The AFPU recruited from the ranks of the British Army. Many of the photographers and cameramen present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen were tough, hardened by their own experiences of combat. Yet they were deeply shocked by what they witnessed at the camp. AFPU cameraman and photographer Sergeant Mike Lewis came from a Jewish family and describes how witnessing the camp's liberation made real for him the stories of persecution he had been told by his parents. He also reflects on his own reaction to what he had witnessed.
Auschwitz, perhaps the most notorious and lethal of the concentration camps, was actually three camps in one: a prison camp (Auschwitz I), an extermination camp (Auschwitz II–Birkenau), and a slave labour camp (Auschwitz III–Buna-Monowitz). Upon arrival, Jewish prisoners faced what was called a Selektion. A German doctor presided over the selection of pregnant women, young children, the elderly, handicapped, sick, and infirm for immediate death in the gas chambers. As necessary, the Germans selected able-bodied prisoners for forced labour in the factories adjacent to Auschwitz, where one German company, IG Farben, invested 700 million Reichsmarks in 1942 alone to take advantage of forced labour, a capital investment. The conglomerate presumed that slave labour would be a permanent part of the German economy. Deprived of adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care, these prisoners were literally worked to death. Periodically, they would face another Selektion. The Nazis would transfer those unable to work to the gas chambers of Birkenau.
There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, since the mass killings took place in the camps further east. Nevertheless, current estimates put the number of deaths at Belsen at more than 50,000 Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). Among them was Czech painter and writer Josef Čapek (estimated to be in April 1945). He had coined the word robot, popularised by his brother Karel Čapek.
Immediately upon arriving at Dachau, the process of dehumanizing prisoners began. Men and women were stripped of all possessions including their clothes which were replaced with striped uniforms. Their hair was shaved and they were given an identification number with a colored triangle to show their category.13 Dachau was a labor camp, most of the many sub-camps of Dachau were built with slave labor. The Nazis exploited the cheap labor by hiring out prisoners to private firms. Prisoners never received their wages, as the private firms paid the Nazis directly for the labor. The work was often heavy labor and the weakened and malnourished prisoners were given little food and lived in unsanitary conditions.
In the 1930s, the political landscape of Europe changed dramatically with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party. Sensing the shift in political momentum, Schindler joined a local pro-Nazi organization and began collecting intelligence for the German military. He was arrested by Czech authorities in 1938, charged with spying and sentenced to death but was released shortly thereafter, when Germany annexed the Sudetenland. Schindler would take advantage of this second chance.
Further trials at Nuremberg took place between 1946 and 1949, which tried another 185 defendants. West Germany initially tried few ex-Nazis, but after the 1958 Ulm Einsatzkommando trial, the government set up a governmental agency to investigate crimes. Other trials of Nazis and collaborators took place in Western and Eastern Europe. In 1960, Mossad agents captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to Israel to stand trial on 15 indictments, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. He was convicted in December 1961 and executed in June 1962. Eichmann's trial and death revived interest in war criminals and the Holocaust in general.
Being fully aware that Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, the SS invested its time in removing evidence of the crimes it committed in the concentration camps. They began destroying incriminating evidence in April 1945 and planned on murdering the prisoners using codenames "Wolke A-I" (Cloud A-1) and "Wolkenbrand" (Cloud fire). However, these plans were not carried out. In mid-April, plans to evacuate the camp started by sending prisoners toward Tyrol. On 26 April, over 10,000 prisoners were forced to leave the Dachau concentration camp on foot, in trains, or in trucks. The largest group of some 7,000 prisoners was driven southward on a foot-march lasting several days. More than 1,000 prisoners did not survive this march. The evacuation transports cost many thousands of prisoners their lives.
The site is open to the public and includes monuments to the dead, including a successor to the wooden cross of 1945, some individual memorial stones and a "House of Silence" for reflection. In addition to the Jewish, Polish and Dutch national memorials, a memorial to eight Turkish citizens who were killed at Belsen was dedicated in December 2012.
Dachau, located ten miles north of Munich, Germany, was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis and served as a model for all later camps. By 1937, it held 13,260 prisoners, including German communists and social democrats as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), and homosexuals. Dachau also served as the central camp for Christian religious prisoners.
The photograph above shows the prisoners lined up along the concrete ditch in front of the electric barbed wire fence on the west side of the main Dachau camp. The barbed fire fence is out of camera range on the left hand side. At the end of the row of wooden barracks is the camp greenhouse which was located where the Protestant Memorial church now stands. This photo was probably taken from the top of Guard Tower B. Notice the American flag on the top of one of the buildings.
