History Podcasts

Arnold Ropeik on the Concentration Camps

Arnold Ropeik on the Concentration Camps

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As the gay liberation movement grew in America in the 󈨊s and the 󈨔s, so did awareness of the persecution of gays during the Holocaust, as books and data about period started being published.

Former “doll boy” Heinz Heger’s 1972 memoir The Men With The Pink Triangle described SS guards torturing prisoners by dipping their testicles in hot water and sodomizing them with broomsticks. Data on these victims started to be cited in 1977, after a statistical analysis by sociologist Rudiger Lautmann of Bremen University claimed that as many as 60% of the gay men sent concentration camps may have have died. The first reference to pink triangles in TIME also appeared that year, in a story about gay-rights activists in Miami who attached the symbols to their clothes as a show of solidarity while protesting a vote to repeal a law protecting gay people from housing discrimination. When the magazine noted that the symbol was “reminiscent” of Nazi-era yellow stars, a reader wrote in to note that they were in fact analogous, not “reminiscent,” as both the star and the triangle were real artifacts of that time. “Gay people wear the pink triangle today as a reminder of the past and a pledge that history will not repeat itself,” he added.

And while the Miami effort did not succeed, the activists did succeed in bringing national attention to the way they had reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of solidarity. In 1979, Martin Sherman’s play Bent, inspired by Heger’s memoir, opened on Broadway in the play, one of the characters trades in his pink triangle for a yellow star, “which gives him preferential treatment over the homosexuals,” as TIME’s review put it. The magazine called the play “audacious theater” and a “gritty, powerful and compassionate drama.” Sherman later said that he had also based the play on research by Holocaust scholar Richard Plant, who was having trouble finding a publisher who would turn it into a book, as the topic was still considered taboo. It was later published as The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals.

By that time, the gay community was facing a very different threat: HIV and AIDS. The activists who formed the organization ACT-UP to raise awareness about this public health crisis decided to use the pink triangle as a symbol of their campaign and alluded to its history when they declared, in their manifesto, that &ldquosilence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.&rdquo Avram Finkelstein is credited with designing the campaign’s pink triangle &mdash which is right-side up, instead of the Nazi-era upside-down pink triangle &mdash after conservative pundit William F. Buckley suggested that HIV/AIDS patients get tattoos to warn partners in a 1986 New York Times op-ed. Earlier this year, Finkelstein said that the op-ed was a “galvanizing moment,” at a time when there was “public discussion of putting gay men into concentration camps to keep the epidemic from spreading.” This bolder stance required a more boldly colored triangle. He explained that the triangle in the middle of the campaign’s signature “Silence=Death” poster was fuchsia instead of pale pink, as a nod to the punk movement’s adoption of the “New Wave” color. (He said the background of the poster is black because “everyone in lower Manhattan wore black.”)

More recently, pink triangles have been visible during gay rights demonstrations worldwide that were sparked by reports that gay men were being persecuted in Chechnya. For example, outside of the Russian embassy in London on April of 2017, protesters scattered pink triangles with messages written “Stop the death camps.” Three months later, the German parliament voted unanimously to pardon gay men convicted of homosexuality during World War II, awarding &euro3,000 to the 5,000 men still living, and &euro1,500 for each year they were imprisoned. The vote came about 15 years after the issuing of an official apology and almost a decade after the unveiling of a memorial to gay Holocaust victims in Berlin. Another well-known memorial is the Pink Triangle Park in the Castro district in San Francisco, which calls itself “the first permanent, free-standing memorial in the U.S. to gay Holocaust victims.”

The last death of someone forced to wear the pink triangle during the Nazi era is believed to have come in August of 2011, with the death of Rudolf Brazda at the age of 98. The symbols of pride that will be proudly worn around the world this month are a reminder of both what he survived and the pride that came after.


In order for future generations to understand the impacts of hatred seen at its pinnacle during the Holocaust, survivors Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, Cynthia Zalisky, Ethel Katz, Hannah Deutsch, Steve Berger, and Hanne Liebmann ask others to pass on their stories and respect all cultures to emphasize the message of “Never Again.” Click here to watch.

