As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or brutal treatment. The Germans targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia for killing, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany or in occupied Poland, where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions.
In May 1944, Martin Gottfried Weiss was appointed the department head of the Office Group D in the SS Main Office of Economic Administration (WVHA) at Oranienburg. That same year, Weiss became the commander of the five sub-camps of Dachau at Mühldorf; when the Mühldorf prisoners were evacuated and brought to the main camp in the Spring of 1945, Weiss returned to Dachau. Fourteen members of the staff at Mühldorf were put on trial at Dachau from April 1 through May 13, 1947 in the case of US vs. Franz Auer et al.
In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally had stopped into a leather goods shop off of Rodeo Drive after a book tour stopover from a film festival in Sorrento, Italy, where one of his books was adapted into a movie. When the owner of the shop, Leopold Page, learned that Keneally was a writer, he began telling him “the greatest story of humanity man to man.” That story was how Page, his wife, and thousands of other Jews were saved by a Nazi factory owner named Oskar Schindler during World War II.
Life within Nazi concentration camps was horrible. Prisoners were forced to do hard physical labor and given little food. Prisoners slept three or more to a crowded wooden bunk; bedding was unheard of. Torture within the concentration camps was common and deaths were frequent. At a number of concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will.
When Hitler came to power legally on January 30, 1933, as the head of a coalition government, his first objective was to consolidate power and to eliminate political opposition. The assault against the Jews began on April 1 with a boycott of Jewish businesses. A week later the Nazis dismissed Jews from the civil service, and by the end of the month the participation of Jews in German schools was restricted by a quota. On May 10 thousands of Nazi students, together with many professors, stormed university libraries and bookstores in 30 cities throughout Germany to remove tens of thousands of books written by non-Aryans and those opposed to Nazi ideology. The books were tossed into bonfires in an effort to cleanse German culture of “un-Germanic” writings. A century earlier Heinrich Heine—a German poet of Jewish origin—had said, “Where one burns books, one will, in the end, burn people.” In Nazi Germany the time between the burning of Jewish books and the burning of Jews was eight years.
When the British and Canadians advanced on Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the German army negotiated a truce and exclusion zone around the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. On April 11, 1945 Heinrich Himmler (the Reichsführer SS) agreed to have the camp handed over without a fight. SS guards ordered prisoners to bury some of the dead. The next day, Wehrmacht representatives approached the British and were brought to VIII Corps. At around 1 a.m. on April 13, an agreement was signed, designating an area of 48 square kilometers (19 square miles) around the camp as a neutral zone. Most of the SS were allowed to leave. Only a small number of SS men and women, including the camp commandant Kramer, remained to "uphold order inside the camp". The outside was guarded by Hungarian and regular German troops. Due to heavy fighting near Winsen and Walle, the British were unable to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 14, as originally planned. The camp was liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945.:253 The first two to reach the camp were a British Special Air Service officer, Lieutenant John Randall, and his jeep driver, who were on a reconnaissance mission and discovered the camp by chance.
^ The caption for the photograph in the U.S. National Archives reads, "SC208765, Soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Seventh Army, order SS men to come forward when one of their number tried to escape from the Dachau, Germany, concentration camp after it was captured by U.S. forces. Men on the ground in background feign death by falling as the guards fired a volley at the fleeing SS men. (157th Regt. 4/29/45)."
The British and American governments were reluctant to publicize the intelligence they had received. A BBC Hungarian Service memo, written by Carlile Macartney, a BBC broadcaster and senior Foreign Office adviser on Hungary, stated in 1942: "We shouldn't mention the Jews at all." The British government's view was that the Hungarian people's antisemitism would make them distrust the Allies if Allied broadcasts focused on the Jews. The US government similarly feared turning the war into one about the Jews; antisemitism and isolationism were common in the US before its entry into the war. Although governments and the German public appear to have understood what was happening, it seems the Jews themselves did not. According to Saul Friedländer, "[t]estimonies left by Jews from all over occupied Europe indicate that, in contradistinction to vast segments of surrounding society, the victims did not understand what was ultimately in store for them." In Western Europe, he writes, Jewish communities seem to have failed to piece the information together, while in Eastern Europe, they could not accept that the stories they heard from elsewhere would end up applying to them too.
In September 1939, the German army occupied the western half of Poland. German police soon forced tens of thousands of Polish Jews from their homes and into ghettoes, giving their confiscated properties to ethnic Germans (non-Jews outside Germany who identified as German), Germans from the Reich or Polish gentiles. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, the Jewish ghettoes in Poland functioned like captive city-states, governed by Jewish Councils. In addition to widespread unemployment, poverty and hunger, overpopulation made the ghettoes breeding grounds for disease such as typhus.
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.
In 1951, Poldek Pfefferberg approached director Fritz Lang and asked him to consider making a film about Schindler. Also on Pfefferberg's initiative, in 1964 Schindler received a $20,000 advance from MGM for a proposed film treatment titled To the Last Hour. Neither film was ever made, and Schindler quickly spent the money he received from MGM. He was also approached in the 1960s by MCA of Germany and Walt Disney Productions in Vienna, but again nothing came of these projects.
In August 1944, a new section was created and this became the so-called "women's camp". By November 1944 this camp received around 9,000 women and young girls. Most of those who were able to work stayed only for a short while and were then sent on to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. The first women interned there were Poles, arrested after the failed Warsaw Uprising. Others were Jewish women from Poland or Hungary, transferred from Auschwitz. Among those who never left Bergen-Belsen were Margot and Anne Frank, who died there in February or March 1945.