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The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking
United States Holocaust Memorial
Museum/Collection of Eugenia Hochberg Lanceter
The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking
A group of Jewish
women at the entrance to the Brody ghetto in Eastern Galicia, 1942. The sign is
written in German, Ukrainian and Polish.
THIRTEEN years ago, researchers at the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began the grim task
of documenting all the ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps and
killing factories that the Nazis set up throughout Europe.
What they have found so far has shocked
even scholars steeped in the history of the Holocaust.
The researchers have cataloged some
42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled
areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality
from 1933 to 1945.
The figure is so staggering that even
fellow Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard it correctly when the
lead researchers previewed their findings at an academic forum in late January
at the German Historical Institute in Washington.
“The numbers are so much higher than
what we originally thought,” Hartmut
director of the institute, said in an interview after learning of the new data.
“We knew before how horrible life in
the camps and ghettos was,” he said, “but the numbers are unbelievable.”
The documented camps include not only
“killing centers” but also thousands of forced labor camps, where prisoners
manufactured war supplies; prisoner-of-war camps; sites euphemistically named
“care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to have abortions or their babies
were killed after birth; and brothels, where women were coerced into having sex
with German military personnel.
Auschwitz and a handful of other
concentration camps have come to symbolize the Nazi killing machine in the
public consciousness. Likewise, the Nazi system for imprisoning Jewish families
in hometown ghettos has become associated with a single site — the Warsaw
Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But these sites, infamous though they
are, represent only a minuscule fraction of the entire German network, the new
research makes painfully clear.
The maps the researchers have created
to identify the camps and ghettos turn wide sections of wartime Europe into
black clusters of death, torture and slavery — centered in Germany and Poland, but reaching in all
The lead editors on the project, Geoffrey
estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the
sites that they have identified as part of a multivolume
(The Holocaust museum has published the first two, with five more planned by
The existence of many individual camps
and ghettos was previously known only on a fragmented, region-by-region basis.
But the researchers, using data from some 400 contributors, have been
documenting the entire scale for the first time, studying where they were
located, how they were run, and what their purpose was.
The brutal experience of Henry
Greenbaum, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives outside Washington,
typifies the wide range of Nazi sites.
When Mr. Greenbaum, a volunteer at the
Holocaust museum, tells visitors today about his wartime odyssey, listeners
inevitably focus on his confinement of months at Auschwitz, the most notorious
of all the camps.
But the images of the other camps where
the Nazis imprisoned him are ingrained in his memory as deeply as the
concentration camp number — A188991 — tattooed on his left forearm.
In an interview, he ticked off the
locations in rapid fire, the details still vivid.
First came the Starachowice ghetto in
his hometown in Poland, where the Germans herded his family and other local
Jews in 1940, when he was just 12.
Next came a slave labor camp with
six-foot-high fences outside the town, where he and a sister were moved while
the rest of the family was sent to die at Treblinka. After his regular work
shift at a factory, the Germans would force him and other prisoners to dig
trenches that were used for dumping the bodies of victims. He was sent to
Auschwitz, then removed to work at a chemical manufacturing plant in Poland known
as Buna Monowitz, where he and some 50 other prisoners who had been held at the
main camp at Auschwitz were taken to manufacture rubber and synthetic oil. And
last was another slave labor camp at Flossenbürg, near the Czech border, where
food was so scarce that the weight on his 5-foot-8-inch frame fell away to less
than 100 pounds.
By the age of 17, Mr. Greenbaum had
been enslaved in five camps in five years, and was on his way to a sixth, when
American soldiers freed him in 1945. “Nobody even knows about these places,”
Mr. Greenbaum said. “Everything should be documented. That’s very important. We
try to tell the youngsters so that they know, and they’ll remember.”
The research could have legal
implications as well by helping a small number of survivors document their
continuing claims over unpaid insurance policies, looted property, seized land
and other financial matters.
“HOW many claims have been rejected
because the victims were in a camp that we didn’t even know about?” asked Sam
Dubbin, a Florida lawyer who represents a group of survivors who are seeking to
bring claims against European insurance companies.
Dr. Megargee, the lead researcher, said
the project was changing the understanding among Holocaust scholars of how the
camps and ghettos evolved.
As early as 1933, at the start of
Hitler’s reign, the Third Reich established about 110 camps specifically
designed to imprison some 10,000 political opponents and others, the
researchers found. As Germany invaded and began occupying European neighbors,
the use of camps and ghettos was expanded to confine and sometimes kill not
only Jews but also homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and many other ethnic
groups in Eastern Europe. The camps and ghettos varied enormously in their
mission, organization and size, depending on the Nazis’ needs, the researchers
The biggest site identified is the
infamous Warsaw Ghetto, which held about 500,000 people at its height. But as
few as a dozen prisoners worked at one of the smallest camps, the München-Schwabing
site in Germany. Small groups of prisoners were sent there from the Dachau
concentration camp under armed guard. They were reportedly whipped and ordered
to do manual labor at the home of a fervent Nazi patron known as “Sister Pia,”
cleaning her house, tending her garden and even building children’s toys for
When the research began in 2000, Dr.
Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based
on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing — first to 11,500, then
20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.
The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor
camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war
camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used
for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions,
“Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers.
In Berlin alone, researchers have
documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300
Dr. Dean, a co-researcher, said the
findings left no doubt in his mind that many German citizens, despite the
frequent claims of ignorance after the war, must have known about the
widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.
“You literally could not go anywhere in
Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration
camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.”
Eric Lichtblau is a reporter for The
New York Times in Washington and a visiting fellow at the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A version of this news analysis appeared in print on March
3, 2013, on page SR3 of the National edition with the headline: The Holocaust
Just Got More Shocking.
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