6 May 1945 (23 April on the Orthodox calendar) was the day of Pascha, Orthodox Easter. In a cell block used by Catholic priests to say daily Mass, several Greek, Serbian and Russian priests and one Serbian deacon, wearing makeshift vestments made from towels of the SS guard, gathered with several hundred Greek, Serbian and Russian prisoners to celebrate the Paschal Vigil. A prisoner named Rahr described the scene:
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.
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.
"For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future." Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface to the New Translation (New York: Hill and Wang, c2006), page xv.
By late 1938, the Nazis could claim an impressive series of successes. Germany had staged the 1936 Olympics, annexed Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, and was in the midst of a strong economic recovery fuelled by rearmament. These triumphs had increased the Nazis' popularity and their confidence. President Hindenburg had died and all opposition parties had been abolished. The last conservatives in the cabinet had been replaced by Nazis. The way was clear for radical action.
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.
In March 1943, the Krakow ghetto was being liquidated, and all the remaining Jews were being moved to the forced-labor camp of Plaszow, outside Krakow. Schindler prevailed upon SS-Haupsturmführer Amon Goeth, the brutal camp commandant and a personal drinking companion, to allow him to set up a special sub-camp for his own Jewish workers at the factory site in Zablocie. There he was better able to keep the Jews under relatively tolerable conditions, augmenting their below-subsistence diet with food bought on the black market with his own money. The factory compound was declared out of bounds for the SS guards who kept watch over the sub-camp.
My sister recently told me of a story I did not know where while at Bergen-Belsen, post liberation, a Jewish lady who was delerious came to my grandfather asking for food and/or cigarettes (we presume the cigarettes were a bartering tool) while holding onto the dead body of her child and that it was clear that her child had been dead for quite a while but that the woman still cared for it as if it was alive."
Dachau served as a prototype and model for other Nazi concentration camps that followed. Its basic organization, camp layout as well as the plan for the buildings were developed by Kommandant Theodor Eicke and were applied to all later camps. He had a separate secure camp near the command center, which consisted of living quarters, administration, and army camps. Eicke himself became the chief inspector for all concentration camps, responsible for molding the others according to his model.
You find gripping and horrifying stories of Adolf Hitler and his most ruthless henchmen - men often seen as the very personifications of evil, like Rudolf Hoess, the SS Commandant of Auschwitz, the Nazi butcher Amon Goeth at Plaszow and Josef Mengele, The Angel Of Death. You may read about Hitler's wife, Eva Braun, or Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Chief of the German Military Intelligence who was a dedicated anti-Nazi and held Hitler in utter contempt. He tried to put a stop to the crimes of war and genocide committed by the Nazis.
50,000 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen. 60,000 prisoners were liberated by the Allies in April, 1945. The Bergen-Belsen staff, largely intact at the time of liberation, were tried in 1945 by a British military tribunal in Luneburg, Germany. Among those tried were the camp Kommandant, Josef Kramer, and a 22-year old female S.S. guard, Irma Grese, who was accused by camp inmates of shooting prisoners and beating them with a homemade whip. Forty-five staff were tried; fourteen were acquitted.
The first buildings in the Dachau concentration camp complex consisted of the remnants of an old WWI munitions factory that was located in the northeastern portion of the town. These buildings, with a capacity of about 5,000 prisoners, served as the main camp structures until 1937, when prisoners were forced to expand the camp and demolish the original buildings.
When SS chief Heinrich Himmler learned of the typhus outbreak at Bergen-Belsen, he immediately issued an order to all appropriate officials requiring that "all medical means necessary to combat the epidemic should be employed ... There can be no question of skimping either with doctors or medical supplies." However, the general breakdown of order that prevailed on Germany by this time made it impossible to implement the command. /13
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In 1946, Belsen served as the largest DP camp in Europe for more than 12,000 Jews; it was the only exclusively Jewish camp in the British zone of Germany. The refugees formed a camp committee within three days of liberation. Political, cultural and religious activities were organized by the committee, such as searching for relatives and spiritual rehabilitation. Jewish family life was renewed, more than twenty marriages were performed daily during the first few months. More than 2,000 children were born to survivors. An elementary school was founded in July 1945 and, by 1948, 340 students attended the school. In December 1945, a high school was started and was partly staffed by the Jewish brigade. A kindergarten, orphanage, yeshiva and religious school were also formed. ORT sponsored a vocational training school. The DPs also wrote the main Jewish newspaper, Unzer Shtimme (Our Voice), in the British zone.