Above image: Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany, 2017. Photo credit: L. Cohen


The first modern concentration camps were created by the Spanish in 1896 as "reconcentrados" to house Cubans suspected of supporting insurgents during the Cuban War of Independence and the British during the Second Boer War to house Boers to prevent them from supporting the forces of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. However, early examples of what could be termed "concentration camps" were utilized by the United States during their forced removal of Native Americans to temporarily house Indian tribesmen while it was decided where they would be forced to migrate to. According to historian Dan Stone, concentration camps were "the logical extension of phenomena that had long characterized colonial rule". [3] Although the word "concentration camp" has acquired the connotation of the murder of those detained due to the Nazi concentration camps, the Spanish, British and American camps did not involve systematic murder of those in them. The German Empire also established concentration camps (German: Konzentrationslager), such as the one of Shark Island during the Herero and Namaqua genocide (1904–1907). The death rate of those sent to these camps was 45%, twice that of the British camps. [4] Over time, concentration camps became more severe. The nineteenth-century professionalization of European armies led to "a doctrine of military necessity as justifying extreme violence", including against civilians considered a threat. [5]

During the First World War, eight to nine million prisoners of war were held in prisoner-of-war camps, some of them at locations which were later the sites of Nazi camps, such as Theresienstadt and Mauthausen. Many prisoners held by Germany died as a result of intentional withholding of food and dangerous working conditions in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention. [6] In countries such as France, Belgium, Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Germany, civilians deemed to be of "enemy origin" were denaturalized. Hundreds of thousands were interned and subject to forced labor in harsh conditions. [7] During the Armenian genocide, internment proved deadly to Armenians who were held in temporary camps prior to their deportation into the Syrian Desert. [8] In postwar Germany, Jews from Eastern Europe were incarcerated at Cottbus-Sielow and Stargard as "unwanted foreigners". [9]

Early camps (1933–1934)

The 1929 economic crash destabilized the Weimar Republic and the last elected government fell in March 1930. A sequence of chancellors appointed by President Paul von Hindenburg governed by rule by decree according to Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor after striking a backroom deal with the previous chancellor, Franz von Papen. [10] According to historian Nikolaus Wachsmann, the Nazis had no plan for concentration camps prior to their seizure of power. [11] The concentration camp system arose in the following months due to the desire to suppress tens of thousands of Nazi opponents in Germany. The Reichstag fire in February 1933 was the pretext for mass arrests the Reichstag Fire Decree eliminated the right to personal freedom enshrined in the Weimar Constitution. [10] [12] The first camp was Nohra, established in Nohra, Thuringia on 3 March 1933 in a school. [13] The arrests increased after the election of 5 March. [10]

The legal basis for the arrests was the previous practice of "protective custody", which meant either to restrict a person's liberty for their own protection, or "taking seditious elements into custody during emergencies", including some Communist Party of Germany (KPD) members in the Weimar Republic. [10] Protective custody meant that imprisonment could continue after a person was acquitted or had completed their sentence. [13] Newspapers at that time reported on the concentration camps in considerable detail and demonized the prisoners as dangerous leftist elements. [14] Eighty percent of prisoners were Communists and ten percent Social Democrats the remaining ten percent were affiliated with a different party, were trade union activists, or had no connection to a political party. [15] By the end of the year, 241 former Reichstag deputies under Weimar had been arrested. [16] Many prisoners were released in late 1933, and after the well-publicized Christmas amnesty, there were only a few dozen camps left. [17]

The number of prisoners in 1933–1934 is difficult to determine Jane Caplan estimated it at 50,000, with arrests perhaps exceeding 100,000, [13] while Wachsmann estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 people were subjected to detention without trial in 1933. [12] About 70 camps were established in 1933, in any convenient structure that could hold prisoners, including vacant factories, prisons, country estates, schools, workhouses, and castles. Many sites were reused as Nazi detention facilities later on. [13] [12] There was no national system [17] camps were operated by local police, SS, and SA, state interior ministries, or a combination of the above. [13] [12] The early camps in 1933–1934 were heterogenous and unlike those created in and after 1936, in fundamental aspects such as organization, conditions, and the groups imprisoned. [18] Therefore, researchers have begun to call them "early camps" rather than "concentration camps". [18] Although the camps were not sites of routine killings, [12] their unprecedented violence marked the end of the Weimar Republic. [18]

