In the main camp too, conditions at the end of the war were horrendous. Dachau was unbearably overcrowded as a result of the influx of prisoners evacuated from the camps that were being closed ahead of the Allied advance. Thousands of prisoners fell victim to a typhus epidemic. On the 29th of April 1945, 30 000 thousand prisoners at the camp were liberated by US army units without any fighting.
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).
The Zionists at Bergen-Belsen, who wanted to go to Palestine, were housed at the Germany Army Training Center to wait for permission from the British who were in control of Palestine at that time. The DP camp at the Army Base was the largest one in Europe. It remained open until 1950, after the last Jews had emigrated to Palestine or some other country.
In 1935 Schindler joined the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei; SdP) and the next year began collecting counterintelligence for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. In 1938 he was arrested by Czechoslovak authorities on charges of espionage and sentenced to death. After the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany late that year as part of the Munich Agreement, Schindler was pardoned by the Reich and rose through the ranks of the Abwehr. His application for membership in the Nazi Party—thought to have been submitted out of pragmatism rather than ideological affinity—was accepted in 1939. That year, on the heels of the German invasion and occupation of Poland, Schindler journeyed to Kraków, where he became active in the emerging black market. Thanks to the network of German contacts he had arranged through liberal bribes, he secured the lease of a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory. He renamed the facility Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik Oskar Schindler (known as Emalia) and commenced production with a small staff. Three months later he had several hundred employees, seven of whom were Jewish. By 1942 nearly half of the workers at the expanded plant were Jewish. (Ostensibly “cheap labour,” Schindler paid their salaries to the SS.)
The first prisoners arrived in Dachau on March 22, 1933, two days after the acting Munich Chief of Police and Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler announced the camp’s creation. Many of the initial prisoners were Social Democrats and German Communists, the latter group having been blamed for the February 27 fire at the German parliament building, the Reichstag.
A further regulation stated that a prisoner would be shot or hanged for refusing to obey any order from an SS man. Those who were gunned-down had their deaths listed as "shot while attempting to escape." The only notification the victim's family ever got was an urn filled with ashes delivered to their front door. The ashes were usually not even from the dead man himself, but had been scooped up from whatever was lying around in the crematorium room.
On June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France. In December the Germans started an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Continuing to gain momentum, the Soviets began an offensive in January 1945, liberating western Poland and then forcing Hungary to surrender.
The Dachau camp was a training center for SS concentration camp guards, and the camp’s organization and routine became the model for all Nazi concentration camps. The camp was divided into two sections — the camp area and the crematoria area. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The camp administration was located in the gatehouse at the main entrance. The camp area had a group of support buildings, containing the kitchen, laundry, showers, and workshops, as well as a prison block (Bunker). The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. An electrified barbed-wire fence, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers surrounded the camp.
"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
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
One of the most horrific terms in history was used by Nazi Germany to designate human beings whose lives were unimportant, or those who should be killed outright: Lebensunwertes Leben, or "life unworthy of life". The phrase was applied to the mentally impaired and later to the "racially inferior," or "sexually deviant," as well as to "enemies of the state" both internal and external. From very early in the war, part of Nazi policy was to murder civilians en masse, especially targeting Jews. Later in the war, this policy grew into Hitler's "final solution", the complete extermination of the Jews. It began with Einsatzgruppen death squads in the East, which killed some 1,000,000 people in numerous massacres, and continued in concentration camps where prisoners were actively denied proper food and health care. It culminated in the construction of extermination camps -- government facilities whose entire purpose was the systematic murder and disposal of massive numbers of people. In 1945, as advancing Allied troops began discovering these camps, they found the results of these policies: hundreds of thousands of starving and sick prisoners locked in with thousands of dead bodies. They encountered evidence of gas chambers and high-volume crematoriums, as well as thousands of mass graves, documentation of awful medical experimentation, and much more. The Nazis killed more than 10 million people in this manner, including 6 million Jews. (This entry is Part 18 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II)
Dachau served as a prototype and model for other Nazi concentration camps that followed. Its basic organization, camp layout as well as the plan for the buildings were developed by Kommandant Theodor Eicke and were applied to all later camps. He had a separate secure camp near the command center, which consisted of living quarters, administration, and army camps. Eicke himself became the chief inspector for all concentration camps, responsible for molding the others according to his model.