Accompanied by Communist political prisoners, who served as guides, the Americans toured the prison camp and were shown the building, just outside the barbed wire enclosure, which housed the homicidal gas chamber disguised as a shower room. The Americans heard eye-witness accounts from Dachau survivors who said that prisoners had been gassed to death in the fake shower room; they also heard stories of how prisoners had been shoved into the crematory ovens while still alive. Bodies of fully-clothed dead inmates were found piled inside the new crematorium building and many more naked corpses were piled up outside. Outside the disinfection chambers, there was a huge pile of clothing waiting to be fumigated with Zyklon-B gas pellets.
11 of Hitler’s deputies were given death sentences, including Goering, the most senior surviving Nazi. However he too committed suicide the night before he was due to hang. Others received prison terms. Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect, was released in 1966 and spent his remaining years writing about the Nazi regime, donating most of his royalties to Jewish charities. Rudolph Hess committed suicide in prison in 1987. Many Nazis evaded justice altogether and were never tried.
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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.
David M. Crowe’s book Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind The List should be considered a classic in investigative and historical research. Based on interviews with dozens of Holocaust survivors saved by Oskar Schindler and with access to documents unavailable to Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, Crowe sheds light on one of the most dramatic and important stories to come out of World War II.
In Dachau, as in other Nazi camps, German physicians performed medical experiments on prisoners, including high-altitude experiments using a decompression chamber, malaria and tuberculosis experiments, hypothermia experiments, and experiments testing new medications. Prisoners were also forced to test methods of making seawater potable and of halting excessive bleeding. Hundreds of prisoners died or were permanently crippled as a result of these experiments.
Many of the prisoners at Bergen Belsen arrived there on death marches from other concentration camps. During Summer 1944, as the British and American Armies advanced in their fight against Germany from the West and the Soviet army advanced in its fight against Germany from the East, the Nazis began liquidating concentration camps, sending prisoners on death marches. They forced prisoners of concentration camps to march over long distances, under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were abused, and sometimes killed, by the guards that accompanied them.
^ 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)."
A young man sits on an overturned stool next to a burnt body in the Thekla camp outside Leipzig, in April of 1945, after the US troops entered Leipzig April 18. On the 18th of April, the workers of the Thekla plane factory were locked in an isolated building of the factory by the Germans and burned alive by incendiary bombs. About 300 prisoners died. Those who managed to escape died on the barbed wire or were executed by the Hitler youth movement, according to a US captain's report. #
The camp physician, Dr. Katz of Nuremberg, was also a prisoner. At first he was well treated because the guards and even the Commander admired his courageous attitude, but after he had witnessed the torture inflicted upon the prisoners, it became dangerous for the Nazis to release him. It was reported later that he had hanged himself in a detention cell—a few days before his anticipated release. His presence in the cell, however, was never explained.
^ Sven Felix Kellerhoff (21 October 2002). "Neue Museumskonzepte für die Konzentrationslager". WELT ONLINE (in German). Axel Springer AG. Retrieved 2 June 2008. . . . die SS-Kasernen neben dem KZ Dachau wurden zuerst (bis 1974) von der US-Armee bezogen. Seither nutzt sie die VI. Bayerische Bereitschaftspolizei. (. . . the SS barracks adjacent to the Dachau concentration camp were at first occupied by the US Army (until 1974). Since then they have been used by the Sixth Rapid Response Unit of the Bavarian Police.)
In the fall of 1939, at the start of World War II, Dachau’s prisoners were relocated to Buchenwald and the concentration camps at Mauthausen and Flossenbuerg. For the time being, Dachau was used as a training site for members of the newly established “Waffen-SS,” an elite SS combat unit whose troops also helped run concentration camps. By early 1940, Dachau had been reconverted into a concentration camp. Conditions at the camp were brutal and overcrowded. The facility had been designed to house some 6,000 detainees, but the population continued to rise and by 1944 approximately 30,000 prisoners were packed into the camp.
Only in 2000 did the Federal Government of Germany begin to financially support the memorial. Co-financed by the state of Lower Saxony, a complete redesign was planned which was intended to be more in line with contemporary thought on exhibition design. On April 15, 2005, there was a ceremony, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation and many ex-prisoners and ex-liberating troops attended. In October 2007, the redesigned memorial site was opened, including a large new Documentation Centre and permanent exhibition on the edge of the newly redefined camp, whose structure and layout can now be traced. Since 2009, the memorial has been receiving funding from the Federal government on an ongoing basis.
The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
Another important correction to the historical record: Itzhak Stern, played in the movie by Ben Kingsley, was actually a composite of a number of people, including Mietek Pemper, who played a crucial role in putting Oskar Schindler in the position to save many people. Pemper had the unfortunate task of being forced to work as the assistant to Amon Goth, the sadistic commandant of the Krakow-Płaszow concentration camp. In that position, Pemper passed along valuable information to Oskar. As the German war effort neared collapse, Pemper told Schindler he needed to expand into armaments because only factories deemed vital to the war effort would be viewed worth saving, along with, it was hoped, the workers in those factories.