Institutionalization (1934–1937)

On 26 June 1933, Himmler appointed Theodor Eicke the second commandant of Dachau, which became the model followed by other camps. Eicke drafted the Disciplinary and Penal Code, a manual which specified draconian punishments for disobedient prisoners, including corporal punishment. [19] He also created a system of prisoner functionaries, which later developed into the camp elders, block elders, and kapo of later camps. [20] In May 1934, Lichtenburg camp was taken over by the SS from the Prussian bureaucracy, marking the beginning of a transition set in motion by Heinrich Himmler, then chief of the Gestapo (secret police). [21] Following the Night of Long Knives purge of the SA on 30 June 1934, during which Eicke took a leading role and was promoted for his actions, the remaining SA-run camps were taken over by the SS. [15] [22] In December 1934, Eicke was appointed the first inspector of the Concentration Camps Inspectorate (IKL) only camps managed by the IKL were designated "concentration camps". [15] Eicke managed the details of the concentration camps based on Himmler's will. [22]

Wachsmann writes that the "Nazi concentration camp system was forged between 1934 and 1937". [17] In early 1934, the number of prisoners was still falling and the future of concentration camps was not obvious. By mid-1935, there were only five camps, holding 4,000 prisoners, and 13 employees at the central IKL office. At the same time, 100,000 people were imprisoned in German jails, a quarter of those for political offenses. [23] Himmler considered the release of the 1933 prisoners "one of the most serious political mistakes the National Socialist state could have committed". Believing Nazi Germany to be imperiled by internal enemies, he called for a war against the "organized elements of sub-humanity", including Communists, Socialists, Jews, Freemasons, and criminals. Himmler won Hitler's backing and was appointed chief of police on 17 June 1936. Although the Nazi dictator never set foot on a concentration camp, he played a key role in events in 1935, pardoning several guards convicted of the murder of prisoners and backing Himmler's opposition to prisoner releases. [24]

Of the six SS camps operational as of mid-1936, only two (Dachau and Lichtenburg) still existed by 1938. In the place of the camps that closed down, Eicke opened new camps at Sachsenhausen (September 1936) and Buchenwald (July 1937). Unlike earlier camps, the newly opened camps were purpose-built, in Wachsmann's words "planned as small cities of terror". They were designed with barracks, guard towers, and barbed wire. Even Dachau, the model camp, was completely rebuilt in 1937/1938. [25] The new camps were isolated from the population and the rule of law, enabling the SS to exert absolute power. Prisoners, who previously wore civilian clothes, were forced to wear uniforms with Nazi concentration camp badges. The guards for the camps were camp SS or "death's head" SS, young men specifically recruited for the task. The number of prisoners began to rise again, from 4,761 on 1 November 1936 to 7,750 by the end of 1937. [26]

Rapid expansion (1937–1939)

By the end of June 1938, the prisoner population had expanded threefold in the previous six months, to 24,000 prisoners. The increase was fueled by arrests of those considered "habitual criminals" or "asocials". [26] According to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, the "criminal" prisoners at concentration camps needed to be isolated from society because they had committed offenses of a sexual or violent nature. In fact, most of the criminal prisoners were working-class men who had resorted to petty theft to support their families. [27] The asocial category was for people who did not "fit into the mythical national community", in Wachsmann's words. [28] Nazi raids, such as the Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich of June 1938, in which 10,000 were arrested, [29] targeted homeless people and the mentally ill, as well as the unemployed. [30] Although the Nazis had previously targeted social outsiders, the influx of new prisoners meant that political prisoners became a minority. [29]

To house the new prisoners, three new camps were established: Flossenbürg (May 1938) near the Czechoslovak border, Mauthausen (August 1938) in territory annexed from Austria, and Ravensbrück (May 1939) the first purpose-built camp for female prisoners. [26] The mass arrests were partly motivated by economic factors. Recovery from the Great Depression lowered the unemployment rate, so "work-shy" elements would be arrested to keep others working harder. At the same time, Himmler was also focusing on exploiting prisoners' labor within the camp system. Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, had grand plans for creating monumental Nazi architecture. The SS company German Earth and Stone Works (DEST) was set up with funds from Speer's agency for exploiting prisoner labour to extract building materials. Flossenbürg and Mauthausen had been built adjacent to quarries, and DEST also set up brickworks at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. [31] [32]

