Equality Essay, Research Paper
November 16, 1999
Equal Responsibility for All:
An In-depth Look at Four Prison Camps during WWII
Over six million people were either worked to death or murdered in cold blood inside German concentration camps during World War II. This number includes both Jews and non-Jews who died inside the camps, but does not count the many people who were executed in the towns and ghettos. Almost the entire Jewish population of Eastern Europe was murdered during this war. Murdered alongside the Jews were political prisoners, homosexuals, gypsies and other minority groups. The Jews, however, were the only group singled out for absolute extermination (Chatel and Feree 6). Although many of the concentration camps and sub-camps were started for purposes other than the annihilation of minority groups, without exception, every camp contributed to the millions of dead left after the war.
The first concentration camp was started on March 22, 1933, at Dachau. “The initial decision to open concentration camps was made by Herman Goering, the minister of Prussia” (Chatel and Feree 1). In fact, Dachau’s first prisoners were not Jews. They were “political prisoners (e.g. Communists or Social Democrats), habitual criminals, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, and “anti-socials” (5). After the Second World War officially started, concentration camps began to spring up all over Eastern Europe. Camps such as Buchenwald, started in 1937, and Bergen-Belsen, established in 1943, were “horrible places where many people died” (Treblinka 1), but were not established for the sole purpose of mass murders. Bergen-Belsen, the worst known work camp, was a camp for prisoner exchange and was later used as a sick camp for prisoners who could no longer work in the other concentration camps (1). There were also six extermination camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzer, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka (Chatel and Feree 4). All six extermination camps were located in Poland, with Auschwitz and Treblinka being the two worst camps. In its two years of existence, over 870,000 people were annihilated inside Treblinka’s hidden compound. In the 58 months that Auschwitz was functioning, almost 2.5 million people were murdered there. All death numbers have to be estimated from the camps because there are no certain records of how many people were killed by the Germans.
The concentration camps w ere bad enough for the prisoners inside, but at least they had more chance of living than those at an extermination camp. The prisoners who would soon live inside built the concentration camp at Buchenwald. “During the entire summer of 1937, the SS forced the prisoners to use their ‘free time’ to carry huge stones from the quarry to the camp” (Chatel 2). Any prisoner who carried a rock that was too small for the guard’s liking was shot dead (2). “The official goal of Buchenwald was the destruction of the prisoners by work” (3). They planned to work the poor, emaciated creatures until their bodies could no longer take the strain. Many prisoners died from exposure to the climate, horrible sanitary conditions and repeated beatings. Medical experiments also took the lives of some prisoners inside Buchenwald, but mostly the prisoners were worked to their death (3). The camp was started with only 300 working prisoners in 1937, but it soon became massively overcrowded, with a total population of 80,436 prisoners by 1945. Life inside the camp was terrible, but the prisoners were not sentenced to immediate death as inside the extermination camps. However in its eight years of existence, there were between 50,000 and 60,000 people killed inside Buchenwald’s gates (Chatel and Ferree 2). A testimony by a survivor of Buchenwald, Ludwig Scheinbrunn, claims that “As of September 21, 1939, I was obliged to carry corpses in Buchenwald. I did that for two and a half years. During the winter of 1939, they erected a tent camp near the actual crematorium, where more than 40 prisoners died every day, from cold and starvation (Chatel 5). According to CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, who went to Buchenwald soon after its liberation, inside a small building, he witnessed “two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood [...]. [He] arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more that 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles [...]. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed” (Murrow 2).
At Bergen-Belsen, another concentration camp, the conditions varied based on the type of prisoner. The camp originated as a place to hold political prisoners of the war until they could be exchanged for German prisoners held inside Allied countries (Krakowski 185). There were five different camps inside Bergen-Belsen. The “prisoner’s camp” was where the 500 prisoners who built the camp lived. “Conditions in the camp were among the worst possible, and the mortality rate was very high” (186). This sub-camp was closed quickly due to the many deaths. The “special camp” was for the 2,400 “Jews who had papers.” Many of these prisoners were able to leave the country freely, but they were detained anyway. Many of these met their death upon transport to Auschwutz. The ‘neutral camp” had the best conditions of any camp. “The prisoners were nationals of neutral countries” (186). These prisoners were treated much better than the others. They were not forced to work, had better living conditions, and were not beaten. The “star camp” was the largest sub-camp. These were Jewish prisoners, but they were allowed to wear their own clothes (with the ever present Star of David) and husbands and wives were allowed to see each other. The last camp, the “Hungarian Camp” was a holding camp for Jews specifically from Hungary (187). By 1947,
Bergen-Belsen became a sick camp where prisoners from other camps would be sent when they were not able to work. These prisoners were basically neglected and many lived for only a short time inside the terrible conditions” (188). A new camp commander, Josef Kramer came to Bergen-Belsen on December 2, 1944. His main goal was to turn Bergen-Belsen into an official concentration camp. Upon this decision, “tens of thousands of prisoners poured in” (188) to the camp. Overcrowded, there was nowhere near enough supplies for the camp. “Most of them [the prisoners] had no roof over their heads, and were without water and food” (189). Between January and April of 1945, over 35,000 people died, mostly from neglect (189). Many people who helped to liberate concentration camps, such as Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen were horrified at what they found, but it was nothing compared to what the liberators would encounter at the death camps, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.
In some ways the people who were brought to the death camps were actually treated better. Many were gassed upon arrival at the camps, which at least provided an easy death compared to dying of starvation. The awful, humiliating events that took place within all the camps, but especially inside the death camps, were at least spared to those who were murdered upon arrival. True, some got to live longer, but with all they suffered before they finally died, many probably would have rather been originally sentenced into a gas chamber.
At the largest of all of the camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, prisoners were quickly divided upon arrival. The old, young, sick, and disabled were torn away from those who could work. They were all told that they were going to be disinfected after their long train journey, but in reality those not able to work were taken to gas chambers. Not many realized what was about to happen to them. They were led into a room and told to undress for their shower. Then the group was crammed into a room where they would be killed by poisonous gas. Even the Jewish prisoners who survived the selection could be subject to death at any time. The Sonderkommandos, Jewish workers at the gas chambers and crematoriums, thought that their jobs would secure their lives, but they were randomly selected to be executed too (Adler 4). They knew too much to be allowed to live inside the camp for very long (4). The autrocities committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau are almost too horrible to imagine. Although a majority of the prisoners were sentenced to immediate death upon arrival, others faced much crueler deaths. The Wall of Death is where prisoners were stripped naked, made to sit on their knees and shot at close range by a German guard (Swiebocki 88). Prisoners were also locked inside starvation cells or forced to stand for endless hours inside a “90 cm x 90 cm [standing cell] [?] usually four inmates at a time” (95). Prisoners were also killed randomly as punishment for others. Once, thirteen innocent prisoners were murdered as a punishment for trying to escape. They were hanged in front of the prisoners at roll call. The ropes were not quite long enough to cause a quick, neck-breaking death, so the prisoners suffered slowly to their deaths. All of this was done in front of the prisoners as an example to them to not try to escape from the camp (89). The campers were subject to long roll calls at which a prisoner orchestra would play beautiful symphonic music. They also played as the selected prisoners would march into their certain demise inside the gas chambers (Adler 4). “This was an unreal thing; this beautiful music,” says Rachel Piuti, who came to Auschwitz in 1944. “We marched out, the music accompanied us. We marched back, the music welcomed us. This is why it seemed already like life after death” (4). Those who worked at one of the many sub-camps were subject to beatings, cold, starvation, and diarrhea. They ate poorly with a cup of leafy coffee or tea for breakfast, soup for lunch, and a little bread and cheese for dinner (68). They received this much if they were lucky. They slept in large barn-like structures that were used to house horses before the war. There were holes all over the building, which exposed the prisoners to the harsh elements, even while they were inside. The prisoners slept on 3-tiered bunks with at least six people crammed on a single slab of wood. Many prisoners were used to retrieve the dead bodies from the gas chambers and burn them in one of the crematoriums inside the complex. Although the stench of burning flesh and black smoke poured almost non-stop from the chimneys of the crematoriums, they could still not keep up with the dead. The crematoriums should have been able to cremate over 10,000 dead bodies in the period of a day, but they could not keep up. “In late 1944, pit burning became the chief method of corpse disposal” (Feig 2).
