Mass grave at Belsen camp, shortly after its liberation by British troops. Photographs such as this are widely reproduced as proof of a German policy of extermination. Contrary to Allied propaganda claims of the time, and Holocaust allegations in recent decades, though, these unfortunate prisoners were victims of typhus and starvation that were indirect consequences of the war – not of any deliberate policy. At least 14,000 Jews died in the camp following the British takeover.
By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.
Tens of thousands of Jews held in the eastern territories were marched towards the heart of Germany so they could not bear witness to the Allies. Aware that the world had been alerted to the horrors of the camps, the Nazis sought to destroy evidence. In June, Soviet forces liberated the first major camp, known as Majdanek, in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis had burned down the crematorium chimney but had failed to destroy the gas chambers and barracks. Only a few hundred inmates were still alive.
Initially Göth's plan was that all the factories, including Schindler's, should be moved inside the camp gates. However, Schindler, with a combination of diplomacy, flattery, and bribery, not only prevented his factory from being moved, but convinced Göth to allow him to build (at Schindler's own expense) a subcamp at Emalia to house his workers plus 450 Jews from other nearby factories. There they were safe from the threat of random execution, were well fed and housed, and were permitted to undertake religious observances.
Dr. R. Barton, "Belsen," History of the Second World War, Part 109, 1975, pp. 3025-3029; Barton confirmed this evaluation in testimony given in the 1985 and 1988 Toronto trials of German-Canadian publisher Ernst Zündel. On Barton's testimony in the first, 1985 trial, see: "View of Belsen was propaganda, trial told," The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Feb. 8, 1985, pp. M1, M5, and, "Disease killed Nazis' prisoners, MD says," Toronto Star, Feb. 8, 1985, p. A2; On Barton's testimony in the second, 1988 Zündel trial, see: Barbara Kulaszka, ed., Did Six Million Really Die?, pp. 175-180, and, R. Lenski, The Holocaust on Trial (1990), pp. 157-160; Among his other positions after the war, Barton was superintendent and consultant psychiatrist at Severalls Hospital (Essex, England), and director of the Rochester Psychiatric Center (New York).
Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the Holocaust–even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightenment, during the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a racial character rather than a religious one.
By October 1944, there was a shortage of coal in all of Germany and the dead could no longer be cremated. A new cemetery was opened on a hill north of the camp, called Leitenberg, where the last Dachau victims were buried in unmarked mass graves. Ashes of earlier unknown victims are buried in the area north of the new crematorium. Markers were placed on the sites of the mass graves of ashes between 1950 and 1964.
The Nazis brought their own strain of radical ruthlessness to these ideas. They glorified war and saw the uncompromising struggle for survival between nations and races as the engine of human progress. They rejected morality as a Jewish idea, which had corrupted and weakened the German people. They maintained that a great nation such as Germany had the right and duty to build an empire based on the subjugation of 'inferior races'. They looked eastwards to Poland and Russia (where, as it happened, the great majority of European Jews lived) for the territorial expansion of their 'living space' (Lebensraum).
The camp at Dachau is one of the first and largest concentration camps in Germany. The area, comprising about one square mile, is enclosed by a concrete wall seven feet high and covered with barbed wire. In the southwestern corner there are thirteen crude barracks, originally built for military purposes. They are in a dilapidated condition because of sixteen years of weathering, and were only superficially restored to serve as a shelter for 1,800 Bavarian workmen, political adversaries of the new regime.
Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Russian Prisoners of War were sent to Dachau. On Hitler's orders, Russian POWs who were determined to be Communist Commissars were executed at Dachau and other major concentration camps in Germany. The Communist Soviet Union had both political Commissars and military Commissars whose job it was to keep their citizens or soldiers in line. The military Commissars were stationed behind the front lines in order to urge reluctant Soviet soldiers forward since only one out of every 5 men had been furnished with a rifle. The Soviet soldiers were expected to pick up a rifle after another soldier had been shot; those who tried to retreat were shot by the Commissars. If captured, the Commissars were under orders to organize an escape or otherwise create havoc in the POW camp.
Established in March 1933, the Dachau concentration camp was the first regular concentration camp established by the Nazis in Germany. The camp was located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory near the medieval town of Dachau, about 10 miles northwest of Munich in the state of Bavaria, which is located in southern Germany. Heinrich Himmler, in his capacity as police president of Munich, officially described the camp as “the first concentration camp for political prisoners.”
