These programmes are best seen as a series of linked genocides, each having its own history, background, purpose and significance in the Nazi scheme of things. The Holocaust was the biggest of the killing programmes and, in certain important ways, different from the others. The Jews figured in Nazi ideology as the arch-enemy of the 'Aryan race', and were targeted not merely for terror and repression but for complete extinction. The Nazis failed in this aim because they ran out of time, but they pursued it fanatically until their defeat in 1945. The Holocaust led to widespread public awareness of genocide and to modern efforts to prevent it, such as the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide.
Policies differed widely among Germany’s Balkan allies. In Romania it was primarily the Romanians themselves who slaughtered the country’s Jews. Toward the end of the war, however, when the defeat of Germany was all but certain, the Romanian government found more value in living Jews who could be held for ransom or used as leverage with the West. Bulgaria deported Jews from neighbouring Thrace and Macedonia, which it occupied, but government leaders faced stiff opposition to the deportation of native Bulgarian Jews, who were regarded as fellow citizens.
The biblical term shoah (Hebrew: שׁוֹאָה), meaning "destruction", became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jews, first used in a pamphlet in 1940, Sho'at Yehudei Polin ("Sho'ah of Polish Jews"), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland. On 3 October 1941 the cover of the magazine The American Hebrew used the phrase "before the Holocaust", apparently to refer to the situation in France, and in May 1943 The New York Times, discussing the Bermuda Conference, referred to the "hundreds of thousands of European Jews still surviving the Nazi Holocaust". In 1968 the Library of Congress created a new category, "Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)". The term was popularized in the United States by the NBC mini-series Holocaust (1978), about a fictional family of German Jews, and in November 1978 the President's Commission on the Holocaust was established. As non-Jewish groups began to include themselves as Holocaust victims too, many Jews chose to use the terms Shoah or Churban instead.[g] The Nazis used the phrase "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage).
On April 15, 1945, the British army liberated Belsen. However, it was unable to rescue the inmates. On that liberation day the British found 10,000 unburied corpses and 40,000 sick and dying prisoners. Among the 40,000 living inmates, 28,000 died after the liberation. The inmates were abandoned in Bergen-Belsen by the Germans, left behind for death to come.
The total number of deaths in the first five months of 1945 was almost half the total deaths in the 12-year history of the camp. The death rate in the other Nazi concentration camps also rose dramatically in the last months of the war, as the typhus epidemic spread throughout Germany. American POWs in German camps were saved from the epidemic by booster shots of typhus vaccine sent to them from America by the International Red Cross. The Germans were conducting experiments at the Buchenwald camp in an effort to develop a vaccine for typhus, but had not been successful. After the war, the doctors who had attempted to develop a typhus vaccine at Buchenwald were put on trial as war criminals at Nuremberg in the Doctor's Trial conducted by Americans.
Dachau was the place where many famous, high-level political opponents of the Nazi government were held near the end of the war. Just before the camp was liberated, there were 137 VIP prisoners at Dachau, including the former Chancellor of Austria, Kurt von Schuschnigg, and the former Jewish premier of France, Leon Blum. They were evacuated to the South Tyrol in April 1945 on three separate trips, shortly before soldiers of the American Seventh Army arrived to liberate the camp.
Medical experiments were conducted at Dachau with Jews helplessly used in decompression and high altitude tests. Others were infected with malaria to test possible vaccines.13 In the twelve years Dachau was operational, more than 200,000 prisoners passed through the camp.13 Officially more than 30,000 died at Dachau but the actual number is thought to be much higher.13
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.
The German press has repeatedly announced that great numbers of prisoners have been released and that several of the concentration camps have been closed. To illustrate the credibility of such statements, the happenings on Hitler’s birthday are significant. The press declared that two thousand prisoners were released in southern Bavaria, which means that at least fifteen hundred would have to have been released from the Dachau concentration camp. Actually ninety-nine men were released and twenty-five of them were imprisoned again the next day.
The camp administration did nothing to house the prisoners who were streaming in. Most of them had no roof over their heads, and were without water and food. There was now total chaos in Bergen- Belsen and a typhus epidemic broke out, in the month of March alone 18,168 prisoners perished in the camp and the number of deaths for the period from January to mid-April 1945 was 35,000.
At this point, we must remember that some survivors were unable to return to "normal" life after the trauma of the Holocaust. Among this group were survivors who committed suicide, survivors who experienced severe psychological scarring, survivors who were unable to marry or have children, and others who suffered from a host of problems after the Holocaust. What is remarkable is that these were the minority, and that most Holocaust survivors were able to bring a certain degree of order to their chaotic world.
In the last months of Hitler’s Reich, as the German armies retreated, the Nazis began marching the prisoners still alive in the concentration camps to the territory they still controlled. The Germans forced the starving and sick Jews to walk hundreds of miles. Most died or were shot along the way. About a quarter of a million Jews died on the death marches.
The American major did not return the German Lieutenant's salute. He hesitates a moment as if he were trying to make sure he is remembering the adequate words. Then he spits into the face of the German, "Du Schweinehund!" And then, "Sit down here" - pointing to the rear seat of one of the jeeps which in the meantime have driven up. The major gave an order, the jeep with the young German officer in it went outside the camp again. A few minutes went by. Then I heard several shots.
Medical experiments conducted on camp inmates by the SS were another distinctive feature. At least 7,000 prisoners were subjected to experiments; most died as a result, during the experiments or later. Twenty-three senior physicians and other medical personnel were charged at Nuremberg, after the war, with crimes against humanity. They included the head of the German Red Cross, tenured professors, clinic directors, and biomedical researchers. Experiments took place at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. Some dealt with sterilization of men and women, the treatment of war wounds, ways to counteract chemical weapons, research into new vaccines and drugs, and the survival of harsh conditions.
Bergen-Belsen [ˈbɛʁɡn̩.bɛlsn̩], or Belsen, was a Nazi concentration camp in what is today Lower Saxony in northern Germany, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle. Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of it became a concentration camp. Initially this was an "exchange camp", where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps.