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Section: What were the camps?

Types of camps

On coming to power during 1933 the Nazis began to establish a network of camps. These were initially concentration camps due to the fact that they were used to concentrate enemies and certain groups of people in one place.

Local SS and police forces set up these first camps. However, very soon the Nazi leadership began to develop a systematic and centrally controlled system of camps. Later, as the Nazi regime imposed their influence over countries they occupied, they developed a range of different types of camps. These were concentration camps, transit camps, forced-labour or work camps and extermination camps.

Concentration camps

The entrance to Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany.
The entrance to Buchenwald concentration camp, Germany. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

A concentration camp is a place where people are detained or confined without trial. Prisoners were kept in extremely harsh conditions and without any rights. In Nazi Germany after 1933, and across Nazi controlled Europe between 1938 and 1945, concentration camps became a major way in which the Nazis imposed their control. The first concentration camps in Germany were set up as detention centres to stop any opposition to the Nazis by so called ‘enemies of the state’. These people included communists, socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, and so called ‘asocials’.

However, after March 1938, when the Germans annexed Austria into German territory, many thousands of German Jews were arrested and detained in Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps.

After Kristallnacht (the ‘Night of broken glass’) in November 1938, the Nazis and their supporters arrested many thousands of male Jews above the age of 14 years. They imprisoned them in camps for days or sometimes weeks. They were kept in poor conditions, given little food or water and subjected to brutal treatment and torture. When the German army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the SS set up many concentration camps to house Polish political prisoners and many thousands of Polish Jews. Many of the inmates of these camps were subjected to increasingly poor conditions. In addition they were subjected to forced labour, the result of which was often death.

Extermination camps

The construction of Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The construction of Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Nazis began the first mass killings of Jews. Between June and September 1941, the Einsatzgruppen supported by local collaborators murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews across Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Soviet Union. Having observed the killings, Adolf Eichmann ordered a more efficient method of killing the Jews of Europe be developed.

The Nazis established six extermination camps on Polish soil. These were Chelmno (December 1941-January 1945), Belzec (March-December 1942), Sobibor (May-July 1942 and October 1942-October 1943), Treblinka (July 1942-August 1943), Majdanek (September 1941-July 1944) and Auschwitz-Birkenau (March 1942-January 1945).

The first of these camps, Chelmno, was established to exterminate the Jews of the Lodz ghetto and the surrounding area, and 5,000 Roma. The facility contained three gas vans in which victims were murdered. Only two Jews survived the camp.

After the Wannsee Conference of 1942, the Germans established death camps at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Their sole purpose was murder. They were set up near railway lines to make transportation of the victims easy. As they were purely killing centres, there were no selections. The victims were sent directly to the gas chambers.

A concentration camp to house Soviet prisoners of war and Poles had been established at Majdanek, close to the Polish city of Lublin, during 1941. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers and crematoria were added, turning Majdanek into an extermination camp that would murder 78,000 people. Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, was a massive concentration, forced labour and extermination camp at the centre of a network of more than 40 satellite camps. Upwards of 80 per cent of those Jews transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau were selected for immediate death.

Those who were selected for work were set on a whole range of tasks. These included sorting and processing the possessions of everyone who arrived at the camp and heavy manual work. Some Jewish prisoners were put into units called Sonderkommandos, whose role was to work in the gas chambers and crematorium. They were kept apart from the rest of the camp prisoners, but were also sent to their deaths in the gas chambers after a few weeks or months of work.

The majority of those selected for any kind of work would die within weeks or months of their arrival from lack of food, disease or overwork.

 

Transit Camps

The Nazis set up a number of transit camps in occupied lands. After being rounded up, Jews were imprisoned in transit camps before being deported to a concentration camp, labour camp or one of the six Nazi extermination camps in Poland.

Examples of transit camps include Drancy in France, Mechelen in Belgium, and Vught and Westerbork in the Netherlands.

Drancy

The Germans established a camp at Drancy, northeast of Paris, in August 1941 as an internment camp for foreign Jews in France. It then became the major transit camp for the deportation of Jews from France. Initially, French police under the control of the German Security Service administered Drancy. Then, in July 1943, the Germans took over the running of the camp.

