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.
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 German view of the Roma as hereditary criminals and "asocials" was reflected in their classification in the concentration camps, where they were usually counted among the asocials and given black triangles to wear. According to Niewyk and Nicosia, at least 130,000 died out of nearly one million in German-occupied Europe. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calculates at least 220,000. Ian Hancock, who specializes in Romani history and culture, argues for between 500,000 and 1,500,000. The treatment of the Roma was not consistent across German-occupied territories. Those in France and the Low Countries were subject to restrictions on movement and some confinement to collection camps, while those in Central and Eastern Europe were sent to concentration camps and murdered by soldiers and execution squads. Before being sent to the camps, the Roma were herded into ghettos, including several hundred into the Warsaw Ghetto. Further east, teams of Einsatzgruppen tracked down Romani encampments and murdered the inhabitants on the spot, leaving no records of the victims. After the Germans occupied Hungary, 1,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz.[x]
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.
Hitler quickly moved to cement his power by suspending many civil liberties and allowing imprisonment without trial. By March, the first Nazi concentration camp was established at Dachau, not to imprison Jews but to hold political dissidents. Further laws targeted Jews, restricting the jobs they could hold and revoking their German citizenship. Anti-Semitic sentiment increased as the Jewish population was blamed for many of Germany's recent and historical problems.
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."
"Coming back to Bergen Belsen, I met the people from the Jewish Relief Unit from England and the Joint American Distribution Committee. In 1946 one of the nurses who came from England was a former Berlin girl, Alice Retlick, and we got to be friends. We got married on the 20th of June 1948 by the Chief Rabbi of the British Army, Chaplain Levy, and our Rabbi Asaria Helfgott. It was a great day."6
Immediately after the war, Erich Preuss, a former Dachau prisoner, set up an exhibit in the crematory building, located just outside the barbed wire enclosure of the concentration camp. American soldiers stationed in Germany were brought to Dachau to see the gas chamber, which they were told had been used to murder innocent inmates of the concentration camp. Mannequins were used in a display that was set up to illustrate how the Dachau prisoners were punished on the whipping block. During this time, the former concentration camp itself was off limits to visitors because it was filled with accused German war criminals awaiting the proceedings of the American Military Tribunals at Dachau, and later by homeless German refugees.
Dachau was mainly a camp for Communist political prisoners and anti-Fascist resistance fighters who were captured in the Nazi-occupied countries. On the day of the liberation of Dachau, the political prisoners were in control, as Commandant Wilhelm Eduard Weiter had left the camp on April 26, 1945, along with a transport of prisoners who were being evacuated to Schloss Itter, a subcamp of Dachau in Austria. Former Commandant Martin Gottfried Weiss was in charge of the camp for two days until he fled, along with most of the regular guards, on the night of April 28, 1945.
Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate. Machine-gun fire burst from the center watchtower, the very one which since morning had been flying the white flag! The jeeps turned about and an armored tank came on. With a few bursts, it silenced the fire from the watchtower. The body of an SS man fell off the platform and came crashing loudly to the asphalt of the little square.
Most of the regular SS guards and the administrative staff had fled from the camp the next day and there was no one left to oversee the burial of the bodies. No precise figures are available, but the train had started out with approximately 4,500 to 6,000 prisoners on board and between 1,300 and 2,600 had made it to Dachau still alive. Some of the dead had been buried along the way, or left in rows alongside the tracks. The gruesome sight of the death train, with some of the corpses in the open cars riddled by bullets, so affected the young soldiers of the 45th Thunderbird Division that they executed Waffen-SS soldiers stationed at the Dachau garrison after they had surrendered.
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.`
At the liberation of Dachau and its sub-camps in April 1945 about thirty percent of the camps inmates were Jewish. During its twelve –year existence Dachau was always a “political camp” , the political prisoners who had been there first and knew the conditions best, held most of the key positions in the so-called prisoners’ internal government, which had been established by the SS.
The mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories were assigned to four SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), which were under Heydrich's overall command. Similar formations had been used to a limited extent in Poland in 1939, but the ones operating in the Soviet territories were much larger. The Einsatzgruppen's commanders were ordinary citizens: the great majority were professionals and most were intellectuals. By the winter of 1941–1942, the four Einsatzgruppen and their helpers had killed almost 500,000 people. The largest massacre of Jews by the mobile killing squads in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941.[n] A mixture of SS and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not actively participate in the killings, men of the German 6th Army helped round up the Jews of Kiev and transport them to be shot. By the end of the war, around two million are thought to have been victims of the Einsatzgruppen and their helpers in the local population and the German Army. Of those, about 1.3 million were Jews and up to a quarter of a million Roma.
Dachau served as a prototype and model for the other German concentration camps that followed. Almost every community in Germany had members taken away to these camps. Newspapers continually reported "the removal of the enemies of the Reich to concentration camps." As early as 1935, a jingle went around: "Lieber Herr Gott, mach mich stumm, Das ich nicht nach Dachau komm'" ("Dear God, make me silent, That I may not come to Dachau").
The camp was divided into two sections: the camp area and the crematorium. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. The camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire gate, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers.
On April 15, 1945, British troops entered Bergen Belsen. They liberated some 60,000 prisoners, many of whom were on the verge of death. During the first weeks after liberation, close to 500 people in Bergen Belsen died every day. From liberation day until June 20, an estimated 14,000 people died from the terrible conditions that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis during the war.
Each barracks consists of five connecting rooms, in each of which fifty-two prisoners are lodged. Each room is equipped with fifty-two berths, in tiers of three, rough tables and benches. The floor is concrete. The prisoners sleep on straw sacks covered with a sheet which is changed once in two months. The walls are only a few inches thick, and the ill fitting windows offer almost no protection against the icy cold, wind or rain. For each fifty-two men a small washstand is provided, and the time allotted for washing, for the whole group, is only twenty-five minutes.
Gun did not explain how these 300 prisoners died on the night of the liberation of the camp, but he did write that the prisoners had weapons and that the International Committee of Dachau had made sure that the prisoners who had cooperated with the German guards were not allowed to escape. Others may have died from eating too much of the canned food and chocolate given to them by the Americans, and undoubtedly there were deaths among the 900 prisoners sick with typhus in the infirmary.
And it turned out he had chosen the right man. Regulations soon established by Eicke included the standing order that any prisoner would be hanged who: "politicizes, holds inciting speeches and meetings, forms cliques, loiters around with others – who for the purpose of supplying the propaganda of the opposition with atrocity stories, collects true or false information about the concentration camp, receives such information, buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp into the hands of foreign visitors, etc."
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.
As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or brutal treatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
Bengal Famine Mixture. This is a rice-and-sugar-based mixture which had achieved good results after the Bengal famine of 1943, but it proved less suitable to Europeans than to Bengalis because of the differences in the food to which they were accustomed. Adding the common ingredient paprika to the mixture made it more palatable to these people and recovery started.