An emaciated 18-year-old Russian girl looks into the camera lens during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp in 1945. Dachau was the first German concentration camp, opened in 1933. More than 200,000 people were detained between 1933 and 1945, and 31,591 deaths were declared, most from disease, malnutrition and suicide. Unlike Auschwitz, Dachau was not explicitly an extermination camp, but conditions were so horrific that hundreds died every week. #
After 1942, the number of prisoners regularly held at the camp continued to exceed 12,000. Dachau originally held Communists, leading Socialists and other “enemies of the state” in 1933, but over time the Nazis began to send German Jews to the camp. In the early years of imprisonment, Jews were offered permission to emigrate overseas if they “voluntarily” gave their property to enhance Hitler’s public treasury. Once Austria was annexed and Czechoslovakia was defeated, the citizens of both countries became the next prisoners at Dachau. In 1940, Dachau became filled with Polish prisoners, who constituted the majority of the prisoner population until Dachau was officially liberated.
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."
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which. ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live. ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms. ... He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
1945 Photo by George Rodger: "It wasn't even a matter of what I was photographing, as what had happened to me in the process. When I discovered that I could look at the horror of Belsen --4000 dead and starving lying around-- and think only of a nice photographic composition, I knew something had happened to me and I had to stop. I felt I was like the people running the camp --it didn't mean a thing." George Rodger in "Dialogue with photography", Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Many of the naked corpses found in the camp were left out until May 13, two weeks after the liberation, so that American Congressmen, newspaper reporters and as many American soldiers as possible could view the horror. Thirty male citizens from the town of Dachau were brought to the camp and forced to view the rotting corpses, even though the typhus epidemic was still raging in the camp, and the Germans had not been vaccinated.
In Rodger's own typed picture captions, meanwhile, dated April 20, 1945, the photographer detailed what he had witnessed when he accompanied the British 11th Armoured Division (the fabled "Black Bull") into the camp just days earlier. Somehow, the stark, almost telegraphic language of the notes carries more power—more immediacy—and are thus more terrifying than so many of the passionate, outraged articles and editorials that appeared in newspapers and on the radio in the weeks and months to come. Here are just a few examples:
The camp physician, Dr. Katz of Nuremberg, was also a prisoner. At first he was well treated because the guards and even the Commander admired his courageous attitude, but after he had witnessed the torture inflicted upon the prisoners, it became dangerous for the Nazis to release him. It was reported later that he had hanged himself in a detention cell—a few days before his anticipated release. His presence in the cell, however, was never explained.
Today, nothing remains of the camp because the British immediately burned down every structure to prevent the further spread of typhus. What is left is a graveyard, “the largest Jewish cemetery in Western Europe,” according to Renee Ghert-Zand. She notes that “there are no grave markers or monuments save for a small number of symbolic ones, placed in recent years by family members or memorial foundations to supplement a number of official monuments erected on the site in the late 1940s and early ’50s.” Nearby, another cemetery was built after liberation as the final resting place for 4,500 Jews and Christians. Most of the graves are umarked, and several of those with grave stones say only, “Here lies an unknown deceased.”
Since March 1945, around 15,000 new prisoners had been accommodated in a camp that was originally designed for 5,000 men. By the time the liberators arrived, there were over 30,000 prisoners in the camp. There was a typhus epidemic in the camp but the Germans had no DDT, nor typhus vaccine, available to stop it. Up to 400 prisoners per day were dying of typhus by the time that the Americans arrived. There was no coal to burn the bodies in the ovens and the staff could not keep up with burying the bodies in mass graves on a hill several miles from the camp.
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." #
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.
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.
For a better sense of reality, Spielberg originally wanted to shoot the movie completely in Polish and German using subtitles, but he eventually decided against it because he felt that it would take away from the urgency and importance of the images onscreen. According to Spielberg, “I wanted people to watch the images, not read the subtitles. There’s too much safety in reading. It would have been an excuse to take their eyes off the screen and watch something else.”
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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. #
Over the years of its operation, from 1933 to 1945, thousands of Dachau prisoners died of disease, malnutrition and overwork. Thousands more were executed for infractions of camp rules. Starting in 1941, thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were sent to Dachau then shot to death at a nearby rifle range. In 1942, construction began at Dachau on Barrack X, a crematorium that eventually consisted of four sizeable ovens used to incinerate corpses. With the implementation in 1942 of Hitler’s “Final Solution” to systematically eradicate all European Jews, thousands of Dachau detainees were moved to Nazi extermination camps in Poland, where they died in gas chambers.
British servicemen Denis Norden and Eric Sykes, who later became popular comedians, stumbled upon the camp in 1945 shortly after liberation; "Appalled, aghast, repelled - it is difficult to find words to express how we felt as we looked upon the degradation of some of the inmates not yet repatriated," Sykes later wrote. "They squatted in their thin, striped uniforms, unmoving bony structures who could have been anywhere between 30 and 60 years old, staring ahead with dead, hopeless eyes and incapable of feeling any relief at their deliverance."
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. More than half of this number were in the main camp. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
That June, Theodor Eicke (1892-1943) replaced Wäckerle as Dachau commandant. Eicke immediately released a set of regulations for the camp’s daily operation. Prisoners deemed guilty of rule breaking were to be brutally beaten. Those who plotted to escape or espoused political views were to be executed on the spot. Prisoners would not be allowed to defend themselves or protest this treatment. Eicke’s regulations served as a blueprint for the operation of all concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
Oskar Schindler left school in 1924, taking odd jobs and trying to find a direction in life. In 1928, he met and married Emilie Pelzl and soon after was called into military service. Afterward, he worked for his father’s company until the business failed in the economic depression of the 1930s. When not working, Schindler excelled at drinking and philandering, a lifestyle he would maintain throughout much of his life.
The camp’s liberation was marked by the best and the worst of behavior by its victorious American liberators. Crazed by grief and anger at the appalling scenes on the day of the camp’s liberation, U.S. soldiers and camp inmates summarily executed some 520 of the camp’s German soldiers who had surrendered. After senior officers restored order, U.S. medical personnel began lifesaving measures for the most severely ill prisoners, and soldiers shared their rations and cigarettes with emaciated survivors.
German forces had begun evacuating many of the death camps in the fall of 1944, sending inmates under guard to march further from the advancing enemy’s front line. These so-called “death marches” continued all the way up to the German surrender, resulting in the deaths of some 250,000 to 375,000 people. In his classic book “Survival in Auschwitz,” the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi described his own state of mind, as well as that of his fellow inmates in Auschwitz on the day before Soviet troops arrived at the camp in January 1945: “We lay in a world of death and phantoms. The last trace of civilization had vanished around and inside us. The work of bestial degradation, begun by the victorious Germans, had been carried to conclusion by the Germans in defeat.”
Throughout German-occupied territory the situation of the Jews was desperate. They had meagre resources and few allies and faced impossible choices. A few people came to their rescue, often at the risk of their own lives. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, in an effort to save Hungary’s sole remaining Jewish community. Over the next six months, he worked with other neutral diplomats, the Vatican, and Jews themselves to prevent the deportation of these last Jews. Elsewhere, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a French Huguenot village, became a haven for 5,000 Jews. In German-occupied Poland, where it was illegal to aid Jews and where such action was punishable by death, the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews) rescued a similar number of Jewish men, women, and children. Financed by the London-based Polish government in exile and involving a wide range of clandestine political organizations, Zegota provided hiding places and financial support and forged identity documents.
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