In April 1942, at the same time that the Jews were being sent to the death camps in the East, a new brick building called Baracke X was planned for the Dachau camp. It was designed to house a homicidal gas chamber, disguised as a shower room, and four cremation ovens. The new Baracke X also has four disinfection gas chambers, designed to kill lice in clothing with the use of Zyklon-B, the same poison gas that was used to kill the Jews in the homicidal gas chambers at Majdanek and Auschwitz. The clothing was disinfected in all the Nazi camps in an attempt to prevent typhus which is spread by lice.
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.
Beginning in late 1941, the Germans began mass transports from the ghettoes in Poland to the concentration camps, starting with those people viewed as the least useful: the sick, old and weak and the very young. The first mass gassings began at the camp of Belzec, near Lublin, on March 17, 1942. Five more mass killing centers were built at camps in occupied Poland, including Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and the largest of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau. From 1942 to 1945, Jews were deported to the camps from all over Europe, including German-controlled territory as well as those countries allied with Germany. The heaviest deportations took place during the summer and fall of 1942, when more than 300,000 people were deported from the Warsaw ghetto alone.
Though at the time of liberation the death rate had peaked at 200 per day, after the liberation by U.S. forces the rate eventually fell to between 50 and 80 deaths per day. In addition to the direct abuse of the SS and the harsh conditions, people died from typhus epidemics and starvation. The number of inmates had peaked in 1944 with transports from evacuated camps in the east (such as Auschwitz), and the resulting overcrowding led to an increase in the death rate.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Holocaust is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community.
The superior race was the "Aryans," the Germans. The word Aryan, "derived from the study of linguistics, which started in the eighteenth century and at some point determined that the Indo-Germanic (also known as Aryan) languages were superior in their structures, variety, and vocabulary to the Semitic languages that had evolved in the Near East. This judgment led to a certain conjecture about the character of the peoples who spoke these languages; the conclusion was that the 'Aryan' peoples were likewise superior to the 'Semitic' ones" (Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 36).
Oskar Schindler was born into a German Catholic family on April 28, 1908. After attending trade schools, he worked for his father’s farm machinery company. He worked for German intelligence and later joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime hero. During the war, however, he operated a factory that employed more than 1,000 Polish Jews, saving them from concentration camps and extermination. In 1993 his story was made into the Steven Spielberg feature film Schindler's List.
On November 12, 1938, Field Marshal Hermann Göring convened a meeting of Nazi officials to discuss the damage to the German economy from pogroms. The Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks. Moreover, Jews were made responsible for cleaning up the damage. German Jews, but not foreign Jews, were barred from collecting insurance. In addition, Jews were soon denied entry to theatres, forced to travel in separate compartments on trains, and excluded from German schools. These new restrictions were added to earlier prohibitions, such as those barring Jews from earning university degrees, from owning businesses, or from practicing law or medicine in the service of non-Jews. The Nazis would continue to confiscate Jewish property in a program called “Aryanization.” Göring concluded the November meeting with a note of irony: “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany!”
By the end of the war, Schindler had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black market purchases of supplies for his workers. Virtually destitute, he moved briefly to Regensburg and later Munich, but did not prosper in postwar Germany. In fact, he was reduced to receiving assistance from Jewish organisations. In 1948 he presented a claim for reimbursement of his wartime expenses to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and received $15,000. He estimated his expenditures at over $1,056,000, including the costs of camp construction, bribes, and expenditures for black market goods, including food. Schindler emigrated to Argentina in 1949, where he tried raising chickens and then nutria, a small animal raised for its fur. When the business went bankrupt in 1958, he left his wife and returned to Germany, where he had a series of unsuccessful business ventures, including a cement factory. He declared bankruptcy in 1963 and suffered a heart attack the next year, which led to a month-long stay in hospital. Remaining in contact with many of the Jews he had met during the war, including Stern and Pfefferberg, Schindler survived on donations sent by Schindlerjuden from all over the world. He died on 9 October 1974 and is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way. For his work during the war, on 8 May 1962, Yad Vashem invited Schindler to a ceremony during which a carob tree planted in his honor on the Avenue of the Righteous. He and his wife, Emilie, were named Righteous Among the Nations, an award bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who took an active role to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, on 24 June 1993. Other awards include the German Order of Merit (1966).
Britain's attitude to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled areas was strongly influenced by its role as the mandatory power in Palestine, where it had to mediate between Jewish and Arab interests. In December 1941, the Struma, a ship carrying 769 Jewish refugees, left the Romanian port of Constantsa hoping to reach Palestine. Towed into Istanbul harbour when its engines failed, it became the subject of diplomatic discussions between Britain and Turkey. Britain's chief concern was to discourage what it regarded as an undesirable traffic, and it proposed that the ship be returned to Romania. After ten weeks of wrangling the Struma was towed out to sea, its engines still disabled, where it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. There was one survivor.