Drancy held 5,000 prisoners. Around 70,000 mainly Jewish prisoners passed through the camp between August 1941 and August 1944. On 22 June 1942, the Nazis began systematic deportations of Jews from Drancy to the extermination camps in occupied Poland. In the first transport 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the last transport on 31 July 1944, 64,759 Jews had been deported from Drancy in 64 transports. Approximately 61,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A further 3,753 Jews had been transported to Sobibor.

Mechelen

The Nazis established Mechelen transit camp, to the south of Brussels, Belgium, as a detention and deportation camp, on 4 August 1942. The camp was operational until 31 July 1944.

During its operational life Mechelen was used to collect and deport Jews and Roma from Belgium to the labour camp at Heydebreck, in Germany and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland. In excess of 25,000 Jews and Roma were deported by train from Mechelen to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Westerbork

Westerbork was a transit camp located in the north east of the Netherlands. The camp had originally been set up in October 1939 by the Dutch government. It was a place to hold German Jews who had entered the Netherlands illegally. These people were fleeing Germany because of Nazi persecution.

The German army had invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, and very quickly had imposed their antisemitic policies. In late 1941 they decided that Westerbork was an ideal place in which to assemble the Jews of Holland before their deportation. The first Jews arrived at the camp on 14 July, and the first deportation to Auschwitz left the following day.

Selections for transit were a regular feature at Westerbork. Each Monday evening a train of about 20 cattle wagons would arrive at the camp. A list of one thousand people would be compiled by the Jewish council, which was made up of leaders of the community appointed by the Nazis and forced to carry out the Nazis’ orders. Early on the Tuesday morning those selected would assemble for deportation. After a roll call, they would enter the trains, at least 50 to each wagon, a bucket of water at one end and an empty one for use as a toilet at the other. The doors would close before the train departed for the long journey to the intended destination.

Between July 1942 and September 1944 almost 100,000 Jews would pass through Westerbork camp. They would leave on one of the 103 trains going to the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, the Theresienstadt Ghetto or the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor. Fewer than 5,000 of them survived.

Like many of the camps, Westerbork also had a permanent population of workers. They would be doing metalwork or manual labour, or set to work serving the various areas of the camp.

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One group of prisoners were sent to Westerbork as they were valuable to the Germans.

These people had a blue stamp in their registration cards, meaning that they were exempt from deportation. They were Jews who had British or American citizenship. The Nazis saw these Jews as ‘exchange Jews’, and they would attempt to exchange each one of them for five to 10 Germans; especially military prisoners of war. In fact, few exchanges ever occurred.

One exchange Jew was Eve, daughter of Hans and Rita Oppenheimer. The family was German–Jewish. Eve’s father had moved to Holland from Germany to escape Nazi persecution. Eve was born in June 1936 during a visit to England by her mother and brothers, Paul and Rudi; she therefore had British nationality. The mother, brothers and sister then joined the father in Holland.

However, by the late spring of 1940, they found themselves under the Nazi regime once more. After being interned in the Amsterdam ghetto, they were deported to Westerbork in June 1943, and then on to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany on 1 February 1944.

Westerbork was liberated by the Allies in April 1945. At that time just 876 prisoners remained, of whom 569 were Dutch citizens.

Work camps

It was not only concentration camp prisoners who were used for forced labour. By 1945 more than 14 million people were exploited in the network of hundreds of forced labour camps that stretched across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.

Many of the forced labour camps were satellite camps or sections of concentration camps. Auschwitz, in Poland, had over 40 such satellite camps. Inmates of the labour camps were kept in terrible conditions, with the intention by the Nazis that death would be the result. ‘Extermination by labour’ was a policy under which the Nazis could supply the German war effort, while also continuing to carry out ‘the final solution’.

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How did labour camps sustain the Nazi war machine?

Women prisoners carrying out forced labour at Ravensbruck work camp, Germany.
Women prisoners carrying out forced labour at Ravensbruck work camp, Germany. Prisoners working in the quarry at Sachsenhausen camp, Germany. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.
Punishment and re-education

The Nazis believed that hard manual labour was the most appropriate way to punish opponents and re-educate them to the ideals of National Socialism.

From the establishment of Dachau, forced labour, often pointless, without proper equipment, food and sleep formed the basis of the camp regime. As the prisoners subjected to this harsh treatment included criminals and ‘asocials’, a large proportion of the general public either turned a blind eye or supported the use of hard labour.

