On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian unit. At the time of liberation, the camp had been without food or water for three to five days. As Matthew Nesbitt, a Canadian liberator, recounted, "…the first thing we had to do when we got to camp. Prior to even distributing the food. And that was to make sure we used the guards to separate the living from the dead, from the huts, because first of all, if we are going to save anybody, we had to know who was alive and who had to be buried…The only way you could do that was to go into each individual hut and shake whoever was on that little slab…if they didn't move, they were dead."
Few visitors to the camp bother to visit the town of Dachau which has grown from 13,000 residents in 1945 to 50,000 residents. Dachau is now multicultural and has a diverse population which includes many people who are not ethnic German. Older residents of Dachau are quick to point out that the majority of the people in the town did not vote for Hitler when he ran for President of Germany in 1932.
Several books published after the war maintained that there was a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen. For example, in a book entitled "Jews, God and History," Jewish historian Max Dimont mentioned gassings at Bergen-Belsen. Another book, entitled "A History of World War II" claimed that "In Belsen, Kramer kept an orchestra to play him Viennese music while he watched children torn from their mothers to be burned alive. Gas chambers disposed of thousands of persons daily." (Josef Kramer was the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen from 2 December 1944 until the camp was liberated.)
That June, Theodor Eicke (1892-1943) replaced Wäckerle as Dachau commandant. Eicke immediately released a set of regulations for the camp’s daily operation. Prisoners deemed guilty of rule breaking were to be brutally beaten. Those who plotted to escape or espoused political views were to be executed on the spot. Prisoners would not be allowed to defend themselves or protest this treatment. Eicke’s regulations served as a blueprint for the operation of all concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
On November 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Göring convened a meeting of Nazi officials to discuss the damage to the German economy from pogroms. The Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks. Moreover, Jews were made responsible for cleaning up the damage. German Jews, but not foreign Jews, were barred from collecting insurance. In addition, Jews were soon denied entry to theatres, forced to travel in separate compartments on trains, and excluded from German schools. These new restrictions were added to earlier prohibitions, such as those barring Jews from earning university degrees, from owning businesses, or from practicing law or medicine in the service of non-Jews. The Nazis would continue to confiscate Jewish property in a program called “Aryanization.” Göring concluded the November meeting with a note of irony: “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”
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.
The British troops who liberated the Belsen camp three weeks before the end of the war were shocked and disgusted by the many unburied corpses and dying inmates they found there. Horrific photos and films of the camp's emaciated corpses and mortally sick inmates were quickly circulated around the globe. Within weeks the British military occupation newspaper proclaimed: "The story of that greatest of all exhibitions of 'man's inhumanity to man' which was Belsen Concentration Camp is known throughout the world." (note 1)
Because they refused to pledge allegiance to the Nazi party or serve in the military, Jehovah's Witnesses were sent to concentration camps, where they were identified by purple triangles and given the option of renouncing their faith and submitting to the state's authority. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that between 2,700 and 3,300 were sent to the camps, where 1,400 died; in The Holocaust Encyclopedia (2001), Sybil Milton estimates that 10,000 were sent and 2,500 died. According to German historian Detlef Garbe, "no other religious movement resisted the pressure to conform to National Socialism with comparable unanimity and steadfastness."
October 16, 1946 - Göring commits suicide two hours before the scheduled execution of the first group of major Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. During his imprisonment, a (now repentant) Hans Frank states, "A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will not be erased." Frank and the others are hanged and the bodies are brought to Dachau and burned (the final use of the crematories there) with the ashes then scattered into a river.
Germany invaded Norway and Denmark on 9 April 1940, during Operation Weserübung. Denmark was overrun so quickly that there was no time for an organized resistance to form. Consequently, the Danish government stayed in power and the Germans found it easier to work through it. Because of this, few measures were taken against the Danish Jews before 1942. By June 1940 Norway was completely occupied. In late 1940, the country's 1,800 Jews were banned from certain occupations, and in 1941 all Jews had to register their property with the government. On 26 November 1942, 532 Jews were taken by police officers, at four o'clock in the morning, to Oslo harbour, where they boarded a German ship. From Germany they were sent by freight train to Auschwitz. According to Dan Stone, only nine survived the war.
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.