Inside Treblinka’s gates, prisoners had even less chance for survival than inside Auschwitz-Birkenau. “The upper camp would house the machinery that would exterminate some 265,000 Jews of Warsaw [alone]” (Niss 2). Right outside the camp, people had very little knowledge of what was occurring inside. There were two fences that kept the proceedings of the camp from being known by the outside world. Both fences were made of barbed wire, and the inside fence was covered with branches so people could not see inside. Once the prisoners left their trains, they went directly through a selection process. “Those too sick to walk? were taken to a pit near the infirmary and shot” (2). Others were taken to rooms, instructed to write their relatives encouraging them to come to the camps, and were then taken directly to the gas chambers (Niss 2). Some were selected to help unload the train cars and sort out the other prisoners’ possessions. After a few days they would be gassed and new prisoners would take over their jobs. Most victims, however, were killed within their first few hours at the camp(3). At first, it took the Germans several hours to exterminate all of the new prisoners, but once they fine-tuned their skills, they managed to cut their time to only one or two hours (Arad 1484). Their improved efficiency was due in a large part to the increase in the number of crematoriums. When the camp began in 1942, there were only three crematoriums. This limited the number of bodies they could burn, so the Germans built ten more crematoriums between August and October of that year (1485). This mass genocide continued daily until late 1943, when they were notified of a possible Allied invasion. The camp was then closed and the many wood buildings were quickly burned down. “Orders were given to destroy the camp so that no trace of its existence would remain. A farm was built on the Treblinka site and it was offered to a Ukranian to run it for income” (Niss 4). Inside Treblinka, there was never a moral code. The Germans would even kill their own people. One woman, who “presented identity papers showing that she was of pure German stock and had boarded this train by mistake” (Donat 166), was still gassed along with her two young sons.
No matter which kind of camp a prisoner happened to be placed inside, there were no guarantees to life. Some tried to guarantee themselves freedom by trading sexual favors for food, giving away a treasure of theirs, or killing another to save themselves. The Germans, who claimed that they were the superior race, did create a sub-race. They did succeed in making those unlike them into sub-humans. People became desperate inside the camps. Families were torn apart and self-respect was lost. Even after the murders ended and the prisoners were freed, many committed suicide or lived miserable, horror-filled lives. What the Germans had done to them for a few years would forever live in their minds. An Austrian Jewish philosopher, Jean Awery, who killed himself 33 years after surviving the war wrote, “Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured” (Adler 2).
Although many prisoners lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, many more could have lived if those people living outside of the camps would have acted out against this atrocity. There is nowhere to pass the blame to; it rests squarely on each and every individual who knew what was happening to these innocent people and did not try to intervene. People suspected some of Hitler’s plot even before the war began. An article published in the New York Times on June 10, 1940, warned Americans that Hitler may very well take over Europe and threaten democracy all over the war. This article urged Americans to get involved in prevention measures, such as sending supplies, planes, and ammunition to the Allies in Europe (Sherwood 6-7). Most countries did not react because they refused to believe that the stories about the camps were true. In fact, it was once debated whether or not the Allies should bomb the concentration camps. They decided not to. Even though they knew about the concentration camps for years, liberation did not occur until 1945. By this time, millions of people had already perished inside. So, in a broad sense, not only is every single concentration camp equally responsible for the massive genocide that occurred during this war, but the world as a whole is to blame.
Certainly, we shall never understand either the dehumanized
cruelty of the executioner or the human gentleness of his
victims. Yet here it is not a question of understanding, but of
knowing. To confess our incomprehension is a sign of humility;
to refuse to learn the facts is proof of arrogance. And of
indifference (Wiesel X).