At the present time the camp harbors about 1,700 prisoners, the majority of whom are either Communists or members of organizations known as sympathetic, such as workers’ athletic and relief organizations. Some hundred prisoners are Social Democrats, Socialist Workers’ party members, students, lawyers and doctors, who were either active politically or known as pacifists. There are about forty Jews, mostly manual workers or clerks. A few of them were business men from small villages in northern Bavaria who had been arrested from motives of personal rancor or envy. None of the prisoners could be convicted of any violation of law, but they are nevertheless detained for an indefinite period.
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
German communists, socialists and trade unionists were among the earliest opponents of the Nazis and among the first to be sent to concentration camps. Before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler issued the Commissar Order, which ordered the execution of all political commissars and Communist Party members captured. Nacht und Nebel ("Night and Fog") was a directive of Hitler in December 1941, resulting in the disappearance of political activists throughout the German-occupied territories.
The major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs. In trying to assess the causes of the conditions found in Belsen one must be alerted to the tremendous visual display, ripe for purposes of propaganda, that masses of starved corpses presented.
^ Goebbels noted: "Regarding the Jewish question, the Fuhrer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it. It is not for us to feel sympathy for the Jews. We should have sympathy rather with our own German people. If the German people have to sacrifice 160,000 victims in yet another campaign in the east, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives."
After WWII had ended, photographs of the Holocaust stunned the public. Newspapers in the United States had reported on the oppression of the Jews in Germany during the war. In 1942, many newspapers were writing details of the Holocaust, but these stories were short and were not widely read. In 1943, after sources had confirmed the killings of at least two million Jews in concentration camps across Europe a Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans believed these reports to be true; 28% thought they were “just a rumor”. The reports were unconfirmed and sometimes denied by the United States government.
A few days later a transport arrived with 200 prisoners from northern Bavaria, some of whom were at once inhumanly beaten. Among these prisoners were twelve Jews who were picked out immediately and brought to the guard room. They were stripped of their clothing, their heads were wrapped in blankets to smother their cries and they were beaten barbarously. Later, after kicks on the testicles and further beating, they were driven to the barracks. The body of each, from the waist to the knee, was one complete wound. The entire scene took place in the presence of a high police official, Dr. Frank, and fifteen Special Police headed by Steinbrenner, Hofmann and Kantschuster.
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.
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case. Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees. This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency. The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.