Denazification courts were created by the Allies to try members of the SS and other Nazi organisations. Between 1947 and 1949 these courts initiated proceedings against at least 46 former SS staff at Belsen. Around half of these were discontinued, mostly because the defendants were considered to have been forced to join the SS.:39 Those who were sentenced received prison terms of between four and 36 months or were fined. As the judges decided to count the time the defendants had spent in Allied internment towards the sentence, the terms were considered to have already been fully served.
Of course, over time, we received help from outside. But we laid the foundation for this new community, we built it and ran it ourselves. We received food and books from outside, but we did the work and we can be proud of our efforts, Those who survived will always remember April 15, 1945 as their second birthday - in many ways more important than their first."5
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. #
Killing on a mass scale using gas chambers or gas vans was the main difference between the extermination and concentration camps. From the end of 1941, the Germans built six extermination camps in occupied Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chełmno, and the three Operation Reinhard camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II. Maly Trostenets, a concentration camp in the Reichskommissariat Ostland, became a killing centre in 1942. Gerlach writes that over three million Jews were murdered in 1942, the year that "marked the peak" of the mass murder of Jews. At least 1.4 million of these were in the General Government area of Poland.
In the fall of that year the Płaszów work camp opened nearby, and by February 1943 it was under the command of the notoriously sadistic SS officer Amon Göth, who would be executed after the war. Capitalizing on the officer’s appetite for drink and other luxury items available mainly on the black market, Schindler cultivated his friendship by ensuring a constant stream of them to the villa from which he oversaw the camp. Schindler thus managed to prevail upon Göth to create a separate camp for his Jewish workers, where they were free of the abuses suffered at Płaszów. Though Schindler’s motivations prior to this point are unclear, many scholars interpret his efforts to extricate his workers from Płaszów as indication that his concern for them was not purely financial.
At the three Reinhard camps the victims were killed by the exhaust fumes of stationary diesel engines. Gold fillings were pulled from the corpses before burial, but the women's hair was cut before death. At Treblinka, to calm the victims, the arrival platform was made to look like a train station, complete with fake clock. Majdanek used Zyklon-B gas in its gas chambers. In contrast to Auschwitz, the three Reinhard camps were quite small. Most of the victims at these camps were buried in pits at first. Sobibór and Bełżec began exhuming and burning bodies in late 1942, to hide the evidence, as did Treblinka in March 1943. The bodies were burned in open fireplaces and the remaining bones crushed into powder.
The photograph above shows the prisoners lined up along the concrete ditch in front of the electric barbed wire fence on the west side of the main Dachau camp. The barbed fire fence is out of camera range on the left hand side. At the end of the row of wooden barracks is the camp greenhouse which was located where the Protestant Memorial church now stands. This photo was probably taken from the top of Guard Tower B. Notice the American flag on the top of one of the buildings.
The first proceedings against the Nazi war criminals after the war were conducted by a British Military Tribunal at Lüneburg, Germany in November 1945. Some of the staff members of Bergen-Belsen had previously worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau and former prisoners of that camp, who had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen in January 1945, testified about the crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the Lüneburg proceedings. Dr. Klein was charged with selecting prisoners for the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but there were no charges, involving a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen, against any of the accused.
By the end of September, the SS had started to develop plans to deport Jews to newly invaded Poland: the first steps towards the systematic murder that would follow. In Poland itself, thousands of Poles and Jews were rounded up and shot, early indications of the systematic murder that would follow. Alongside this, Hitler approved a new programme of euthanasia to exterminate the handicapped and mentally ill.
The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival (see the experience of history.) In the course of the practical execution of the final solution, Europe will be combed through from west to east. Germany proper, including the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, will have to be handled first due to the housing problem and additional social and political necessities. The evacuated Jews will first be sent, group by group, to so-called transit ghettos, from which they will be transported to the East.
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them: