This classroom activity explores the transformation of Bergen Belsen from a concentration camp to a Displaced Persons' camp. It focuses particularly on how Holocaust survivors grappled with loneliness and despair by getting married and starting families shortly after liberation. Through the lens of Bergen Belsen, we see how Holocaust survivors displayed courage and determination in generating life after the Holocaust.
The first thing that the American liberators saw at Dachau was the "death train" filled with the dead bodies of prisoners who had been evacuated three weeks before from Buchenwald; the train had been strafed by American planes, but the soldiers assumed that these prisoners had been machine-gunned to death by the guards after the train arrived. After the war, Hans Merbach, the German soldier who was in charge of this train was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau.
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.
While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently. The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
Georg Elser, who was imprisoned at Dachau as a suspect in the attempted assassination of Hitler on November 8, 1939, was allegedly shot around the time that an Allied bomb hit the camp on April 9, 1945 and his death was blamed on the bombing. General Charles Delestraint, a Dachau prisoner who had been the leader of the French Secret Army in the Resistance, was allegedly executed at Dachau on April 19, 1945, although no execution order from Berlin was ever found. Four female British SOE agents were also allegedly executed Dachau, although the execution order was never found.
The Nazis brought their own strain of radical ruthlessness to these ideas. They glorified war and saw the uncompromising struggle for survival between nations and races as the engine of human progress. They rejected morality as a Jewish idea, which had corrupted and weakened the German people. They maintained that a great nation such as Germany had the right and duty to build an empire based on the subjugation of 'inferior races'. They looked eastwards to Poland and Russia (where, as it happened, the great majority of European Jews lived) for the territorial expansion of their 'living space' (Lebensraum).
The photo above shows some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau. The second man from the left, who is wearing a cardigan sweater and a coat, is Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent from Belgium, who was hiding his identity by using the name Patrick O'Leary. He was one of five British SOE agents who had survived the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen in Austria and Natzweiler in Alsace before being transferred to Dachau. Guérisse greeted Lt. William P. Walsh and 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead of the 45th Infantry Division and took them on a tour of the camp, showing them the gas chamber and the ovens in the crematorium.
Only in 2000 did the Federal Government of Germany begin to financially support the memorial. Co-financed by the state of Lower Saxony, a complete redesign was planned which was intended to be more in line with contemporary thought on exhibition design. On April 15, 2005, there was a ceremony, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation and many ex-prisoners and ex-liberating troops attended. In October 2007, the redesigned memorial site was opened, including a large new Documentation Centre and permanent exhibition on the edge of the newly redefined camp, whose structure and layout can now be traced. Since 2009, the memorial has been receiving funding from the Federal government on an ongoing basis.
In most ghettos, Nazis ordered the Jews to establish a Judenrat (Jewish council) to administer Nazi demands and to regulate the internal life of the ghetto. The Nazis routinely ordered deportations from the ghettos. In some of the large ghettos, 1,000 people per day were sent by rail to concentration and extermination camps. To get them to cooperate, the Nazis told the Jews they were being transported elsewhere for labor.
From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died at this camp. Overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.
Some of the inmates were exempt from work because they were too old or too young, but a few of the older prisoners worked on the herb farm. According to Paul Berben, "Statistics made by the camp administration on 16th February 1945 list 2,309 men and 44 women aged between 50 and 60 and 5,465 men and 12 women over 60." These figures are for the main camp at Dachau and all the subcamps.
As the first American officer, a major, descended from his tank, "the young Teutonic lieutenant, Heinrich Skodzensky," emerged from the guard post and came to attention before the American officer. The German is blond, handsome, perfumed, his boots glistening, his uniform well-tailored. He reports as if he were on the military parade grounds near Unter den Linden during an exercise, then very properly raising his arm he salutes with a very respectful "Heil Hitler!" and clicks his heels. "I hereby turn over to you the concentration camp of Dachau, 30,000 residents, 2,340 sick, 27,000 on the outside, 560 garrison troops."
In anticipation of such violence against the Jews by the Nazis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had invited 32 countries to a Conference in Evian, France in July 1938 to discuss the problem of Jewish refugees. The only country which agreed to allow Jewish refugees as immigrants was the Dominican Republic; 5,000 German Jews emigrated to the Dominican Republic before the start of World War II. The American Congress refused to change the US immigration laws, passed in 1920 and 1921, to allow a higher quota of Jewish refugees from Germany to enter, although America did start filling the quota under the existing laws for the first time.
The fact that this child survivor had a number on her arm indicates that she had been previously registered at the Auschwitz death camp; only Jews at Auschwitz were tattooed. When the Auschwitz camp was abandoned on January 18, 1945, the survivors, including women and children, were marched 37 miles through two feet of snow to the German border and then sent by train to Bergen-Belsen and other camps.
Bergen-Belsen mainly served as a holding camp for the Jewish prisoners. The camp was divided into eight sections, a detention camp, two women’s camps, a special camp, neutrals camps, “star” camp (mainly Dutch prisoners who wore a Star of David on their clothing instead of the camp uniform), Hungarian camp and a tent camp. It was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, however, by the war’s end more than 60,000 prisoners were detained there, due to the large numbers of those evacuated from Auschwitz and other camps from the East. Tens of thousands of prisoners from other camps came to Bergen-Belsen after agonizing death marches. The POW camp was converted to a women's camp (Grosses Frauenlager) in January 1945 after a large influx of female prisoners evacuate from other camps.
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
Once Germany took over Poland in 1939, it created forced-labor camps. Thousands of prisoners died from working conditions, exhaustion, and starvation. After the outbreak of World War II, the number of concentration camps increased exponentially. The number of prisoners of war camps also rose, but after the first years of the war most were converted into concentration camps. Nazis forcibly relocated Jews from ghettos to concentration camps.
The prisoner barracks at Dachau were renovated in 1948 and 5,000 refugees from Czechoslovakia, who were among the 12 to 18 million ethnic Germans that were expelled from their homes after the war, lived in the Dachau camp until 1964 when an organization of Communist camp survivors began demanding that they be removed so that a Memorial could be built in honor of the former concentration camp political prisoners.
Never one to miss a chance to make money, he marched into Poland on the heels of the SS. He dived headfirst into the black-market and the underworld and soon made friends with the local Gestapo bigwigs, softening them up with women, money and illicit booze. His newfound connections helped him acquire a factory which he ran with the cheapest labor around: Jewish.
Over a short period of time, Bergen Belsen became the largest DP camp in Germany. In 1946, more than 11,000 Jews lived there. Some survivors succumbed to their despair in the DP camp. After years of forced labor, some survivors refused to work at all. Others developed a Black Market at Bergen Belsen, trafficking in anything that would earn them a penny. However, the majority of survivors at Bergen Belsen were able to gather emotional energy and channel it towards rebuilding their lives.
Schindler was founded in 1874 by Robert Schindler and Eduard Villiger. Soon, they established a mechanical engineering workshop on an island in the Reuss River in Lucerne, Switzerland. At that time, the company was called "Schindler & Villiger". In 1892, Eduard Villiger leaves the partnership and the company continues under the name of Robert Schindler, Machinery Manufacturer.
Prisoners were divided into categories. At first, they were classified by the nature of the crime for which they were accused, but eventually were classified by the specific authority-type under whose command a person was sent to camp.:53 Political prisoners who had been arrested by the Gestapo wore a red badge, "professional" criminals sent by the Criminal Courts wore a green badge, Cri-Po prisoners arrested by the criminal police wore a brown badge, "work-shy and asocial" people sent by the welfare authorities or the Gestapo wore a black badge, Jehovah's Witnesses arrested by the Gestapo wore a violet badge, homosexuals sent by the criminal courts wore a pink badge, emigrants arrested by the Gestapo wore a blue badge, "race polluters" arrested by the criminal court or Gestapo wore badges with a black outline, second-termers arrested by the Gestapo wore a bar matching the color of their badge, "idiots" wore a white armband with the label Blöd (Stupid), and Jews, whose incarceration in the Dachau concentration camp dramatically increased after Kristallnacht, wore a yellow badge, combined with another color.:54–69
In America, the boycott of German goods was announced on March 23, 1933 as 20,000 Jews protested against Hitler's government at the City Hall in New York City. On March 27, 1933, a mass rally, that had already been planned on March 12th, was held in Madison Square Garden; there were 40,000 Jewish protesters, according to the New York Daily News. The next day, on March 28, 1933 Hitler made a speech in which he deplored the stories of Nazi atrocities that were being published in the American press and announced a one-day boycott of Jewish stores in Germany on April 1, 1933 in retaliation.
