In October 1944, after the SS transferred the Emalia Jews to Plaszow, Schindler sought and obtained authorization to relocate his plant to Brünnlitz (Brnenec) in Moravia, and reopen it exclusively as an armaments factory. One of his assistants drew several versions of a list of up to 1,200 Jewish prisoners needed to work in the new factory. These lists came to be known collectively as “Schindler's List.” Schindler met the specifications required by the SS to classify Brünnlitz as a subcamp of Gross-Rosen concentration camp and thereby facilitated the survival of around 800 Jewish men whom the SS deported from Plaszow via Gross-Rosen to Brünnlitz and between 300 and 400 Jewish women from Plaszow via Auschwitz.
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."
In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners in concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
Lewis said that his comrades pushed cigarettes and sweets through the wire to the inmates who fell on them so ferociously that some were left dead on the ground, torn to pieces in the sordid scramble. The Hungarian Wehrmacht soldiers, who had been assigned to guard the camp during the transition, shot into the mob and killed numerous people. Lt. Lawrence Alsen, a British soldiers who was at the camp on the day of the liberation, told his son Niall after the war that "In some respects, the Hungarians were worse than the Germans."
Several thousand Catholic clergy members were also incarcerated at Dachau. One was Titus Brandsma (1881-1942), a Carmelite cleric, philosopher, writer, teacher and historian as well as an avowed anti-Nazi. Brandsma arrived at Dachau in June 1942, and died the following month after being given a lethal injection. In 1985, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II (1920 -2005). MichaÅ‚ Kozal (1893-1943), a Polish priest, arrived at Dachau in 1941, and for two years, he attended to the spiritual needs of his fellow prisoners. In January 1943, Kozal perished from a lethal injection. Pope John Paul II beatified him in 1987.
Dachau was the first and most important camp at which German doctors and scientists set up laboratories using inmates as involuntary guinea pigs for such experiments as determining the effects on human beings of sudden increases and decreases in atmospheric pressure, studying the effects of freezing on warm-blooded creatures, infecting prisoners with malaria and treating them with various drugs with unknown effects, and testing the effects of drinking seawater or going without food or water. Continued throughout World War II, such experiments and the harsh living conditions made Dachau one of the most notorious of camps. After the war, the scientists and doctors from this and other camps were tried at Nürnberg in the “Doctors’ Trial”; seven were sentenced to death. (See Nürnberg trials.)
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.
Before the outbreak of war, Poland had been a relative haven for European Jews - Krakow's Jewish population numbered over 50,000. But when Germany invaded, destruction began immediately and it was merciless. Jews were herded into crowded ghettos, randomly beaten and humiliated, capriciously killed. Jewish property and businesses were summarily destroyed, or appropriated by the SS and 'sold' to Nazi 'investors', one of whom was the fast talking, womanizing, money hungry Schindler.
In late 1944, Plaszow and all its sub-camps had to be evacuated in face of the Russian advance. Most of the camp inmates—more than 20,000 men, women, and children—were sent to extermination camps. On receiving the order to evacuate, Schindler, who had approached the appropriate section in the Supreme Command of the Army (OKW), managed to obtain official authorization to continue production in a factory that he and his wife had set up in Brünnlitz, in their native Sudetenland. The entire work force from Zablocie—to which were furtively added many new names from the Plaszow camp—was supposed to move to the new factory site. However, instead of being brought to Brünnlitz, the 800 men—among them 700 Jews—and the 300 women on Schindler’s list were diverted to Gross-Rosen and to Auschwitz, respectively.
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas [de], who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.