At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid, or hydrogen cyanide. Those inside died within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims died immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, the bodies were removed, gold fillings in their teeth were extracted, and women's hair was cut. The work was done by the Sonderkommando, work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, they were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, a famous scene depicts Oskar Schindler departing his factory at the end of the war and crying without consolation over his inability to save even more lives. (The scene was even parodied in an episode of Seinfeld.) “The idea that Oskar collapsed sobbing into Itzhak Stern’s arms and bemoaned his failure to save more Jews is preposterous,” writes Crowe. “Oskar was proud of all he had done to save Brunnlitz’s Jews and said so in his speech earlier that evening.”
On 15 September 1935, the Reichstag passed the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, known as the Nuremberg Laws. The former said that only those of "German or kindred blood" could be citizens. Anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents was classified as a Jew. The second law said: "Marriages between Jews and subjects of the state of German or related blood are forbidden." Sexual relationships between them were also criminalized; Jews were not allowed to employ German women under the age of 45 in their homes. The laws referred to Jews but applied equally to the Roma and black Germans.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
A book entitled "Dachau Liberated, The Official Report by the U.S. Seventh Army" was released only days after the camp was liberated. The information in this book was obtained from interviews with the Dachau survivors; half of the prisoners at Dachau on the day it was liberated had only been there for two weeks or less and some had arrived only the day before. The following quote is from page 48 of this book:
The camp staff consisted mostly of SS males, although 19 female guards served at Dachau as well, most of them until liberation. Sixteen have been identified including Fanny Baur, Leopoldine Bittermann, Ernestine Brenner, Anna Buck, Rosa Dolaschko, Maria Eder, Rosa Grassmann, Betty Hanneschaleger, Ruth Elfriede Hildner, Josefa Keller, Berta Kimplinger, Lieselotte Klaudat, Theresia Kopp, Rosalie Leimboeck, and Thea Miesl. Women guards were assigned also to the Augsburg Michelwerke, Burgau, Kaufering, Mühldorf, and Munich Agfa Camera Werke subcamps. In mid-April 1945, female subcamps at Kaufering, Augsburg, and Munich were closed, and the SS stationed the women at Dachau. Several Norwegians worked as guards at the Dachau camp.
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.
The never-ending rumors surrounding these early concentration camps instilled a nagging sense of fear among all Germans that helped to extinguish all potential opposition and criticism of Hitler's regime. However, the greatest challenge to Hitler would not come from his political opponents but from within his own ranks. By early 1934, a storm trooper rebellion was brewing that threatened to ruin everything he had worked so hard to achieve.
"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
Ghettos were intended to be temporary until the Jews were deported to other locations, which never happened. Instead, the inhabitants were sent to extermination camps. The ghettos were, in effect, immensely crowded prisons serving as instruments of "slow, passive murder." Though the Warsaw Ghetto contained 30% of Warsaw's population, it occupied only 2.5% of the city's area, averaging over 9 people per room. Between 1940 and 1942, starvation and disease, especially typhoid, killed many in the ghettos. Over 43,000 Warsaw ghetto residents, or one in ten of the total population, died in 1941; in Theresienstadt, more than half the residents died in 1942.
The excuse for setting up concentration camps, including the Dachau camp, was the hysteria following the burning of the Reichstag, which was the Congressional building in Berlin, on the night of February 27, 1933, only four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. Hermann Goering accused the Communists of starting the fire in protest of the appointment of Hitler as the Chancellor and the scheduled Congressional election to confirm his appointment, but the Communists claimed that the Nazis had set the fire themselves in order to begin a reign of terror. The arrests of Communists and Social Democrats began even before the fire was put out.
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.