Concentration Camps

The concentration camps in which millions of Jews and others were systematically brutalized and killed remain one of the most horrifying images of World War II. When the camps were finally liberated in 1945, battle-hardened American, British, and Soviet troops often broke down in tears at the sight of the emaciated men and women and the conditions they had been forced to live under.

The term concentration camp was not new to World War II. It stemmed from internment centers created by the British to house Boer civilians during the Boer War of 1899–1902. German concentration camps were part of a system that also included slave-labor camps, whose prisoners worked at nearby factories, and death camps whose sole purpose was the efficient extermination of “undesirables.” The very first concentration camps were called “education centers” or “labor camps” by German propagandists, but their true purpose was the removal of Jews and others (such as Gypsies, the mentally and physically challenged, and so on) from German society.

Medical care at concentration camps was almost nonexistent for prisoners. As a result, countless men and women died from disease and poor nutrition. Women who became pregnant were forced to undergo abortions, though there were occasional exceptions. A special pregnancy unit was established at the Kaufering concentration camp in December 1944, during the waning months of the war. Seven women gave birth there, all of whom — including their babies — survived.

Figure 15-2 Jewish youths liberated from the concentration camp at Buchenwald on their way to Palestine, June 5, 1945.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-SC-207907)

The food given to concentration camp prisoners was usually of poor nutritional quality. Prisoners typically received about 1,800 calories or less per day yet were forced to perform hard labor requiring many times that amount. The result was a slow death by starvation.

The Allied soldiers who finally liberated Germany's concentration camps were appalled by what they saw and outraged that such inhumanity could occur on such a wide scale. When General Dwight Eisenhower visited a work camp at Ohrdruf, near Buchenwald, he found rows of gallows in the cellar and more than 3,000 corpses throughout the camp, many of them bearing fresh head wounds — evidence that camp guards had systematically executed prisoners as Allied forces drew near. Eisenhower became so enraged when those living near the camp claimed to be ignorant of what went on there that he ordered every man, woman, and child from nearby towns marched through the camp at bayonet point. Afterward, he ordered the townspeople to bury the dead.

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