Political prisoners were also arrested in larger numbers, including Jehovah's Witnesses and German émigrés who returned home. Czech and Austrian anti-Nazis were also targeted after the annexation of their countries in 1938 and 1939. Jews were also increasingly targeted, with 2,000 Viennese Jews arrested after the Nazi annexation. After Kristallnacht pogrom, 26,000 Jewish men were deported to concentration camps following mass arrests, becoming a majority of prisoners. These prisoners were subject to unprecedented abuse, including systematic theft of valuables, "deprivation, torture, suicide and murder" leading to hundreds of deaths—more people died at Dachau in the four months after Kristallnacht than in the previous five years. However, the goal at the time was not mass murder of Jews, but to goad them into emigration. Most of the Jewish prisoners were soon released. [33]

World War II

At the end of August 1939, prisoners of Flossenbürg, Sachsenhausen, and other concentration camps were transported to the Polish border, dressed in Polish uniforms, and murdered as part of the Hochlinden incident, one of the false flag attacks staged by Germany to justify the invasion of Poland. [34] During the war, the camps became increasingly brutal and lethal due to the plans of the Nazi leadership: most victims died in the second half of the war. [35]

Five new camps were opened between the start of the war and the end of 1941: Neuengamme (early 1940), outside of Hamburg Auschwitz (June 1940), which initially operated as a concentration camp for Polish resistance activists Gross-Rosen (May 1941) in Silesia and Natzweiler (May 1941) in territory annexed from France. Satellite camps were also established. This expansion was driven by the demand for forced labor and later the invasion of the Soviet Union new camps were sent up near quarries (Natzweiler and Gross-Rosen) or brickworks (Neuengamme). [36]

In early 1941, the high command of the SS ordered the deliberate mass murder of ill and exhausted prisoners who could no longer work (especially those deemed racially inferior), in an operation codenamed Action 14f13. Victims were selected by camp personnel and traveling "euthanasia doctors" and were removed from the camps to be murdered in euthanasia centers. By spring 1942, when the operation finished, at least 6,000 people had been killed. [37] A related operation, Action 14f14, began in August 1941 and involved the killing of selected Soviet prisoners of war within the concentration camps, usually within a few days of their arrival. By mid-1942, when the operation finished, 38,000 Soviet prisoners had been murdered. At Auschwitz, the SS used Zyklon B to kill Soviet prisoners in improvised gas chambers. [38]

From July 1944 to May 1945 the concentration camps were gradually taken over and the remaining prisoners freed, mostly by Soviet or US forces (see The Holocaust#Liberation).

In November 1940, the replacement of Eicke by Richard Glücks as leader of the IKL led to a bureaucratic shuffle with little practical consequences: the IKL came under the control of the SS Main Command Office and the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) took on the responsibility of detaining and releasing concentration camp prisoners. [39] In 1942, the IKL became Amt D (Office D) of the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office (SS-WVHA) under Pohl. [40]

Documenting Liberation: Arnold E. Samuelson

Arnold E. Samuelson was among the first Allied photographers in the Army Signal Corps. During his time in Europe, he documented Allied military campaigns in France and Belgium. He took some of the best known photographs of Holocaust survivors upon the liberation of the camps. 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps and the end of Nazi tyranny in Europe.

Before America's entry into World War II, Arnold E. Samuelson (1917–2002) worked for the Eastman Kodak Company in Portland, Oregon. In May 1942, he was inducted into the US Army. He served in the Army Air Corps and later joined the Signal Corps in January 1943.

Three months after D-Day (June 6, 1944), Samuelson came ashore on the Normandy beaches with the 167th Signal Corps Company and began documenting the Allied military campaigns in France and Belgium. He saw service in the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944), and, in 1945, he was given command of the 123rd Combat Unit. That unit consisted of two motion picture cameramen, John O'Brian and Edward Urban, and two still photographers, J Malan Heslop and Walter McDonald.

