Being fully aware that Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, the SS invested its time in removing evidence of the crimes it committed in the concentration camps. They began destroying incriminating evidence in April 1945 and planned on murdering the prisoners using codenames "Wolke A-I" (Cloud A-1) and "Wolkenbrand" (Cloud fire). However, these plans were not carried out. In mid-April, plans to evacuate the camp started by sending prisoners toward Tyrol. On 26 April, over 10,000 prisoners were forced to leave the Dachau concentration camp on foot, in trains, or in trucks. The largest group of some 7,000 prisoners was driven southward on a foot-march lasting several days. More than 1,000 prisoners did not survive this march. The evacuation transports cost many thousands of prisoners their lives.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27th. Of the 937 passengers on board, only 28 passengers were allowed into Cuba. 22 of these passengers were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas, 4 were Spanish citizens and 2 were Cuban nationals, all with valid documents. This story gained a lot of publicity; it was spread throughout Europe and the United States. The U.S. newspapers reported the story compassionately, but only a handful suggested that the refugees should come to the United States. The United States government decided not to take the steps to permit the passengers into the country.
"Bergen-Belsen," Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), vol. 4, pp. 610-612; Colonel Schmidt, the German officer who worked to alleviate conditions in Belsen during the final weeks and also arranged for the camp's surrender to the British, estimated that "altogether about 8,000 people" died in the camp. (This figure may, however, only include victims of the final chaotic weeks under German control.) Source: Signed report by Oberst a.D. Hanns Schmidt to Kurt Mehner and Lt. Colonel Bechtold, Braunschweig, March 3, 1981. (Cited above.) Photocopy in author's possession.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, it gained control of about 2 million Jews in the occupied territory. The rest of Poland was occupied by the Soviet Union, which had control of the rest of Poland's pre-war population of 3.3–3.5 million Jews. German plans for Poland included expelling gentile Poles from large areas, confining Jews, and settling Germans on the emptied lands. The Germans initiated a policy of sending Jews from all territories they had recently annexed (Austria, Czechoslovakia, and western Poland) to the central section of Poland, which they called the General Government. There, the Jews were concentrated in ghettos in major cities, chosen for their railway lines to facilitate later deportation. Food supplies were restricted, public hygiene was difficult, and the inhabitants were often subjected to forced labor. In the work camps and ghettos, at least half a million Jews died of starvation, disease, and poor living conditions. Jeremy Black writes that the ghettos were not intended, in 1939, as a step towards the extermination of the Jews. Instead, they were viewed as part of a policy of creating a territorial reservation to contain them.[l]
The stench had become intolerable; wrapped in my cloak, a priceless possession, I went out in search of air, to stretch out, to sleep in the open. The ground was muddy and cold, so I kept walking. In front of me, a pile of corpses balanced carefully on one another, rose geometrically like a haystack. There was no more room in the crematoria so they piled up the corpses out here.
After the Nuremberg war crimes trials finished, the United States spearheaded the effort to end genocide and become a champion for the prevention of crimes against humanity. The U.S. pushed for greater international effort, helping to draft the 1948 Genocide Convention. President Harry Truman addressed Congress urging the Convention’s passage. He stressed the role the United States had to play in “outlawing the world-shocking crime of genocide.”
On 23 October 1943, 1,800 of these Jews arrived in Auschwitz where they were all immediately killed. During the undressing, prior to entering the gas chambers one woman throws her clothes at SS- Scharfuhrer Schillinger grabs his revolver and shoots him three times. She also shoots SS- Unterscharfuhrer Emmerich. Reinforcements were called, some women were shot, the rest are driven into the gas chamber and killed. Schillinger died on the way to the hospital, Emmerich recovered but was crippled.
Ghastly images recorded by Allied photographers at Belsen in mid-April 1945 and widely reproduced ever since have greatly contributed to the camp's reputation as a notorious extermination center. In fact, the dead of Bergen-Belsen were, above all, unfortunate victims of war and its turmoil, not deliberate policy. It can even be argued that they were as much victims of Allied as of German measures.
