In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union and began the "Final Solution." Four mobile killing groups were formed called Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D. Each group contained several commando units. The Einsatzgruppen gathered Jews town by town, marched them to huge pits dug earlier, stripped them, lined them up, and shot them with automatic weapons. The dead and dying would fall into the pits to be buried in mass graves. In the infamous Babi Yar massacre, near Kiev, 30,000-35,000 Jews were killed in two days. In addition to their operations in the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass murder in eastern Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. It is estimated that by the end of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered more than 1.3 million Jews.
A victim of Nazi medical experimentation. A victim's arm shows a deep burn from phosphorus at Ravensbrueck, Germany, in November of 1943. The photograph shows the results of a medical experiment dealing with phosphorous that was carried out by doctors at Ravensbrueck. In the experiment, a mixture of phosphorus and rubber was applied to the skin and ignited. After twenty seconds, the fire was extinguished with water. After three days, the burn was treated with Echinacin in liquid form. After two weeks the wound had healed. This photograph, taken by a camp physician, was entered as evidence during the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg. #
Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
Sanitation was incredibly inadequate, with few latrines and water faucets for the tens of thousands of prisoners interned in Bergen-Belsen at this time. Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the lack of adequate food, water, and shelter led to an outbreak of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery, causing an ever increasing number of deaths. In the first few months of 1945, tens of thousands of prisoners died.
"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.
Working together with both Commandant Kramer and chief inmate representative Kuestermeier, Colonel Hanns Schmidt responded by arranging for the local volunteer fire department to provide water. He also saw to it that food supplies were brought to the camp from abandoned rail cars. Schmidt later recalled that Kramer "did not at all impress one as a criminal type. He acted like an upright and rather honorable man. Neither did he strike me as someone with a guilty conscience. He worked with great dedication to improve conditions in the camp. For example, he rounded up horse drawn vehicles to bring food to the camp from rail cars that had been shot up." /17
After the death marches of the winter of 1945—forced evacuations of prisoners from concentration and extermination camps in the east—conditions at Bergen-Belsen deteriorated rapidly, and its death toll climbed. Originally it was designed for 10,000 prisoners but, by war’s end, with the arrival of Jewish prisoners forcibly evacuated from Auschwitz and other eastern camps, it held about 60,000 people, most of whom lacked any food or shelter. Although Bergen-Belsen contained no gas chambers, more than 35,000 people died between January and mid-April 1945 from starvation, overwork, disease, and, toward the war’s end, a typhus epidemic brought about by some of the most squalid, fetid living conditions of any of Germany’s camps. Anne Frank, whose wartime diary later became world-famous, died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.
Moshe Peer has spent many years writing a first-person account of the horror he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen. He recalls the separation from his parents as excruciating. But surviving the horrors of the camp quickly became a priority: `There were pieces of corpses lying around and there were bodies lying there, some alive and some dead,` Peer recalled, `Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz because there people were gassed right away so they didn't suffer a long time ...` Russian prisoners were kept in an open-air camp and were given no food or water. `Some people went mad with hunger and turned to cannibalism.`
In 1937 and 1938, a new camp was built by the prisoners alongside the old buildings of the munitions factory – thirty –four barracks, the camp entrance building, containing the offices of the SS administration, the Wirtschaftsgebaude – farm buildings, containing the kitchen, workshops, showers and a camp prison. The camp was enclosed by a water filled ditch, fortified by an electric barbed-wire fence, and surrounded by a wall with seven guard towers.
On April 29, the day after the German guards completed their gruesome task of 10 days of burying the 10,000 decomposed bodies with their bare hands, they were taken to the prison in the city of Celle, which is 16 kilometers northwest of the camp. Also on that day, April 29, 1945, American soldiers entered the Dachau concentration camp and discovered bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus. The next day, 97 medical students arrived in Bergen-Belsen to help with the sick prisoners, and on May 4th, more British medical units arrived. On that same day, May 4, 1945, part of the German Army surrendered to the British in the area near the camp.
Tens of thousands of Jews held in the eastern territories were marched towards the heart of Germany so they could not bear witness to the Allies. Aware that the world had been alerted to the horrors of the camps, the Nazis sought to destroy evidence. In June, Soviet forces liberated the first major camp, known as Majdanek, in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis had burned down the crematorium chimney but had failed to destroy the gas chambers and barracks. Only a few hundred inmates were still alive.
After the SS re-designated Plaszow as a concentration camp in August 1943, Schindler persuaded the SS to convert Emalia into a subcamp of Plaszow. In addition to the approximately 1,000 Jewish forced laborers registered as factory workers, Schindler permitted 450 Jews working in other nearby factories to live at Emalia as well. This saved them from the systematic brutality and arbitrary murder that was part of daily life in Plaszow.
Solidarity among the prisoners is strong. Although at every cross-examination the prisoners are tortured, the Nazis never succeeded in obtaining any traitorous information. Despite the fact that several attempts were made by the Commander to stir up hatred between the Christian prisoners and the Jewish minority, and although the Commander promised that any prisoner who harmed a Jew would be released, the Jews receive every encouragement, kindness and consideration from other prisoners.
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
On January 20, 1942, Reinhard Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at a lakeside villa in Berlin to organize the “final solution to the Jewish question.” Around the table were 15 men representing government agencies necessary to implement so bold and sweeping a policy. The language of the meeting was clear, but the meeting notes were circumspect:
"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."
Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.
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 major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs. In trying to assess the causes of the conditions found in Belsen one must be alerted to the tremendous visual display, ripe for purposes of propaganda, that masses of starved corpses presented.
The Nazis introduced a racial hierarchy—keeping Poles in harsh conditions, while favoring German priests.:148 697 Poles arrived in December 1941, and a further 500 of mainly elderly clergy were brought in October the following year. Inadequately clothed for the bitter cold, of this group only 82 survived. A large number of Polish priests were chosen for Nazi medical experiments. In November 1942, 20 were given phlegmons. 120 were used by Dr Schilling for malaria experiments between July 1942 and May 1944. Several Poles met their deaths with the "invalid trains" sent out from the camp, others were liquidated in the camp and given bogus death certificates. Some died of cruel punishment for misdemeanors—beaten to death or run to exhaustion.:148–9
In France Jews under Fascist Italian occupation in the southeast fared better than the Jews of Vichy France, where collaborationist French authorities and police provided essential support to the understaffed German forces. The Jews in those parts of France under direct German occupation fared the worst. Although allied with Germany, the Italians did not participate in the Holocaust until Germany occupied northern Italy after the overthrow of Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1943.
Außenlager Unterlüß-Altensothrieth (Tannenberglager) east of Bergen was in use from late August 1944 to April 13, 1945. It was located at Unterlüß, where the Rheinmetall-Borsig AG had a large test site. Up to 900 female Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Yugoslavian and Czech Jews had to clear forest, do construction work or work in munitions production.:204