But in the spring of 1945, photographs and eyewitness accounts from the liberation of camps like Bergen-Belsen afforded the disbelieving world outside of Europe its first glimpse into the abyss of Nazi depravity. All these years later, after countless reports, books, oral histories and documentary films have constructed a terrifyingly clear picture of the Third Reich's vast machinery of murder, it's difficult to grasp just how shocking these first revelations really were. The most horrific rumors about what was happening to the Jews and millions of other "undesirables—Catholics, pacifists, homosexuals, Slavs—in Nazi-occupied lands paled before the reality revealed by the liberation of the camps.
From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police officials targeted thousands of political opponents (including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah's Witnesses). Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
After the German surrender on May 7, 1945, the American Army took over the barracks of the SS garrison and set up a command post called Eastman which they occupied until 1973. On the orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, all available American soldiers were brought to Dachau so that they could be eye-witnesses to the existence of the homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room.
Compared to the appalling number of men, women and children killed at the Nazi extermination camps—places like Sobibor, Chelmno, Treblinka and others where, cumulatively, millions perished—the death toll at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany was (a horrible thing to say!) relatively small. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone; at Belsen, by most estimates, fewer than 100,000 died—from starvation and disease (typhus, for example), as well as outright slaughter.
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.
Known as Kristallnacht (or "Night of Broken Glass"), the attacks were partly carried out by the SS and SA, but ordinary Germans joined in; in some areas, the violence began before the SS or SA arrived. Over 7,500 Jewish shops (out of 9,000) were looted and attacked, and over 1,000 synagogues damaged or destroyed. Groups of Jews were forced by the crowd to watch their synagogues burn; in Bensheim they were forced to dance around it, and in Laupheim to kneel before it. At least 90 Jews died. The damage was estimated at 39 million Reichmarks. Cesarani writes that "[t]he extent of the desolation stunned the population and rocked the regime." Thirty-thousand Jews were sent to the Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. Many were released within weeks; by early 1939, 2,000 remained in the camps. German Jewry was held collectively responsible for restitution of the damage; they also had to pay an "atonement tax" of over a billion Reichmarks. Insurance payments for damage to their property were confiscated by the government. A decree on 12 November 1938 barred Jews from most of the remaining occupations they had been allowed to hold. Kristallnacht marked the end of any sort of public Jewish activity and culture, and Jews stepped up their efforts to leave the country.
Most of the regular SS guards and the administrative staff had fled from the camp the next day and there was no one left to oversee the burial of the bodies. No precise figures are available, but the train had started out with approximately 4,500 to 6,000 prisoners on board and between 1,300 and 2,600 had made it to Dachau still alive. Some of the dead had been buried along the way, or left in rows alongside the tracks. The gruesome sight of the death train, with some of the corpses in the open cars riddled by bullets, so affected the young soldiers of the 45th Thunderbird Division that they executed Waffen-SS soldiers stationed at the Dachau garrison after they had surrendered.
In 1997 a suitcase belonging to Schindler containing historic photographs and documents was discovered in the attic of the apartment of Ami and Heinrich Staehr in Hildesheim. Schindler had stayed with the couple for a few days shortly before his death in 1974. Staehr's son Chris took the suitcase to Stuttgart, where the documents were examined in detail in 1999 by Dr. Wolfgang Borgmann, science editor of the Stuttgarter Zeitung. Borgmann wrote a series of seven articles, which appeared in the paper from 16 to 26 October 1999 and were eventually published in book form as Schindlers Koffer: Berichte aus dem Leben eines Lebensretters ; eine Dokumentation der Stuttgarter Zeitung (Schindler's Suitcase: Report on the Life of a Rescuer). The documents and suitcase were sent to the Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem in Israel for safekeeping in December 1999.
And it turned out he had chosen the right man. Regulations soon established by Eicke included the standing order that any prisoner would be hanged who: "politicizes, holds inciting speeches and meetings, forms cliques, loiters around with others – who for the purpose of supplying the propaganda of the opposition with atrocity stories, collects true or false information about the concentration camp, receives such information, buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp into the hands of foreign visitors, etc."
A British documentary film shows healthy Jewish liberated prisoners lined up, screaming at the top of their lungs at the SS men and women as they go about their macabre task. On the day that the German civilians were brought to the camp, the Jewish women in the camp screamed at them as the Germans were forced to watch the loading of the corpses. Later the Bergen residents were forced to evacuate their homes and former Jewish prisoners moved in; the Germans were ordered to leave all their silverware, china and linens for the use of the former prisoners.
The workers who constructed the original buildings were housed in camps near Fallingbostel and Bergen, the latter being the so-called Bergen-Belsen Army Construction Camp. Once the military complex was completed in 1938/39, the workers' camp fell into disuse. However, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht began using the huts as a prisoner of war (POW) camp.