Samuelson's group served initially with the 9th Armored Division, advancing as far as Leipzig, then was attached to the 80th Infantry Division as it moved southward to Bavaria and Austria. During this campaign, Samuelson's crew was the first group of Allied photographers to document Nazi crimes and the plight of concentration camp prisoners at Lenzing and Ebensee, two subcamps of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

List of World War II prisoner-of-war camps in the United States

In the United States at the end of World War II, there were prisoner-of-war camps, including 175 Branch Camps serving 511 Area Camps containing over 425,000 prisoners of war (mostly German). The camps were located all over the US, but were mostly in the South, due to the higher expense of heating the barracks in colder areas. Eventually, every state (with the exceptions of Nevada, North Dakota, and Vermont) had at least one POW camp. Some of the camps were designated "segregation camps", where Nazi "true believers" were separated from the rest of the prisoners, whom they terrorized and even killed for being friendly with their American captors. [1] Approximately 90% of Italian POWs pledged to help the United States, by volunteering in Italian Service Units (ISU). Due to a labor shortage, Italian Service Units worked on Army depots, in arsenals and hospitals, and on farms. POWs who were a part of the ISU received better housing, uniforms and pay. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

At its peak in May 1945, a total of 425,871 POWs were held in the US. This included 371,683 Germans, 50,273 Italians, and 3,915 Japanese. [7] : 272

The Italian and one German POW who committed suicide rather than be repatriated are buried just outside the post cemetery boundaries.


Total civilian losses during the war and German occupation in Ukraine are estimated at four million, including up to a million Jews who were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the Order Police battalions, Wehrmacht and local Nazi collaborators. Einsatzgruppe C (Otto Rasch) was assigned to north and central Ukraine, and Einsatzgruppe D (Otto Ohlendorf) to Moldavia, south Ukraine, the Crimea, and, during 1942, the north Caucasus. According to Ohlendorf's testimony at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, "the Einsatzgruppen had the mission to protect the rear of the troops by killing the Jews, Romani, Communist functionaries, active Communists, uncooperative slavs, and all persons who would endanger the security." In practice, their victims were nearly all Jewish civilians (not a single Einsatzgruppe member was killed in action during these operations [ citation needed ] ). The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of one survivor of the Einsatzgruppen in Piryatin, Ukraine, when they killed 1,600 Jews on 6 April 1942, the second day of Passover:

I saw them do the killing. At 5:00 p.m. they gave the command, "Fill in the pits." Screams and groans were coming from the pits. Suddenly I saw my neighbor Ruderman rise from under the soil … His eyes were bloody and he was screaming: "Finish me off!" … A murdered woman lay at my feet. A boy of five years crawled out from under her body and began to scream desperately. "Mommy!" That was all I saw, since I fell unconscious. [7]

From 16–30 September 1941 the Nikolaev massacre in and around the city of Mykolaiv resulted in the deaths of 35,782 Soviet citizens, most of whom were Jews, as was reported to Hitler. [8]

-- Order posted in Kiev in Russian and Ukrainian on or around September 26, 1941. [9]

The most notorious massacre of Jews in Ukraine was at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941. (Some 100,000 to 150,000 Ukrainian and other Soviet citizens were also killed in the following weeks). The mass killing of Jews in Kiev was approved by the military governor Major-General Friedrich Eberhardt, the Police Commander for Army Group South (SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln) and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch. It was carried out by a mixture of SS, SD and Security Police. On the Monday, the Jews of Kiev gathered by the cemetery, expecting to be loaded onto trains. The crowd was large enough that most of the men, women, and children could not have known what was happening until it was too late: by the time they heard the machine-gun fire, there was no chance to escape. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and then shot. A truck driver described the scene:

[O]ne after the other, they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and overgarments and also underwear … Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzmannschaft and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him. [9]

A number of Ukrainians had collaborated: According to German historian Dieter Pohl [de] , around 100,000 joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis. Many others staffed the local bureaucracies or lent a helping hand during mass shootings of Jews. Ukrainians, such as the infamous Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, were also among the guards who manned the German Nazi death camps. [10]

According to The Simon Wiesenthal Center (in January 2011) "Ukraine has, to the best of our knowledge, never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator." [11]