Of the 430,000 sent to the first death camp at Bełżec in Poland, there were only two survivors. 700,000 were killed at Treblinka in just five months. In July, Himmler ordered that all Jews in key areas of Poland, except for those needed for essential labour, were to be killed by the end of the year. Most were. Despite Allied intelligence receiving detailed reports of the mass murders in Europe, the public reaction in Britain was largely a mixture of apathy and disbelief.
"At this point, the young Teutonic lieutenant, Heinrich Skodzensky, emerges from the guard post and comes to attention before the American officer. The German is blond, handsome, perfumed, his boots glistening, his uniform well-tailored. He reports, as if he were on the military parade grounds near the Unter den Linden during an exercise, then very properly raising his arm he salutes with a very respectful "Heil Hitler!" and clicks his heels.
Belsen was in the beginning bearable and we had bunks to sleep on, and a small ration of soup and bread. But as the camp got fuller, our group and many others were given a barracks to hold about seven hundred lying on the floor without blankets and without food or anything. It was a pitiful scene as the camp was attacked by lice and most of the people had typhus and cholera ... Many people talk about Auschwitz -- it was a horrible camp. But Belsen, no words can describe it ... From my experience and suffering, Belsen was the worst.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
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.
At Auschwitz alone, more than 2 million people were murdered in a process resembling a large-scale industrial operation. A large population of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates worked in the labor camp there; though only Jews were gassed, thousands of others died of starvation or disease. During the summer of 1944, even as the events of D-Day (June 6, 1944) and a Soviet offensive the same month spelled the beginning of the end for Germany in the war, a large proportion of Hungary’s Jewish population was deported to Auschwitz, and as many as 12,000 Jews were killed every day.
The German view of the Roma as hereditary criminals and "asocials" was reflected in their classification in the concentration camps, where they were usually counted among the asocials and given black triangles to wear. According to Niewyk and Nicosia, at least 130,000 died out of nearly one million in German-occupied Europe. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calculates at least 220,000. Ian Hancock, who specializes in Romani history and culture, argues for between 500,000 and 1,500,000. The treatment of the Roma was not consistent across German-occupied territories. Those in France and the Low Countries were subject to restrictions on movement and some confinement to collection camps, while those in Central and Eastern Europe were sent to concentration camps and murdered by soldiers and execution squads. Before being sent to the camps, the Roma were herded into ghettos, including several hundred into the Warsaw Ghetto. Further east, teams of Einsatzgruppen tracked down Romani encampments and murdered the inhabitants on the spot, leaving no records of the victims. After the Germans occupied Hungary, 1,000 Roma were deported to Auschwitz.[x]
One prisoner, Aaron, son of a Bamberg attorney, died of his injuries a few days later. The official cause of death, which in every other case was agreed upon between the camp commanders and the Special Police, could not in this case be made to appear as “Shot while trying to escape,” or “Found hanged in his cell,” since the body showed no marks of shooting or hanging. The Commander, however, found a way out of this fix: that very night the shed in which the corpse was laid out was burned down. The corpse was sufficiently scorched to destroy the marks of the beating, and the official announcement read, “Died of heart disease.” The body was delivered to the parents in a sealed coffin.
The Nuremberg Laws, issued on Sept. 15, 1935, was designed to exclude Jews from public life. The Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of their citizenship and prohibited marriages and extramarital sex between Jews and Gentiles. These measures set the legal precedent for anti-Jewish legislation that followed. Nazis issued numerous anti-Jewish laws over the next several years. Jews were banned from public parks, fired from civil service jobs, and forced to register their property. Other laws barred Jewish doctors from treating anyone other than Jewish patients, expelled Jewish children from public schools, and placed severe travel restrictions on Jews.
The fact that this child survivor had a number on her arm indicates that she had been previously registered at the Auschwitz death camp; only Jews at Auschwitz were tattooed. When the Auschwitz camp was abandoned on January 18, 1945, the survivors, including women and children, were marched 37 miles through two feet of snow to the German border and then sent by train to Bergen-Belsen and other camps.
It is estimated that approximately 3,000 Jews died on the Plantages. When the camp officials felt that these internees were too ill and too weak to work, they would march them into a lake (since drained) , regardless of the time of year. They were forced to stay in the water until dead. Those who remained conscious were placed in wheelbarrows, brought back to camp, where they died a few hours later.
Sanitation was incredibly inadequate, with few latrines and water faucets for the tens of thousands of prisoners interned in Bergen-Belsen at this time. Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the lack of adequate food, water, and shelter led to an outbreak of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery, causing an ever increasing number of deaths. In the first few months of 1945, tens of thousands of prisoners died.