Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag building, seat of the German parliament, burnt down. Communists were blamed for setting the fire and Hindenburg declared a state of emergency, passing the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended basic rights like trial by jury. The German Communist Party was suspended and over 4,000 members were detained without trial. The next month, Hitler’s cabinet passed the Enabling Act which allowed him to enact laws without the consent of the parliament for four years, effectively transforming the German government into a de facto Nazi dictatorship.
Anne Frank poses in 1941 in this photo made available by Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In August of 1944, Anne, her family and others who were hiding from the occupying German Security forces, were all captured and shipped off to a series of prisons and concentration camps. Anne died from typhus at age 15 in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but her posthumously published diary has made her a symbol of all Jews killed in World War II. #
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
Soviet civilian populations in the occupied areas were heavily persecuted. Villages throughout the Soviet Union were destroyed by German troops. Germans rounded up civilians for forced labor in Germany and caused famine by taking foodstuffs. In Belarus, Germany imposed a regime that deported some 380,000 people for slave labor and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. Over 600 villages had their entire populations killed, and at least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were destroyed by the Germans. According to Timothy Snyder, of "the nine million people who were in the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians)". The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has estimated that 3.3 million of 5.7 million Soviet POWs died in German custody. The death rates decreased as the POWs were needed to help the German war effort; by 1943, half a million had been deployed as slave labor.
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."
Nearly 100 British medical students arrived at Bergen-Belsen in May 1945 to assist with the relief effort. They worked directly in the huts to supervise the distribution of food and provide whatever medical care possible. Dr Roger Dixey, one of the students who volunteered at the camp, describes his work and the condition of the prisoners in the barracks.
"Coming back to Bergen Belsen, I met the people from the Jewish Relief Unit from England and the Joint American Distribution Committee. In 1946 one of the nurses who came from England was a former Berlin girl, Alice Retlick, and we got to be friends. We got married on the 20th of June 1948 by the Chief Rabbi of the British Army, Chaplain Levy, and our Rabbi Asaria Helfgott. It was a great day."6
As some needed to point out, this is a fictionalized account of historical events and a genuine hero. Some historical persons were combined to make one character in the book and some time frames were condensed. Oskar Schindler was a deeply flawed man, brought to greatness by living through a time of horror in a position where he could make a small, but real difference. The condensations of those true events in this book are masterful. A great book!
At the end of the war, between 50,000 and 100,000 Jewish survivors were living in three zones of occupation: American, British and Soviet. Within a year, that figure grew to about 200,000. The American zone of occupation contained more than 90 percent of the Jewish displaced persons (DPs). The Jewish DPs would not and could not return to their homes, which brought back such horrible memories and still held the threat of danger from anti-Semitic neighbors. Thus, they languished in DP camps until emigration could be arranged to Palestine, and later Israel, the United States, South America and other countries. The last DP camp closed in 1957 (David S. Wyman, "The United States," in David S. Wyman, ed., The World Reacts to the Holocaust, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996, pp. 70710).
The prisoners of Dachau concentration camp originally were to serve as forced labor for a munition factory, and to expand the camp. It was used as a training center for SS guards and was a model for other concentration camps. The camp was about 300 m × 600 m (1,000 ft × 2,000 ft) in rectangular shape. The prisoners' entrance was secured by an iron gate with the motto "Arbeit macht frei" ("Work will make you free"). This reflected Nazi propaganda, which trivialized concentration camps as labor and re-education camps, when in fact forced labor was used as a method of torture and murder.
... In Bergen-Belsen, for example, thousands of corpses of Jewish prisoners were found by British soldiers on the day of liberation, which gave the impression that this was one of the notorious extermination camps. Actually, many Jews in Bergen-Belsen as well as in the satellite camps of Dachau died in the last weeks before the end of the war as a result of the quickly improvised retransfers and evacuations of Jewish workers from the still existing ghettos, work camps and concentration camps in the East (Auschwitz) ...
After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, private employers were urged to sack Jewish employees, and offices were set up to speed emigration. Imprisoned Jews could buy freedom if they promised to leave the country, abandoning their assets. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany's 500,000 Jews had fled, as had many Jews from Austria and the German-occupied parts of Czechoslovakia.
In the major Dachau war crimes case (United States of America v. Martin Gottfried Weiss et.al.), forty-two officials of Dachau were tried from November to December 1945. All were found guilty – thirty-six of the defendants were sentenced to death on 13 December 1945, of whom 23 were hanged on 28–29 May 1946, including the commandant, SS-Obersturmbannführer Martin Gottfried Weiss, SS-Obersturmführer Freidrich Wilhelm Ruppert and camp doctors Karl Schilling and Fritz Hintermeyer. Camp commandant Weiss admitted in affidavit testimony that most of the deaths at Dachau during his administration were due to "typhus, TB, dysentery, pneumonia, pleurisy, and body weakness brought about by lack of food." His testimony also admitted to deaths by shootings, hangings and medical experiments. Ruppert ordered and supervised the deaths of innumerable prisoners at Dachau main and subcamps, according to the War Crimes Commission official trial transcript. He testified about hangings, shootings and lethal injections, but did not admit to direct responsibility for any individual deaths. An anonymous Dutch prisoner contended that British Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent Noor Inayat Khan was cruelly beaten by SS officer Wilhelm Ruppert before being shot from behind; the beating may have been the actual cause of her death.
To prosecute the leaders of the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg was formed in 1946. The U.S., the UK, the Soviet Union and France each supplied two judges (a primary and an alternate) and a prosecution team for the trial. Twelve leading Nazi officials were sentenced to death for the crimes they had committed, while three received life sentences in prison, and four had prison terms for up to twenty years.
The workers who constructed the original buildings were housed in camps near Fallingbostel and Bergen, the latter being the so-called Bergen-Belsen Army Construction Camp. Once the military complex was completed in 1938/39, the workers' camp fell into disuse. However, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht began using the huts as a prisoner of war (POW) camp.