Between 1941 and 1944 the Nazi Party made it their priority to try and wipe out anyone who didn’t meet their ‘Aryan Race’ ideal. That meant that they rounded up gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill and anyone who didn’t have the same religion as they did. And it was the Jews who are most remembered out of all of those targeted – between 1941 and 1944 millions of Jews lost their lives in Hitler’s Concentration Camps.
It was systematic and brutal – Jewish people were rounded up and transported to the camps that had been set up to hold them. The Nazi party who organised these deportations told those who they were taking away that they were simply being ‘relocated’. It was, of course, a lie. They were instead placed on freight trains that were so overcrowded that there was barely any room to sit, and on the journey they were refused food and water whilst the only sanitation that they had was a bucket in the corner of the carriage. Many died on the journey which could take between days and weeks, depending on the amount of stops made.
From the train they were taken to the camps, the best known of which being Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was the largest Nazi concentration and death camp and located in Poland. Another well known one is Bergen Belsen, located close to Celle in Germany.
Once in the camps, families were often split up. The people had their belongings taken away and today, you can still see the piles of belongings held in Aushwitz museum. They were then often forced into labour whilst dealing with overcrowding, incredibly poor sanitation, lack of food and disease. It was a miserable existence only made more terrifying by the constant fear of being murdered by the Nazi’s.
Previous to the death camps, the Nazi party had initiated a Euthanasia programme which was aimed at the eradication of inferior races – such as the Jews – as well as unfit Aryans and the disabled. The euthanasia programme was just a taste of what Aushwitz and the death camps would have to offer – special carbon monoxide chambers were built in places like the Euthanasia centre at Hartheim Castle, where those deemed unfit were subjected to lethal injection or gassing. Between 1939 and 1941 over half a million people were murdered by these programmes.
What was to happen at the concentration camps in the 1940’s was known to the Nazi party as the ‘Final Solution’ – it was their way of destroying those they believed unfit and had no place in the creation of the German ‘master race’. It was decided that the best way to implement this Final Solution was killing on a mass scale – in places like Aushwitz, these gas chambers used a gas known as Zyklon-B. Those chosen to be killed were told they were simply going to be deloused however many suspected that they were actually going to be murdered. They were herded into the chambers which had been made to look like shower rooms, accompanied by Nazi guards who remained with them until just before the doors were closed. The guards even endeavoured to keep the people calm by initiating small talk with the prisoners, talking about their lives in the camp or their families. Once the doors were closed, the Zyklon-B filled the room, killing all of those trapped inside.
The bodies of the prisoners were then disposed of – to start with they were buried in mass graves however they were later disposed of by cremation.
Not every camp was a death camp. Some, such as Bergen-Belsen near Celle, were forced labour camps. Belsen was originally an exchange camp, where Jewish prisoners would be held before being exchanged for German prisoners of war. Although there were no gassing chambers within Belsen, over 50,000 prisoners still died there thanks to the overcrowding and lack of sanitation which led to disease such as typhus and dysentery. Belsen is best known as the camp from which Anne Frank and her sister Margot never left, having died there in 1945.
When the Allies began to liberate these camps following the end of the Second World War, the true horror was realised. In 1945, the Russian Red Army liberated Aushwitz and came face to face with the horrendous methods of mass murder whilst the American and British armies liberated the camps in Western Germany. Belsen was liberated by the British Army in April 1945 and although the first sight of the camp was that of horror, thanks to seeing the thousands of unwell and starving prisoners, a lot of the prisoners had actually been relatively well treated. They were thin thanks to the lack of food, but otherwise greeted their liberators enthusiastically. But still horror lurked within Belsen and as the British went deeper inside, they found just how badly many of the prisoners had been mistreated. With over 60,000 prisoners deposited in Belsen in the weeks preceding the liberation, overcrowding was rife and had become a breeding ground for disease. Over 20,000 emaciated dead inmates were also found unburied, just left upon the ground – some had starved to death where they lay. Those who had survived were described as living skeletons.
The survivors were washed and deloused before being admitted to a makeshift hospital where they were attempted to be rehydrated and given food. Some had lost their ability to even digest food thanks to being starved for so long – some passed away within minutes of food passing into their systems. But the staff managed to put together an easily digestible food which did wonders for those within the hospital.
The dead who had been left unburied also had to be attended to. The allied forces began by making the German guards load the dead onto trucks to be taken for burial but this proved to be too slow – eventually the dead were simply bulldozed into their graves.
Once the camp was empty, the survivors moved into homes commandeered from the local population, the camp was burned to the ground. Today the site is marked by a simple memorial.
Today, January 27, marks Holocaust Memorial Day when we stop and think of the absolutely atrocious happenings of the Holocaust. There are those who say that the Holocaust never happened, a belief that makes me sick to my stomach – there are still people alive today who survived the Holocaust and we only have to look at the photographs that came from that time, we only have to listen to the stories told of the brutality of those years to know that the Holocaust did happen. It happened and millions died because of it. There are also those who don’t even know what the Holocaust is – it seems as if to many these awful happenings have just disappeared from public memory and it is now down to us to make sure that it is never forgotten.
We must make sure that these atrocities are never repeated and we must make sure that we remember the Holocaust. We must never forget the millions of people who lost their lives thanks to the hatred of the few and I will make sure that I pass the knowledge of these horrors on to those who come after me. It’s something that we should all endeavour to do.