According to the Israeli Holocaust historian Yitzhak Arad, "In January 1942 a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural regions." [12]

According to Timothy Snyder, "Something else to remember: the majority, probably the vast majority of people who collaborated with the German occupation were not politically motivated. They were collaborating with an occupation that was there, and which is a German historical responsibility." [13]

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, it was believed that about 900,000 Jews were murdered as part of the Holocaust in Ukraine. This is the estimate found in such respected works as The Destruction of the European Jews by Raul Hillberg. In the late 1990s, access to Soviet archives increased the estimates of the prewar population of Jews and as a result, the estimates of the death toll have been increasing. In the 1990s, Dieter Pohl estimated 1.2 million Jews murdered, and more recent estimates have been up to 1.6 million. Some of those Jews added to the death toll attempted to find refuge in the forest, but were killed later on by Home Army, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or other partisan groups during the German retreat. According to American historian Wendy Lower, "there were many perpetrators, albeit with different political agendas, who killed Jews and suppressed this history". [14]

Fort Breendonk

Fort Breendonk (Dutch: Fort van Breendonk, French: Fort de Breendonk) is a former military installation at Breendonk, near Mechelen, in Belgium which served as a Nazi prison camp (Auffanglager) during the German occupation of Belgium during World War II.

Originally constructed between 1906 and 1913 as part of the second ring of the National Redoubt defending Antwerp, Fort Breendonk was used by the Belgian Army and was covered by a five-metre thick layer of soil for defense against artillery fire, a water-filled moat and measured 656 by 984 feet (200 by 300 m). [1] It was used in both World War I and World War II by which time it had become militarily obsolete.

Fort Breendonk was requisitioned by the Schutzstaffel (SS) shortly after the Belgian surrender on 28 May 1940 and used as a prison camp for the detention of political prisoners, resistance members, and Jews. Although technically a prison rather than a concentration camp, it became infamous for the poor living conditions in which the prisoners were housed and for the torture and executions which were carried out there. Most detainees were subsequently transferred to larger concentration camps in Eastern Europe. 3,590 prisoners are known to have been held at Fort Breendonk during the war of whom 303 died or were executed in the fort itself while 1,741 others subsequently died in other camps before the end of the war. [2] In Belgian historical memory, Breendonk became symbolic of the barbarity of the German occupation.

The camp was evacuated ahead of the Liberation of Belgium by the Western Allies in September 1944. It was briefly repurposed to detain Belgian collaborators. It was declared a "national memorial" in 1947 and has subsequently been open to the public as a museum. Many of the camp's personnel were subsequently tried for their wartime actions in Belgian courts.


Originally intended as a forced labour camp, the Płaszów concentration camp was constructed on the grounds of two former Jewish cemeteries (including the New Jewish Cemetery). It was populated with prisoners during the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto, which took place on 13–14 March 1943 with the first deportations of the Barrackenbau Jews from the Ghetto beginning 28 October 1942. [1] In 1943 the camp was expanded and integrated into the Nazi concentration camp system as a main camp. [ citation needed ]

Structure and function

The Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp was divided into multiple sections. [2] There was a separate area for camp personnel, work facilities, male prisoners, female prisoners, and a further subdivision between Jews and non-Jews. Although separated, men and women still managed to have contact with one another. [3] [4] There was also a private barracks for the camp's Jewish police and their families. [5] While the primary function of the camp was forced labor, the camp was also the site of mass murder of inmates as well as prisoners brought in from the outside. [6] The main targets were the elderly and the sick. There were no gas chambers or crematoria, so mass murder was carried out by shootings. [7]


