In November, attacks erupted against Jewish businesses. At least 91 Jews died and 267 synagogues were destroyed in a centrally coordinated plot passed off as spontaneous violence across Germany. Thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps and were only released if they agreed to leave the Nazi territory. Many Jews decided to flee, though options were limited. Britain agreed to house Jewish children, eventually taking in 10,000 minors, but refused to change its policy for Jewish adults.
With the appointment in January 1933 of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, and the establishment of the Third Reich, German leaders proclaimed the rebirth of the Volksgemeinschaft ("people's community"). Nazi policies divided the population into two groups: the Volksgenossen ("national comrades") who belonged to the Volksgemeinschaft, and the Gemeinschaftsfremde ("community aliens") who did not. Enemies were divided into three groups: the "racial" or "blood" enemies, such as the Jews and Roma; political opponents of Nazism, such as Marxists, liberals, Christians, and the "reactionaries" viewed as wayward "national comrades"; and moral opponents, such as gay men, the work shy, and habitual criminals. The latter two groups were to be sent to concentration camps for "re-education", with the aim of eventual absorption into the Volksgemeinschaft. "Racial" enemies could never belong to the Volksgemeinschaft; they were to be removed from society.
Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the “pure” German race, which he called “Aryan,” and with the need for “Lebensraum,” or living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison, Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party’s status and rise from obscurity to power. On January 30, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany. After President Paul von Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as “Fuhrer,” becoming Germany’s supreme ruler.
He began by turning his factory into an official subcamp of a newly constructed labor camp at Plazów. For a time, it was a haven for about 500 Jews. Then, in the fall of 1944, the Nazis ordered both camps closed and all workers shipped to Auschwitz, a killing center. Schindler refused to let that happen. He put together a list of 1,100 men, women, and children that he claimed as his workers. He then used his money and influence to transport those workers to a new factory he was building at Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia. When the Jewish women who worked in his factory were transported to Auschwitz by mistake, he accomplished the impossible: he managed to get the women back by offering Nazi officials a fortune in bribes.
Deputy Fritz Dressel underwent similar daily tortures. He tried to cut his wrist with a piece of glass, but he was discovered while he still showed some signs of life and was transferred to a first-aid station. No sooner was his wound dressed than the Camp Commander, Weckerle, ordered him brought back into the detention call, in spite of the doctor’s warning that under these circumstances he would not be responsible for the consequences. A few hours later he was again “discovered” with the dressing ripped off, lying in a pool of blood, his arms pulled out of their sockets. When his corpse was taken out of the camp on a dray, the Commander made a remark to the assembled Special Police, which unfortunately I could not understand, but which was answered by the guards with roars of laughter. Captain Ehmann of the Special Police and another man led Leonhart Hausmann, Communist leader of Augsburg, out of the camp to be shot. Ehmann, however, lost his courage and ran away and the other fellow brought the prisoner back. The next day Hausmann was transferred to Ehmann’s labor group, and Ehmann took him out of sight behind some bushes and shot him. The official announcement was “Shot while trying to escape.” Ehmann was apparently reluctant to murder the prisoner, but was finally forced to do so by pressure from his superiors.
Sometimes the mere presence of German troops in the vicinity was sufficient to spur a massacre. One example is what happened in the Polish village of Jedwabne, where neighbours murdered their Jewish neighbours. For years the massacre was blamed on the Germans, though many Poles likely knew that the local population had turned against its own Jews. In the Baltics, where the Germans were greeted as liberators by some segments of the population, the lure of political independence and the desire to erase any collaboration with the previous Soviet occupiers led nationalist bands to murder local Jews.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
"Suddenly we were marched into Bergen Belsen, that's where we were taken. In Bergen Belsen it was absolutely the worst of them all. It was not blocks; not organized. It was in the streets. We were just thrown in there between the electric wires, and wherever you could go - you go, and wherever you want to sleep - you sleep. No food. Only once or twice a week they were handing out some of that horrible grass soup."1
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:
Responding to domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, the Évian Conference on resettlement, in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938. In his invitation to government leaders, Roosevelt specified that they would not have to change laws or spend government funds; only philanthropic funds would be used for resettlement. Britain was assured that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The result was that little was attempted and less accomplished.
In the summer of 1943, Stalag XI-C (311) was dissolved and Bergen-Belsen became a branch camp of Stalag XI-B. It served as the hospital for all Soviet POWs in the region until January 1945. Other inmates/patients were Italian military internees from August 1944 and, following the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, around 1,000 members of the Polish Home Army were imprisoned in a separate section of the POW camp.