Nobody slept that night. The camp was alive with bonfires and we all wanted to bivouac out of doors, near the flames. Dachau had been transformed into a nomad camp. The Americans had distributed canned food, and we heated it in the coals of the fires. We also got some bread, taken from the last reserves in the kitchens. But I for one was not hungry, and most of us did not think of eating. We were drunk with our freedom.
A letter from Dr. Sigmund Rascher to Heinrich Himmler, the head of all the concentration camps, which makes a reference to a facility like the one at Hartheim which the Nazis were planning to build at Dachau, is the best proof that the fake shower room in Baracke X was actually a gas chamber. A copy of this letter was displayed in the gas chamber building in May 2001, but it was later moved to the Dachau Museum.
In late 1944, Plaszow and all its sub-camps had to be evacuated in face of the Russian advance. Most of the camp inmates—more than 20,000 men, women, and children—were sent to extermination camps. On receiving the order to evacuate, Schindler, who had approached the appropriate section in the Supreme Command of the Army (OKW), managed to obtain official authorization to continue production in a factory that he and his wife had set up in Brünnlitz, in their native Sudetenland. The entire work force from Zablocie—to which were furtively added many new names from the Plaszow camp—was supposed to move to the new factory site. However, instead of being brought to Brünnlitz, the 800 men—among them 700 Jews—and the 300 women on Schindler’s list were diverted to Gross-Rosen and to Auschwitz, respectively.
In October 1944, after the SS transferred the Emalia Jews to Plaszow, Schindler sought and obtained authorization to relocate his plant to Brünnlitz (Brnenec) in Moravia, and reopen it exclusively as an armaments factory. One of his assistants drew several versions of a list of up to 1,200 Jewish prisoners needed to work in the new factory. These lists came to be known collectively as “Schindler's List.” Schindler met the specifications required by the SS to classify Brünnlitz as a subcamp of Gross-Rosen concentration camp and thereby facilitated the survival of around 800 Jewish men whom the SS deported from Plaszow via Gross-Rosen to Brünnlitz and between 300 and 400 Jewish women from Plaszow via Auschwitz.
Many of the prisoners at Bergen Belsen arrived there on death marches from other concentration camps. During Summer 1944, as the British and American Armies advanced in their fight against Germany from the West and the Soviet army advanced in its fight against Germany from the East, the Nazis began liquidating concentration camps, sending prisoners on death marches. They forced prisoners of concentration camps to march over long distances, under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were abused, and sometimes killed, by the guards that accompanied them.
On 15 September 1935, the Reichstag passed the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, known as the Nuremberg Laws. The former said that only those of "German or kindred blood" could be citizens. Anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents was classified as a Jew. The second law said: "Marriages between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood are forbidden." Sexual relationships between them were also criminalized; Jews were not allowed to employ German women under the age of 45 in their homes. The laws referred to Jews but applied equally to the Roma and black Germans.
"... 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, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas became the first commandant of the Bergen-Belsen camp in the spring of 1943; SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer replaced him in December 1944. The number of SS functionaries in Bergen-Belsen varied over the course of the camp's existence. The SS succeeded in destroying many of the camp's files, including those on personnel.
Those who could prove their intention to leave Germany were released, and indeed most of them were released within a few months of their arrest. Non-Jews were also arrested for helping Jews, in Berlin on 23 October 1941 a German Catholic priest, Bernhard Lichtenberg, who had been a military chaplain in the First World War, was arrested for his protests against the deportations to the East.
Also set for extermination were members of any group considered by Hitler to be ill-equipped to reside in the new Germany. Among them were artists, intellectuals and other independent thinkers; communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who were ideologically opposed to the Nazi Party; homosexuals and others who were viewed as sexually deviant; Gypsies; the physically and mentally handicapped; and anyone else considered to be racially or physically impure. (Between 1941 and 1944, several thousand sick and handicapped Dachau prisoners were sent to a Nazi “euthanasia” center in Hartheim, Austria, where they were put to death by exposure to lethal gas).
A memorandum dated July 31, 1941, from Hitler’s top commander Hermann Goering to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the SD (the security service of the SS), referred to the need for an Endlösung (final solution) to “the Jewish question.” Beginning in September 1941, every person designated as a Jew in German-held territory was marked with a yellow star, making them open targets. Tens of thousands were soon being deported to the Polish ghettoes and German-occupied cities in the USSR.