The deportation of Jews to the ghettos culminated in the policy of extermination the Nazis called the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question", discussed by senior Nazi officials at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942. As German forces captured territories in the East, all anti-Jewish measures were radicalized. Under the coordination of the SS, with directions from the highest leadership of the Nazi Party, killings were committed within Germany itself, throughout occupied Europe, and across all territories controlled by the Axis powers. Paramilitary death squads called Einsatzgruppen, in cooperation with Wehrmacht police battalions and local collaborators, murdered around 1.3 million Jews in mass shootings between 1941 and 1945. By mid-1942, victims were being deported from the ghettos in sealed freight trains to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, they were killed in gas chambers. The killing continued until the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945.
The AFPU recruited from the ranks of the British Army. Many of the photographers and cameramen present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen were tough, hardened by their own experiences of combat. Yet they were deeply shocked by what they witnessed at the camp. AFPU cameraman and photographer Sergeant Mike Lewis came from a Jewish family and describes how witnessing the camp's liberation made real for him the stories of persecution he had been told by his parents. He also reflects on his own reaction to what he had witnessed.
Just west of the concentration camp at Dachau, a large SS army garrison was set up in 1936 on the grounds of the former gunpowder factory. This facility, which was four or five times the size of the Dachau prison camp, included an officers' training school where German SS soldiers were educated to be administrators. Some of the famous graduates of this school were Adolf Eichmann, who became the head of Hitler's Race and Resettlement office, and Rudolf Hoess, the infamous Commandant of Auschwitz, who confessed that 2.5 million Jews had been gassed while he was in charge there, from May 1940 through November 1943.
In the first few days after the liberation, the town's people were forced to scrounge for food and deliver it to the camp inmates. The two bakeries in Dachau had to deliver wagon loads of bread for the starving inmates. Major General Collins, with the help of Rabbi Bohnen, made sure that the former Jewish inmates of Dachau received the best rations, including kosher foods.
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.
The total number of deaths in the first five months of 1945 was almost half the total deaths in the 12-year history of the camp. The death rate in the other Nazi concentration camps also rose dramatically in the last months of the war, as the typhus epidemic spread throughout Germany. American POWs in German camps were saved from the epidemic by booster shots of typhus vaccine sent to them from America by the International Red Cross. The Germans were conducting experiments at the Buchenwald camp in an effort to develop a vaccine for typhus, but had not been successful. After the war, the doctors who had attempted to develop a typhus vaccine at Buchenwald were put on trial as war criminals at Nuremberg in the Doctor's Trial conducted by Americans.
To the Nazi regime, there would have been no doubt that a war against Bolshevism was implicitly a war against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. A division of Hitler’s SS known as the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind the German army and acted as death squads, exterminating civilian populations in the most efficient way possible. During the early part of Operation Barbarossa these were frequently people who had fled the Nazi’s earlier invasion of Poland.
When British tanks reached the camp Mr. Le Drieullenac was having his first meal for five days – grass. In the whole ten days there he had about one pint of soup in a mug which he took from a pile of effects of the dead. There was no water to wash the mug, but he did get one drink by climbing over the dead bodies in the washroom. The grass meal was got when the Germans on the last day moved him with some comrades to better quarters, this apparently being done to make a more favourable impression on the British troops. This motive was also, it would seem, behind the efforts which the Germans forced the prisoners to make to get rid of the bodies in the course of which Mr. Le Drieullenac said, the number of dead buried ran into five figures.
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.
The Commander enters the room where prisoners are mending boots and reads aloud an article on the situation in the concentration camp in Dachau, taken from the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung. The paper states the prisoners are beaten with oxtails and shot “when caught in the attempt to escape” or are found “hanging in their cells.” Every prisoner knows that the report is true. The Commander asks: “Are you now convinced of the lies published by this Marxist Jewish press?” No one answers.
What you will see here is the final and utter condemnation of the Nazi party. It justifies every measure the United Nations will take to exterminate that party. What you will see here is such a disgrace to the German people that their names must be erased from the list of civilized nations [...] It is your lot to begin the hard task of restoring the name of the German people [...] But this cannot be done until you have reared a new generation amongst whom it is impossible to find people prepared to commit such crimes; until you have reared a new generation possessing the instinctive good will to prevent a repetition of such horrible cruelties. We will now begin our tour.
The Nazis also used Dachau prisoners as subjects in brutal medical experiments. For example, inmates were obligated to be guinea pigs in a series of tests to determine the feasibility of reviving individuals immersed in freezing water. For hours at a time, prisoners were forcibly submerged in tanks filled with ice water. Some prisoners died during the process.
Under such terrible conditions, Kramer did everything in his power to reduce suffering and prevent death among the inmates, even appealing to the hard-pressed German army. "I don't know what else to do," he told high-ranking army officers. "I have reached the limit. Masses of people are dying. The drinking water supply has broken down. A trainload of food was destroyed by low-flying [Allied] war planes. Something must be done immediately." /16
The photograph below shows Dachau prisoners marching in single file, as they pass the newly constructed administration building that now houses the Museum at Dachau. These prisoners might be on their way to the factories which were just outside the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate on the west side of the administration building, or they might be marching to pick up construction materials. Usually, an orchestra was playing at Dachau as the prisoners marched to work.
. There's a man sitting, is it a tank or whatever" --we couldn't distinguish at that time one thing from the other-- "he is speaking through a loudspeaker. His words are being translated. I think we were liberated." When I got up and walked outside, my eyes couldn't comprehend. It just didn't register. It's unbelievable. I couldn't believe this was really true, so I said to my sister that she has to grab me by my arm and do something physical so I realize I am really alive and we were liberated. It was the English army that liberated us.
Though it had ancient roots, Nazi ideology was far from a primitive, medieval throwback - it was capable of appealing to intelligent and sophisticated people. Many high-ranking Nazis had doctoral degrees and early supporters included such eminent people as philosopher Martin Heidegger, theologian Martin Niemoeller, and commander-in-chief of German forces in the First World War, General Erich Ludendorff. Hitler appealed with a powerful vision of a strong, united and 'racially' pure Germany, bolstered by pseudo-scientific ideas that were popular at the time.
Another American at Dachau on the day the camp was liberated was Keith Fiscus, who was a Captain in American intelligence, operating behind enemy lines. According to a news article by Mike Pound, published in the Joplin Globe on April 29, 2009, Ficus was captured on April 29, 1944 in Austria and held at Dachau for 9 months after first being interrogated by the Gestapo.
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.
A tablet at the camp commemorates the liberation of Dachau by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on 29 April 1945. Others claim that the first forces to enter the main camp were a battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division commanded by Felix L. Sparks. There is an on-going disagreement as to which division, the 42nd or the 45th, actually liberated Dachau because they seem to have approached by different routes and by the American Army’s definition, anyone arriving at such a camp within 48 hours was a liberator. General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp after it was liberated, but not Dachau.
The never-ending rumors surrounding these early concentration camps instilled a nagging sense of fear among all Germans that helped to extinguish all potential opposition and criticism of Hitler's regime. However, the greatest challenge to Hitler would not come from his political opponents but from within his own ranks. By early 1934, a storm trooper rebellion was brewing that threatened to ruin everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
To more than 1200 Jews Oscar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man full of flaws like the rest of us - the unlikeliest of all role models who started by earning millions as a war profiteer and ended by spending his last pfennig and risking his life to save his Jews. An ordinary man who even in the worst of circumstances did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. In the shadow of Auschwitz he kept the SS out and everyone alive.
Like the network of concentration camps that followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief of the German police. By July 1933, German concentration camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in “protective custody.” Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of party strength.
When the Nazis occupied western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews - Europe's largest Jewish community - fell into their hands. The Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that 500,000 people died of starvation and disease. Nazi policy at this point was aimed at forced emigration and isolation of the Jews rather than mass murder, but large numbers were to die through attrition.
Oskar Schindler was born April 28, 1908, in the city of Svitavy [Zwittau], in the Sudetenland, now part of the Czech Republic. The eldest of two children, Oskar’s father, Hans Schindler, was a farm-equipment manufacturer, his mother, Louisa, was a homemaker. Oscar and his sister, Elfriede, attended a German-language school where he was popular, though not an exceptional student. Forgoing the opportunity to attend college, he went to trade school instead, taking courses in several areas.
The 20th Armored Division was supporting both the 45th Division and the 42nd Division, but most accounts of the liberation of Dachau do not mention any tanks being at the Arbeit Macht Frei gate at the time that the men of the 45th and 42nd divisions arrived. It was very cold at Dachau on the day of liberation, so cold that it snowed on May 1st, two days later, but maybe it was hot inside the tank and that's why the American major was sweating.
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.
^ Jump up to: a b "Ein Konzentrationslager für politische Gefangene in der Nähe von Dachau". Münchner Neueste Nachrichten ("The Munich Latest News") (in German). The Holocaust History Project. 21 March 1933. The Munich Chief of Police, Himmler, has issued the following press announcement: On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 persons. '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 organise as soon as they are released.'
Rzepliñski, Andrzej (25 March 2004). "Prosecution of Nazi Crimes in Poland in 1939–2004" (PDF). First International Expert Meeting on War Crimes, Genocide, and Crimes against Humanity. Lyon, France: International Criminal Police Organization – Interpol General Secretariat. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 31 December 2014.
September 26, 1942 - SS begins cashing in possessions and valuables of Jews from Auschwitz and Majdanek. German banknotes are sent to the Reichs Bank. Foreign currency, gold, jewels and other valuables are sent to SS Headquarters of the Economic Administration. Watches, clocks and pens are distributed to troops at the front. Clothing is distributed to German families. By February 1943, over 800 boxcars of confiscated goods will have left Auschwitz.
Himmler ordered the closure of ghettos in Poland in mid-July 1942; most inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. Those Jews needed for war production would be confined in concentration camps. The deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began on 22 July; over the almost two months of the Aktion, until 12 September, the population was reduced from 350,000 to 65,000. Those deported were transported in freight trains to the Treblinka extermination camp. Similar deportations happened in other ghettos, with many ghettos totally emptied. The first ghetto uprisings occurred in mid-1942 in small community ghettos. Although there were armed resistance attempts in both the larger and smaller ghettos in 1943, in every case they failed against the overwhelming German military force, and the remaining Jews were either killed or deported to the death camps.
Throughout the late-1930s, the Nazi government began to forcibly acquire ethnically German territory in Austria and Czechoslovakia that was taken from Germany at the end of the First World War. Although the international community initially allowed Germany to incorporate these territories into the growing German Empire, it became increasingly clear that Hitler’s ambition did not stop at these small territories. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany, beginning the Second World War.
During the first year, the camp held about 4,800 prisoners. Initially the internees were primarily German Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, as well as "asocials" and repeat criminal offenders. During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and then usually because they belonged to one of the above groups or had completed prison sentences after being convicted for violating the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
In April, 1943, the camp was converted to a concentration camp, primarily for Jews with foreign passports who could be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned abroad. The camp was renamed Bergen-Belsen. Few Jewish prisoners were ever exchanged for imprisoned Germans, although 200 Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine in exchange for German citizens, and more than 1,500 Hungarian Jews were able to purchase emigration to Switzerland.
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 ..'
These programmes are best seen as a series of linked genocides, each having its own history, background, purpose and significance in the Nazi scheme of things. The Holocaust was the biggest of the killing programmes and, in certain important ways, different from the others. The Jews figured in Nazi ideology as the arch-enemy of the 'Aryan race', and were targeted not merely for terror and repression but for complete extinction. The Nazis failed in this aim because they ran out of time, but they pursued it fanatically until their defeat in 1945. The Holocaust led to widespread public awareness of genocide and to modern efforts to prevent it, such as the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.
The camp’s liberation was marked by the best and the worst of behavior by its victorious American liberators. Crazed by grief and anger at the appalling scenes on the day of the camp’s liberation, U.S. soldiers and camp inmates summarily executed some 520 of the camp’s German soldiers who had surrendered. After senior officers restored order, U.S. medical personnel began lifesaving measures for the most severely ill prisoners, and soldiers shared their rations and cigarettes with emaciated survivors.
By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.
The camp was divided into eight sections: a detention camp, two women's camps, a special camp, neutrals camp, "star" camp, Hungarian camp and a tent camp. Polish Jews with citizenship papers from foreign countries lived in the special camp. The detention camp held prisoners brought from other camps to construct Bergen-Belsen. Approximately 4,000 Jewish prisoners, primarily Dutch, lived in the "Star" camp, so named because the prisoners wore the Star of David on their clothing instead of camp uniforms. The Hungarian camp housed more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews. The tent camp housed the overflow of sick, debilitated female prisoners from the hospital camp. Bergen-Belsen's most famous prisoners-Anne Frank and her sister Margo-lived in the tent camp.
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
Though at the time of liberation the death rate had peaked at 200 per day, after the liberation by U.S. forces the rate eventually fell to between 50 and 80 deaths per day. In addition to the direct abuse of the SS and the harsh conditions, people died from typhus epidemics and starvation. The number of inmates had peaked in 1944 with transports from evacuated camps in the east (such as Auschwitz), and the resulting overcrowding led to an increase in the death rate.
Former concentration camp inmates of Dachau and Displaced Persons from other camps were housed at the Dachau army garrison, next door to the concentration camp; they were fed by the American Army. Former inmates were paid to be prosecution witnesses in a series of American Military Tribunals that were held on the grounds of the Dachau complex, beginning in November 1945.