Jewish men, women, and children. Financed by the London-based Polish government in exile and involving a wide range of clandestine political organizations, Zegota provided hiding places and financial support and forged identity documents.
There was a typhus epidemic raging in the camp and 900 prisoners at Dachau were dying of the disease when the liberators arrived, according to the account of Marcus J. Smith. Smith was an Army doctor, who along with 9 others, formed Displaced Persons Team 115, which was sent to Dachau after the liberation. In his book entitled "Dachau: The Harrowing of Hell," Smith wrote that eleven of the barracks buildings at the Dachau camp had been converted into a hospital to house the 4,205 sick prisoners. Another 3,866 prisoners were bed ridden.
Not long after acquiring his “Emalia” factory - which produced enamel goods and munitions to supply the German front - the removal of Jews to death camps began in earnest. Schindler's Jewish accountant put him in touch with the few Jews with any remaining wealth. They invested in his factory, and in return they would be able to work there and perhaps be spared. He was persuaded to hire more Jewish workers, designating their skills as “essential,” paying off the Nazis so they would allow them to stay in Kraków. Schindler was making money, but everyone in his factory was fed, no-one was beaten, no-one was killed. It became an oasis of humanity in a desert of moral torpor.
Concentration camp crematorium being shown to a US soldier © Organised killing began with the outbreak of war in September 1939, but the first victims were not Jews. The Nazis set about killing people with physical and mental disabilities, whom they regarded as a burden on the state and a threat to the nation's 'racial hygiene'. About 170,000 people were eventually killed under this so-called Euthanasia programme, which also pioneered techniques and employed many of the people later used to kill Jews.
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case. Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees. This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency. The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.