Under Arnold Büscher, the camp's second commandant, prisoners did not experience any shootings or hangings. [8] However, by 1943, the camp was notorious for its terrors. [9] Amon Göth, an SS commandant from Vienna, was the camp commandant at this point. He was sadistic in his treatment and killing of prisoners. [10] "Witnesses say he would never start his breakfast without shooting at least one person." [1] On Göth's first day as camp commandant, he killed two Jewish policemen and made every camp inmate watch. [8] On 13 March 1943, he oversaw the liquidation of the nearby Kraków Ghetto, forcing those Jewish inhabitants deemed capable of work into the KL Plaszow camp. Those who were declared unfit for work were either sent to Auschwitz or shot on the spot. People were told to leave their children behind and that they would be cared for. [11] In reality, they were all put in an orphanage and killed. Others snuck their children into the camp. If a prisoner tried to escape the camp, Göth shot 10 prisoners as a punishment. [6] Göth would also release his Great Danes on prisoners if he did not like their expressions. [12] He oversaw a staff that was mostly non-German. [2] It consisted of 206 Ukrainian SS personnel from the Trawniki, [13] 600 Germans of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (1943–1944), and a few SS women, including Gertrud Heise, [14] Luise Danz and Alice Orlowski. [15]

The female guards treated the prisoners as brutally as the men: "When we were loaded on the train in Płaszów, an SS woman hit me on the head. They were so vicious and brutal and sadistic, more than men. I think because some of them were women and you expect kindness, it was shocking. But of course, some were fat and big and ugly." [16]

Jewish police were recruited by the camp personnel. [5] They were provided with double rations of thick soup, as opposed to the standard watery soup, and a full loaf of uncontaminated bread. However, the benefits came with cost of having to whip inmates with the whips that the Nazis provided.

On 13 September 1944, Göth was relieved of his position and charged by the SS with theft of Jewish property (which belonged to the state, according to Nazi legislation), failure to provide adequate food to the prisoners under his charge, violation of concentration camp regulations regarding the treatment and punishment of prisoners, and allowing unauthorised access to camp personnel records by prisoners and non-commissioned officers. [17] Camp administration was assumed by SS-Obersturmführer Arnold Büscher. He improved the inmates' diets by allowing eggs, sugar and powdered milk. [18]

Prisoner victims

Life in the camp

The camp was an Arbeitslager ("labour camp"), supplying forced labour to several armament factories and to a stone quarry. Most of the prisoners were Polish Jews. There were also high numbers of women and children compared with other camps. [2] A large degree of the Hungarian prisoners were women. The death rate in the camp was very high. Many prisoners died of typhus, starvation, and from executions. Because the work facilities were designed for men, the women had a lower chance of survival. [2] [6] Płaszów camp became particularly infamous for both the individual and the mass shootings carried out at Hujowa Górka: a large hill close to the camp commonly used for executions. Some 8,000 deaths took place outside the camp's fences, with prisoners trucked in three to four times weekly. The covered lorries from Kraków would arrive in the morning. The condemned were walked into a trench of the Hujowa Górka hillside, ordered to strip down and stand naked, and then were finally shot. [20] Their bodies were then covered with dirt, layer upon layer. During these mass shootings, all other inmates were forced to watch. [18] In early 1944, all corpses were exhumed and burned on a pyre to obliterate the evidence of the mass murder. Witnesses later testified that 17 truckloads of human ashes were removed from the burning site and scattered over the area. [10]

Although food was scarce, inmates that possessed any number of zlotys could buy extra food. [21] A food for food trading system also developed. For example, two portions of soup was equal to a half loaf of bread.

When Göth received notice of a new shipment of inmates, he would set up deportations for Auschwitz. [22] On May 14, 1944, Göth ordered all children to be sent to the "kindergarten". This turned out only to be a precursor to deportation to Auschwitz on May 15 where the children were all gassed.

Göth entrusted documents pertaining to the mass killings and executions to a high ranking female member of the SS, Kommandoführerin Alice Orlowski. She held these documents in her possession until the end of the war, then allegedly destroyed them. Orlowski was known for her whippings, especially of young women across their eyes. At roll call she would walk through the lines of women and whip them. [23] [24] [25]

Outside aid

Prisoners could also rely on outside help to some degree. [6] The Jüdische Unterstützungsstelle, a support group that the Germans tolerated, would provide the inmates with food and medical assistance. The Zehnerschaft was a group of women that also supported the inmates. The Polish Welfare Organization sent food to Polish prisoners and some of them shared with the Jewish inmates. There were also individuals such as Stanislaw Dobrowolski, the head of the Kraków branch of the Council for Aid to Jews (Żegota), and Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a famous pharmacist, also aided the prisoners.