^ "Headquarters Seventh Army Office of the Chief of Staff APO TSS, C/O Postmaster New York, NY 2 May 1945 Memorandum to: Inspector General, Seventh Army The Coming General directs that you conduct a formal investigation of alleged mistreatment of German guards at the Concentration Camp at Dachau, Germany, by elements of the XV Corps. A. WHITE Major General, G.S.C. Chief of Staff Testimony of: Capt. Richard F. Taylor 0-408680, Military Government, Detachment I-13, G-3". Archived from the original on 3 November 2014. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
In America, the boycott of German goods was announced on March 23, 1933 as 20,000 Jews protested against Hitler's government at the City Hall in New York City. On March 27, 1933, a mass rally, that had already been planned on March 12th, was held in Madison Square Garden; there were 40,000 Jewish protesters, according to the New York Daily News. The next day, on March 28, 1933 Hitler made a speech in which he deplored the stories of Nazi atrocities that were being published in the American press and announced a one-day boycott of Jewish stores in Germany on April 1, 1933 in retaliation.
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.
From 1933 until 1938, most of the people held in concentration camps were political prisoners and people the Nazis labeled as "asocial." These included the disabled, the homeless, and the mentally ill. After Kristallnacht in 1938, the persecution of Jews became more organized. This led to the exponential increase in the number of Jews sent to concentration camps.
According to Herbert Stolpmann, who was a former German soldier working for the US military at Dachau after the liberation of the camp, some of the Dachau prisoners lived with families in the town of Dachau during the war and worked for them. Stolpmann's father-in-law owned the Bielmeier bakery, which supplied bread for the prisoners in the camp. Two Russian boys, aged 13 and 14, lived with the family and worked at the bakery, which was called an Arbeitskommando or Work Commando. When the boys reached the ages of 16 and 17, they were taken to the camp and executed. They had been sentenced to death after they were captured as Partisans, but under the German law, no one under the age of 16 could be executed. The Bielmeier family also had a French woman from the Dachau camp living with them; she was engaged to be married to an SS guard, but she was also taken away, never to be seen again.
Prisoners transported to these extermination camps were told to undress so they could shower. Rather than a shower, the prisoners were herded into gas chambers and killed. (At Chelmno, the prisoners were herded into gas vans instead of gas chambers.) Auschwitz was the largest concentration and extermination camp built. It is estimated that 1.1 million people were killed at Auschwitz.
In early 1942 the Nazis built killing centres at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec in occupied Poland. The death camps were to be the essential instrument of the “final solution.” The Einsatzgruppen had traveled to kill their victims. With the killing centres, the process was reversed. The victims were taken by train, often in cattle cars, to their killers. The extermination camps became factories producing corpses, effectively and efficiently, at minimal physical and psychological cost to German personnel. Assisted by Ukrainian and Latvian collaborators and prisoners of war, a few Germans could kill tens of thousands of prisoners each month. At Chelmno, the first of the extermination camps, the Nazis used mobile gas vans. Elsewhere they built permanent gas chambers linked to the crematoria where bodies were burned. Carbon monoxide was the gas of choice at most camps. Zyklon-B, an especially lethal killing agent, was employed primarily at Auschwitz and later at Majdanek.
Evacuation of the camp began on April 21. After being deloused, inmates were transferred to Camp No. 2, which had been converted into a temporary hospital and rehabilitation camp. As each of the barracks was cleared, they were burned down to combat the spread of typhus. On May 19, evacuation was completed and two days later the ceremonial burning of the last barracks brought to an end the first stage of the relief operations. In July, 6,000 former inmates were taken by the Red Cross to Sweden for convalescence, while the rest remained in the newly-established displaced person (DP) camp to await repatriation or emigration.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. German propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Jewish, Romani and Slavic Untermenschen ("sub-humans"). Local populations in some occupied Soviet territories actively participated in the killing of Jews and others, and helped identify and round up Jews. German involvement ranged from active instigation and involvement to general guidance. In Lithuania, Latvia, and western Ukraine, locals were deeply involved in the murder of Jews from the beginning of the German occupation. Some of these Latvian and Lithuanian units also participated in the murder of Jews in Belarus. In the south, Ukrainians killed about 24,000 Jews and some went to Poland to serve as concentration and death-camp guards. Military units from some countries allied to Germany also killed Jews. Romanian units were given orders to exterminate and wipe out Jews in areas they controlled. Ustaše militia in Croatia persecuted and murdered Jews, among others. Many of the killings were carried out in public, a change from previous practice.
The mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories were assigned to four SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), which were under Heydrich's overall command. Similar formations had been used to a limited extent in Poland in 1939, but the ones operating in the Soviet territories were much larger. The Einsatzgruppen's commanders were ordinary citizens: the great majority were professionals and most were intellectuals. By the winter of 1941–1942, the four Einsatzgruppen and their helpers had killed almost 500,000 people. The largest massacre of Jews by the mobile killing squads in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941.[n] A mixture of SS and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not actively participate in the killings, men of the German 6th Army helped round up the Jews of Kiev and transport them to be shot. By the end of the war, around two million are thought to have been victims of the Einsatzgruppen and their helpers in the local population and the German Army. Of those, about 1.3 million were Jews and up to a quarter of a million Roma.
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.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, thirty-one-year-old Schindler showed up in occupied Krakow. The ancient city, home to some 60,000 Jews and seat of the German occupation administration, the Generalgouvernement, proved highly attractive to German entrepreneurs, hoping to capitalize on the misfortunes of the subjugated country and make a fortune. Naturally cunning and none too scrupulous, Schindler appeared at first to thrive in these surroundings. In October 1939, he took over a run-down enamelware factory that had previously belonged to a Jew. He cleverly maneuvered his steps- acting upon the shrewd commercial advice of a Polish-Jewish accountant, Isaak Stern - and began to build himself a fortune. The small concern in Zablocie outside Krakow, which started producing kitchenware for the German army, began to grow by leaps and bounds. After only three months it already had a task-force of some 250 Polish workers, among them seven Jews. By the end of 1942, it had expanded into a mammoth enamel and ammunitions production plant, occupying some 45,000 square meters and employing almost 800 men and women. Of these, 370 were Jews from the Krakow ghetto, which the Germans had established after they entered the city.
In 1942, the crematorium area was constructed next to the main camp. It included the old crematorium and the new crematorium (Barrack X) with a gas chamber. There is no credible evidence that the gas chamber in Barrack X was used to murder human beings. Instead, prisoners underwent "selection"; those who were judged too sick or weak to continue working were sent to the Hartheim "euthanasia" killing center near Linz, Austria. Several thousand Dachau prisoners were murdered at Hartheim. Further, the SS used the firing range and the gallows in the crematoria area as killing sites for prisoners.
Some Germans, even some Nazis, dissented from the murder of the Jews and came to their aid. The most famous was Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman, who had set up operations using involuntary labour in German-occupied Poland in order to profit from the war. Eventually, he moved to protect his Jewish workers from deportation to extermination camps. In all occupied countries, there were individuals who came to the rescue of Jews, offering a place to hide, some food, or shelter for days or weeks or even for the duration of the war. Most of the rescuers did not see their actions as heroic but felt bound to the Jews by a common sense of humanity. Israel later recognized rescuers with honorary citizenship and commemoration at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust.
Although the prisoners deployed at Emalia were still subject to the brutal conditions of the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler intervened repeatedly on their behalf. He used bribes and personal diplomacy both for the well-being of Jews threatened on an individual basis and to ensure, until late 1944, that the SS did not deport his Jewish workers. In order to claim the Jewish workers to be essential to the war effort, he added an armaments manufacturing division to Emalia. During the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, Schindler allowed his Jewish workers to stay at the factory overnight.
The ramp appeared to lead up to the crematorium ovens. I am not surprised that the commandant and the guards were not charged with gassing prisoners because the evidence had been destroyed by the British, but that was academic because they had enough evidence to hang Kramer and Grese a hundred times over. As my Dad's colonel said to him: "They'll have a legal trial and a legal hanging..."
Prisoners in the camp were given guns by some of the liberators and were allowed to shoot or beat to death 40 of the German guards while American soldiers looked on. The German Sheppard guard dogs were shot in their kennels. The bodies of some the dead SS soldiers were later buried in unmarked graves inside the garrison, after their dog tags had been removed; their families were not notified of their deaths. Some of the bodies of the executed SS soldiers were burned in the ovens in the crematorium at Dachau.
Two specialist teams were dispatched from Britain to deal with the feeding problem. The first, led by Dr A. P. Meiklejohn, included 96 medical student volunteers from London teaching hospitals who were later credited with significantly reducing the death rate amongst prisoners. A research team led by Dr Janet Vaughan was dispatched by the Medical Research Council to test the effectiveness of various feeding regimes.