While Schindler operated two other factories in Krakow, only at Emalia did he employ Jewish workers who resided in the nearby Krakow ghetto. At its peak strength in 1944, Emalia employed 1,700 workers; at least 1,000 were Jewish forced laborers, whom the Germans had relocated from the Krakow ghetto after its liquidation in March 1943 to the forced labor camp and later concentration camp Krakau-Plaszow.
We continued to sing, to laugh, to dream, before the flames of the bonfires. We knew nothing as yet of the three hundred dead, twice the daily average of the last weeks before the liberation. We could not foresee that this figure would go even higher in the months to come and that our captivity was still far from being over. We could not admit that there were some among us who would never leave Dachau alive, as its inexorable law demanded. Dachau was to become in a way the symbol of all Europe, which believed itself freed, but was really only changing masters.
The average number of Germans in the camp during the war was 3,000. Just before the liberation many German prisoners were evacuated, but 2,000 of these Germans died during the evacuation transport. Evacuated prisoners included such prominent political and religious figures as Martin Niemöller, Kurt von Schuschnigg, Édouard Daladier, Léon Blum, Franz Halder, and Hjalmar Schacht.
The Polish government-in-exile in London learned about the extermination camps from the Polish leadership in Warsaw, who from 1940 "received a continual flow of information about Auschwitz", according to historian Michael Fleming. This was in large measure thanks to Captain Witold Pilecki of the Polish Home Army, who allowed himself to be arrested in Warsaw and spent 945 days in Auschwitz from September 1940 until April 1943, organizing the resistance movement inside the camp.
A prisoner, Furth, who later disappeared from camp, was found lying on the concrete floor of his cell, almost beaten to death. Commander Weckerle entered: “Why don’t you stand at attention when I enter?” he asked. No answer. Thinking that the prisoner had attempted to commit suicide, Weckerle continued, “This man wants to get away before we’re through with him, but he has to confess first.” The prisoner was taken from his cell for medical attention, simply to restore him for additional torture. An attorney named Strauss, from Munich, was arrested because at one time he had a case against the Minister of Justice. A few days later this man, who had previously enjoyed good health, was transformed into a quivering white-haired old man. They compelled him to swim in ice-cold water while they lashed him with oxtails. After four days of torture he was shot.
To more than 1200 Jews Oscar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis. A man full of flaws like the rest of us - the unlikeliest of all role models who started by earning millions as a war profiteer and ended by spending his last pfennig and risking his life to save his Jews. An ordinary man who even in the worst of circumstances did extraordinary things, matched by no one. He remained true to his Jews, the workers he referred to as my children. In the shadow of Auschwitz he kept the SS out and everyone alive.
Paradoxically, at the same time that Germany tried to rid itself of its Jews via forced emigration, its territorial expansions kept bringing more Jews under its control. Germany annexed Austria in March 1938 and the Sudetenland (now in the Czech Republic) in September 1938. It established control over the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) in March 1939. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the “Jewish question” became urgent. When the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union was complete, more than two million more Jews had come under German control. For a time, the Nazis considered shipping the Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, but discarded the plan as impractical; the Nazis had not prevailed in the Battle of Britain, the seas had become a war zone, and the resources required for such a massive deportation were scarce.
A hedonist and gambler by nature, Schindler soon adopted a profligate lifestyle, carousing into the small hours of the night, hobnobbing with high ranking SS-officers, and philandering with beautiful Polish women. Schindler seemed to be no different from other Germans who had come to Poland as part of the occupation administration and their associates. The only thing that set him apart from other war-profiteers, was his humane treatment of his workers, especially the Jews.
Throughout its history, Dachau was primarily a camp for men; it was used to incarcerate Communists, Social Democrats, trade union leaders, religious dissidents, common criminals, Gypsy men, homosexuals, asocials, spies, resistance fighters, and others who were considered "enemies of the state." It was not a death camp for the genocide of the Jews, although there were Jewish prisoners 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.