Göth and the other camp personnel punished inmates for a variety of actions. Any action perceived as sabotage, such as smuggling items into the camp, disobeying orders, or carrying an extra piece of food in one's clothes was an offense punishable by death. [26] Prisoners were warned that if they tried to escape, every member of their family and even innocent strangers would be killed. [27] In terms of methods for killing, death by hanging was a favored method of Göth's. [28] For a standard punishment, twenty-five lashings were dealt to the guilty inmate's buttocks. [29]

Hope for the prisoners

While prisoners' daily lives were dominated by fear and starvation, there were some outlets for hope of survival. Rumors involving the Russian advancement that would lead to the camp's liberation always circulated. [30] Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party that saved the 1,200 Schindlerjuden was also a key figure. [3] While prisoners always feared a transport to Auschwitz, one that was always sought after was a transport to Brünnlitz labor camp in Czechoslovakia. This is where Oskar Schindler's enamel factory was located. [31] Schindler was known for being compassionate towards Jews. He never hit anyone, was always kind, and smiled frequently around the workers. [32] Having relatives and friends that worked for Schindler gave one a better chance at being put on the list for transport. [33]

Hiding the evidence

During July and August 1944, a number of transports of prisoners left KL Płaszow for Auschwitz, Stutthof, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, and other camps. In January 1945, the last of the remaining inmates and camp staff left the camp on a death march to Auschwitz. Several female SS guards were part of the group that accompanied them. Many of those who survived the march were killed upon arrival. When the Nazis realized the Soviets were approaching Kraków, they completely dismantled the camp, leaving only an empty field. All bodies that had been previously buried in various mass graves were exhumed and burned on site. On 20 January 1945, the Red Army arrived and found only a patch of barren land. [10]


Most numbers of inmates and killings rely on estimation, [22] as the prisoner card index was destroyed during the camp's destruction. Few postwar trials centered on crimes committed at the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp one exception was Göth's trial and subsequent death sentence. West German prosecutors took until the late 1950s to investigate these crimes.

The area which held the camp now consists of sparsely wooded hills and fields, with one large memorial to all the victims and two smaller monuments (one to the Jewish victims generally, and another to the Hungarian Jewish victims) at one perimeter of where the camp once stood. The Jewish cemetery, where the Nazis removed all but one of the tombstones, stands on the side of the hill at the eastern end of the camp, near the Grey house. Amon Göth's villa remains there. Another small monument, located near the opposite end of the site, stands in memory of the first execution of (non-Jewish) Polish prisoners in 1939.

A version of the camp is featured in the movie Schindler's List (1993), about the life of Oskar Schindler. As the Płaszów area is now a nature preserve and modern high-rise apartments were visible from the site, the director Steven Spielberg replicated the camp in the nearby Liban Quarry, which also served as a labor camp during the war.

Each year, it is the finishing point of the March of Remembrance taking part in mid-March to manifest the respect to the victims of the Holocaust. [34]

Adolphe Arnold

Adolphe was born to Catholic parents in Alsace when it was under German rule. He was orphaned at age 12, and was raised by his uncle who sent him to an art school in Mulhouse, where he specialized in design. He married in the village of Husseren-Wesserling in the southern part of Alsace, and in 1930 the couple had a baby daughter. In 1933 the Arnolds moved to the nearby city of Mulhouse.

1933-39: Adolphe worked in Mulhouse as an art consultant for one of France's biggest printing factories. When he wasn't working at home or at the factory, he was studying the Bible, and enjoying classical music. Disillusioned with the Catholic church, Adolphe and his wife decided to become Jehovah's Witnesses. Under the French, they were free to practice their new faith.

1940-44: The Germans occupied Mulhouse in June 1940. While at the factory on September 4, 1941, Adolphe was arrested because he was a Jehovah's Witness and imprisoned in Mulhouse for two months. In January he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was beaten by the SS and subjected to medical experiments for malaria. Adolphe's sister-in-law was able to smuggle to him some Jehovah's Witness literature hidden inside cookies. In September 1944 he was transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp.

Adolphe was liberated in May 1945 in Ebensee, a subcamp of Mauthausen. After the war he returned to France and was reunited with his family.

Watch the video: Ugly History: Japanese American incarceration camps - Densho (January 2022).