Dachau, the first concentration camp, opened its gate, bearing the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei (work brings freedom), on March 20, 1933. The first prisoners to be sent to concentration camps were the political opposition-communists, social democrats, and anyone who criticized the Nazi regime. Dachau was designed by SS Officer Theodor Eicke to serve as a model for a large network of concentration camps-in Germany and in other countries as they fell under Nazi rule. Political prisoners were joined by criminals, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other "antisocials," including ministers and priests who failed to embrace the official state religion.

Harassment of the Jews-legal, social, and political, restricting their freedom and privileges--was an important aspect of the Nazi regime. Jews had curfews, were denied advanced education, denied access to recreational facilities and required to shop in Jewish stores. One particularly cruel decree forbid Jews to own pets. As Helen Lewis, a professional dancer imprisoned in Theresienstadt, Birkenau and Stutthof Camps described it,


"I can still see the old people, the old women, with their little pets-hamsters, canaries, even goldfish-in the trams, holding on to these little creatures, taking them to the collection points with tears streaming down their faces, and trying to say goodbye to their little friends."
(1)

On the night of November 9-10, 1938, this harassment escalated into terrorism and violence, with an orchestrated attack throughout Germany on Jewish businesses, synagogues, homes and people. The attack was called Kristallnacht-the night of broken glass-in reference to the glass from vandalized Jewish buildings littering the streets throughout Germany. After Kristallnacht, persecution of the Jews moved beyond segregation and discrimination to imprisonment and death.

One of the earliest counting machines, a precursor of the computer, was used in a German census to identify Jews and other undesirable nationalities for concentration camp selections. As countries fell under Nazi rule, Jews were murdered by SS battalions and local police, forced to dig large pits and then shot and tossed into the mass graves they themselves had dug. Other Jews were forced into crowded ghettos with inadequate food and shelter, such as the ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw in Poland. Many Jews were sent immediately to camps.

Eventually, any Jew who was not murdered outright or who did not succumb to disease in crowded ghettos, was transported to a concentration camp. Dissidents and resistance workers, as well as those who tried to rescue Jews, were also rounded up and sent to camps. Colored triangles were used to distinguish inmates. Political prisoners (red triangles) and criminals (green triangles) generally wound up as inmate camp administrators, known as Blockälteste (Block elders) and Kapos.

Concentration camps were established for different purposes, although the ultimate goal was the murder of the inmates, whether through gassing and shooting, at the designated killing centers--Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka, as well as in the killing sections in Auschwitz and Majdanek, or through overwork, starvation and torture during the living death of imprisonment. Many camps were forced labor camps, providing slave laborers for munitions factories, quarries and local businesses. Camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald, as well as their satellite camps (Subkommandos), were primarily slave labor camps. Prisoners worked long hours with little food or rest. Those that became too ill or weak to work were executed and replaced with new inmates. As former inmate Theodore Lehman described work in a German armaments factory,

"The machinery had to be operated with care, oiled, greased and allowed to rest; its life span was protected. We, on the other hand, were like a bit of sandpaper, which, rubbed a few times, becomes useless and is thrown away to be burned with the garbage." (2)

Bergen Belsen began as a holding camp, where Jews with citizenship papers from other countries were held for possible exchange for Germans held hostage in other countries. Theresienstadt was a "so-called" model camp, where inmates had a degree of freedom for artistic expression. Theresienstadt was occasionally cleaned up for Red Cross inspections, to persuade the rest of the world that the horror stories of the camps were exaggerated.

Another terrible purpose that camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald served was medical experimentation. Inmates were subjected to extremes of heat and cold, deprived of oxygen, infected with typhus, sterilized, and exposed to x-rays, among other experiments, resulting in enormous suffering, disfigurement and death. Human guinea pigs, primarily Jewish, who survived experimentation were usually gassed.

Whatever purposes a camp served, transport and arrival were generally the same. Jews were shut up in boxcars for days with inadequate, or no, food and water, no room to lie down or sit, and no sanitary facilities. When the cold, hungry, bewildered passengers arrived at the camps, generally at night, they were hustled roughly off the trains by SS guards and barking, snarling dogs. Prisoners were ordered to move double time. Stragglers were pummeled with fists or struck with whips. Frequently, selections happened immediately, with the elderly and mothers with children sent directly to the gas chambers and the ovens. The sky might be bright orange as the ovens worked overnight to accommodate the new arrivals. New prisoners quickly realized that no matter how terrible the journey, now they had truly arrived in hell.

At least six million Jews died in Nazi concentration camps. Other large groups also died, including gypsies, Jehovah's witnesses, the mentally ill and disabled, opponents of the Nazi regime, and homosexuals. Those inmates that survived the camps possessed luck, survival skills and a determination to live, whatever it took. Kitty Hart, a young teenager at the time of her imprisonment in Auschwitz said,


"I saw myself as a fox, avoiding the hunters. If you're afraid, you must creep away. You mustn't fight; and that in my own little way was my route to survival. Thinking was out. If you started to think, you were finished…" (3)

Continue on to the Liberation