During the first year, the camp held about 4,800 prisoners and by 1937 the number had risen to 13,260. Initially the internees consisted primarily of German Communists, Social Democrats, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals, as well as “asocials” and repeat criminals. During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and 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.
The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
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.
At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims died immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed, gold fillings in their teeth were extracted, and women's hair was cut. The work was done by the Sonderkommando, work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
In early April 2009, a carbon copy of one version of the list was discovered at the State Library of New South Wales by workers combing through boxes of materials collected by author Thomas Keneally. The 13-page document, yellow and fragile, was filed among research notes and original newspaper clippings. The document was given to Keneally in 1980 by Pfefferberg when he was persuading him to write Schindler's story. This version of the list contains 801 names and is dated 18 April 1945; Pfefferberg is listed as worker number 173. Several authentic versions of the list exist, because the names were re-typed several times as conditions changed in the hectic days at the end of the war.
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.)
After 1942, the economic functions of the camps, previously secondary to their penal and terror functions, came to the fore. Forced labor of camp prisoners became commonplace. The guards became much more brutal, and the death rate increased as the guards not only beat and starved prisoners, but killed them more frequently. Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("extermination through labor") was a policy—camp inmates would literally be worked to death, or to physical exhaustion, at which point they would be gassed or shot. The Germans estimated the average prisoner's lifespan in a concentration camp at three months, due to lack of food and clothing, constant epidemics, and frequent punishments for the most minor transgressions. The shifts were long and often involved exposure to dangerous materials.
Most of the prisoners in the sub-camps of Dachau were Jews who had survived Auschwitz and had been brought on trains to Germany in January 1945 after a 50-kilometer death march out of the camp. By the time that the survivors staggered into the Dachau main camp in the last weeks of April, they were emaciated, sick and exhausted. Other Jews at Dachau in 1945 had been brought from the three Lithuanian ghettos in the Summer of 1944 to work in the Dachau sub-camps. The American liberators got most of their information about the Dachau camp from these Jews who had only recently arrived and were eager to tell their stories about abuse at the hands of the Nazis.
^ "War nicht der 'Archipel Gulag' ursprünglicher als 'Auschwitz'? War nicht der 'Klassenmord' der Bolschewiki das logische und faktische Prius des 'Rassenmords' der Nationalsozialisten? Sind Hitlers geheimste Handlungen nicht gerade auch dadurch zu erklären, daß er den 'Rattenkäfig' nicht vergessen hatte? Rührte Auschwitz vielleicht in seinen Ursprüngen aus einer Vergangenheit her, die nicht vergehen wollte?"
The industrialization and scale of the murder was unprecedented. Killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of occupied Europe—more than 20 occupied countries. Close to three million Jews in occupied Poland and between 700,000 and 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union were killed. Hundreds of thousands more died in the rest of Europe. Victims were transported in sealed freight trains from all over Europe to extermination camps equipped with gas chambers. The stationary facilities grew out of Nazi experiments with poison gas during the Aktion T4 mass murder ("euthanasia") programme against the disabled and mentally ill, which began in 1939. The Germans set up six extermination camps in Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau (established October 1941); Majdanek (October 1941); Chełmno (December 1941); and the three Operation Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, in 1942. A seventh death camp, Maly Trostenets, was established near Minsk in Belarus, then part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Discussions at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 made it clear that the German "final solution of the Jewish question" was intended eventually to include Britain and all the neutral states in Europe, including Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.
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.
Czeslawa Kwoka, age 14, appears in a prisoner identity photo provided by the Auschwitz Museum, taken by Wilhelm Brasse while working in the photography department at Auschwitz, the Nazi-run death camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died during World War II. Czeslawa was a Polish Catholic girl, from Wolka Zlojecka, Poland, who was sent to Auschwitz with her mother in December of 1942. Within three months, both were dead. Photographer (and fellow prisoner) Brasse recalled photographing Czeslawa in a 2005 documentary: "She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn't understand why she was there and she couldn't understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn't interfere. It would have been fatal for me." #
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.
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187