When in August 1944 his factory was decommissioned, Schindler successfully petitioned to have it moved to Brnĕnec (Brünnlitz) in the Sudetenland, close to his hometown. Schindler and his associates composed a list of Jewish workers that he deemed essential for the new factory and submitted it for approval to the Jewish labour office. (With several versions of the list known, it is difficult to determine how many people were ultimately selected.) Though those chosen were diverted for a time to other concentration camps, Schindler intervened, ensuring that 700 men and 300 women eventually arrived at Brnĕnec. They were later joined by 100 more Jews who had been transported from another concentration camp by the Nazis and abandoned in train cars in Brnĕnec. Those who reached the camp spent the remaining months of the war manufacturing munitions that were rigged to fail. A final head count compiled at this time listed 1,098 Jews at the camp.
Victims usually arrived at the camps by freight train. Almost all arrivals at the Operation Reinhard camps of Treblinka, Sobibór, and Bełżec were sent directly to the gas chambers, with individuals occasionally selected to replace dead workers. At Auschwitz, camp officials usually subjected individuals to selections; about 25% of the new arrivals were selected to work. Those selected for death at all camps were told to undress and hand their valuables to camp workers. They were then herded naked into the gas chambers. To prevent panic, they were told the gas chambers were showers or delousing chambers. The procedure at Chełmno was slightly different. Victims there were placed in a mobile gas van and asphyxiated, while being driven to prepared burial pits in the nearby forests. There the corpses were unloaded and buried.
The American Military Tribunal proceeding against the Waffen-SS soldiers who were accused of shooting American POWs at Malmédy was also held at Dachau, as were the proceedings against the accused guards and staff at the Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Nordhausen concentration camps. The proceedings against the infamous Ilse Koch, dubbed the "Bitch of Buchenwald" by the press, also took place in Dachau. As the wife of the Commandant at Buchenwald, she was accused of selecting tattooed prisoners to be killed by her alleged lover, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, so that their skin could be made into human lamp shades to decorate her home.
On May 5, 1945, Dutch resistance fighter Pim Boellaard was interviewed about his ordeal during his three years of captivity. As a resistance fighter, who continued to fight after the surrender of the Netherlands, he did not have the same protection as a POW under the Geneva Convention of 1929. He was one of 60 Dutch Nacht und Nebel prisoners who were transferred from the Natzweiler camp to Dachau in September 1944. Click here to see the video of his interview. Boellaard was a member of the International Committee of Dachau, representing approximately 500 Dutch prisoners at Dachau.
On April 21, 1945, the evacuation of the camp began. The prisoners were first deloused and then moved into the barracks of the German Army Training Center next to the camp. Two days later, 6 detachments of the Red Cross arrived to help. The epidemics had yet to be brought under control and 400 to 500 prisoners were still dying each day, but by April 28, the German guards had caught up with the burial of the bodies and the mass graves were completed.
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.
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.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
Smith put the total number of survivors at around 32,600, but said that between 100 and 200 a day were still dying after the camp was liberated. He mentioned that the American Army tried to keep the freed prisoners in the camp to prevent the typhus epidemic from spreading throughout the country. Typhus is spread by lice, and the clothing was being deloused in an attempt to stop the epidemic.
"The fact is that all these were once clean-living and sane and certainly not the type to do harm to the Nazis. They are Jews and are dying now at the rate of three hundred a day. They must die and nothing can save them --their end is inescapable, they are too far gone now to be brought back to life. I saw their corpses lying near their hovels, for they crawl or totter out into the sunlight to die. I watched them make their last feeble journeys, and even as I watched they died."
When the British and Canadians advanced on Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the German army negotiated a truce and exclusion zone around the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. On April 11, 1945 Heinrich Himmler (the Reichsführer SS) agreed to have the camp handed over without a fight. SS guards ordered prisoners to bury some of the dead. The next day, Wehrmacht representatives approached the British and were brought to VIII Corps. At around 1 a.m. on April 13, an agreement was signed, designating an area of 48 square kilometers (19 square miles) around the camp as a neutral zone. Most of the SS were allowed to leave. Only a small number of SS men and women, including the camp commandant Kramer, remained to "uphold order inside the camp". The outside was guarded by Hungarian and regular German troops. Due to heavy fighting near Winsen and Walle, the British were unable to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 14, as originally planned. The camp was liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945.:253 The first two to reach the camp were a British Special Air Service officer, Lieutenant John Randall, and his jeep driver, who were on a reconnaissance mission and discovered the camp by chance.