The First Concentration Camps

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jennifer Schoffstall
  • Company Grade of Officer Council
 The United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance as our nation's annual commemoration of the Holocaust. The 2008 Days of Remembrance are April 27-May 4, and Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) is May 2. Expounding on last week's article that introduced the Holocaust, this article will focus on the first concentration camps.

Why did the Nazi regime establish concentration camps? In the early years of the Nazi regime, the National Socialist government established concentration camps to detain real and imagined political and ideological opponents. Increasingly in the years before the outbreak of war, Schutzstaffel and police officials incarcerated Jews, Roma, and other victims of ethnic and racial hatred in these camps. To concentrate and monitor the Jewish population as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labor camps for Jews during the war years. The German authorities also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for non-Jews whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.

When was the first concentration camp established and who were the first inmates? The first concentration camp, Dachau, opened on March 22, 1933. The camp's first inmates were primarily political prisoners (e.g. Communists or Social Democrats); habitual criminals; homosexuals; Jehovah's Witnesses; and "anti-socials" (beggars, vagrants, hawkers). Others considered problematic by the Nazis (e.g. Jewish writers and journalists, lawyers, unpopular industrialists, and political officials) were also included. The total number of concentration camps is unknown due to the numerous sub-camps that were created during the Holocaust.

What is the difference between a concentration camp and an extermination camps? The concentration camps were established with different purposes. For instance, there existed "ordinary" concentration camps, forced labour camps, work- and reformatory camps, prisoners of war camps and transit camps. Unlike the concentration camps, six extermination camps or death camps were established between 1941 and 1943 with only one purpose: to exterminate the Jews. A total of three million Jews were murdered in extermination camps alone. Six camps in Poland existed: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka (the Operation Reinhard camps) and Chelmno (see photo for location of the major Nazi camps). At Auschwitz and Majdanek, only one in every fourth of the Jews that arrived in these camps was selected for forced labour - the rest were gassed to death immediately upon arrival.

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Editor's Note: Information from The Museum of Tolerance of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, This story is the second in a series on Holocaust Remembrance.

Special guest speaker, Leo Hymas, a U.S. Army Liberator, will speak at the base Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony May 2, 9 a.m., at the theater. Mr. Hymas was assigned to General Patton's Third Army and was part of the American military team that liberated the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald near Weimar in April 1945.