Labour shortages

As the German economy developed, the country began to suffer labour shortages. The concentration camp population was used to fill this void. After the Anschluss, thousands of Austrian Jews recently forced out of employment, non-Jewish ‘asocials’ and opponents of the Nazis were rounded up and used as a freely available source of forced labour. Many of these would provide the much-needed human resources to produce weapons, vehicles and goods for the German war effort.

After the invasion of Poland the Nazis decreed that all Jewish and Polish men must perform unpaid forced labour. During the war the development of camps across Europe provided a plentiful supply of free labour for work in the German war effort. The Nazis also deported many hundreds of thousands of civilians for forced labour throughout the Reich.

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Worked to death

From 1942, the SS reorganised the concentration camp administration to mobilise the millions of prisoners within the camps. The Nazis established hundreds of sub-camps across Europe. The Auschwitz camp complex contained over 40 sub-camps that housed thousands of Jewish prisoners to work as forced labour in the coalmines, various munitions factories and the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant at Buna Monovitz.

Many thousands of German convicts were literally worked to death; living and working in the unhealthiest of conditions and denied adequate food, rest and healthcare. Jewish and non-Jewish concentration camp prisoners were subjected to these same conditions with the same end goal of death through work.

Death marches

Towards the end of 1944, to escape the Russian advance, the SS began moving prisoners from camps in the East by way of the so called ‘death marches’.

Thousands of prisoners were marched and then transported on railway trucks towards work camps within Germany in order to support the failing German war effort.

By 1945 more than 14 million people had been exploited in the network of hundreds of forced labour camps that stretched across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.

After the war the millions of displaced persons included may thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors who had been victims of the Nazi forced labour regime.

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Bergen-Belsen

During 1940 the German military established Bergen-Belsen camp as a prisoner of war camp. The camp was located south of the towns of Bergen and Belsen, about eleven miles north of Celle in Germany.

In April 1943, the SS took over part of the camp and converted it into a concentration camp to house persons who had been identified as people who could be exchanged for German nationals held in Allied countries. Jewish prisoners from Buchenwald and Natzweiler were used to build the camp.

Bergen-Belsen’s first commandant, Adolf Haas, was succeeded, on 2 December 1944, by the brutal Josef Kramer.

Of the Jews sent to Bergen-Belsen, very few were set free. One group of 222 Jews reached Palestine after leaving Bergen-Belsen on 10 July 1944. The second group left the camp in two parts – in August and December 1945, the Kasztner transport was sent to Switzerland. Finally, on 25 January 1945, 136 Jews with South American passports reached Switzerland.

DID YOU KNOW...

From March 1944, Bergen-Belsen gradually became a concentration camp. The Germans initially began transferring, from other camps, prisoners they classified as ‘unfit to work’. As more transports arrived from Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald concentration camps, the prisoners were housed in the former ‘prisoners’ camp’. German convicts, transferred from Dora, served as ‘block elders’ and Kapos. They treated other inmates brutally.

In August 1944, a women’s camp was added. In October 1944 women from Plaszow and Auschwitz were sent to Bergen-Belsen, among them were Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

At the end of 1944 and early in 1945, a complete deterioration of living conditions set in as thousands of survivors of death marches began to arrive at the camp. The large numbers arriving at the camp soon overwhelmed the meagre resources available. The camp administration did not attempt to house them. Serious overcrowding and a lack of sanitary facilities resulted in the break-out of a typhus epidemic. From January to mid-April 1945, some 35,000 prisoners died due to typhus, starvation and the terrible conditions within the camp.

Liberation

The British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945.

The liberators were totally unprepared to deal with the appalling situation they had discovered.

Most of the 60,000 inmates were in a critical condition. During the next five days, 14,000 died, and in the following weeks, a further 14,000 fell victim to the conditions to which they had previously been subjected.

A displaced person’s camp housing in excess of 12,000 survivors, was established by the British liberators in the former German military school barracks. Bergen-Belsen displaced persons’ camp, remained in existence until 1951.

After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, the British forces burned down the whole camp to prevent the spread of typhus.

Executions

Forty-eight former members of the camp staff were arrested and tried by the British.

Eleven were sentenced to death, including camp commandant Josef Kramer. They were executed on 12 December 1945.

A view of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after the liberation of the camp.

© 2015 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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