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September 1, 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and one of the darkest periods in human history. Upon his rise to power in February 1933, Adolf Hitler and the ruling Nazi party began building the first of the holocaust concentration camps. The original camps housed and tortured around 45,000 political prisoners and union officials by the end of that first year. Hitler turned over control of these camps to Heinrich Himmler and the SS in 1934, instructing them to purge Germany of those people he thought were racially undesirable. In addition to the political prisoners, these groups included criminals, homosexuals, Gypsies, and Jews.
From 1933 until the end of the war in 1945, the Nazi’s would build 23 main camps. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the main camps would have over 900 permanent subcamps and 20,000 total camps that were used for a variety of purposes – including forced labor, prisoner transit, and extermination of prisoners. Here, millions of people were held, tortured, and murdered including over 6.25 million Jews alone. Although the Nazis attempted to cover up these atrocities by destroying the camps upon the advance of the Allied Forces, 7 of the main camps stand at least partially preserved as museums. With all that is going on in he world today, these 7 holocaust concentration camps stand both as witnesses to the vast Nazi atrocities of the 1930’s and 40’s and as sobering reminders of the horrors that can befall us when evil is left unchecked.
Created under the orders of Heinrich Himmler in 1940, Auschwitz-Birkenau would become the most infamous and deadly of the holocaust concentration camps created by the Nazis. Built about an hour west of Krakow near the Polish town of Oswiecim, Auschwitz was originally intended to intimidate Poles into accepting German rule – serving as a prison for any who resisted the German occupation. However, the camp took on a much more sinister role beginning with the installation of Block 11’s gas chamber in 1942. Several more gas chambers were eventually added to the satellite camp of Birkenau. It was here that newly arriving prisoners who were deemed unfit for work were sent to the shower rooms to be deloused, only to find deadly gas being emitted from the showers instead. These people were never recorded as having entered the camp, which is why death totals can only be estimated. It is believed that 70-75% of new arrivals to Auschwitz-Birkenau were murdered immediately upon arrival. By 1944, over 105,000 people were being held at the camps and their sub-camps. The Russians finally liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945. Historians estimate that more than 1,100,000 people were systematically murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone.
Located near the east-central German town of Weimar, Buchenwald was one of the largest of the holocaust concentration camps. Erected in 1937, the camp was mainly used as a detention center for political prisoners. However, over 10,000 Jews were sent to the camp in 1938. The jail (A.K.A. “The Bunker”) was located near the entrance to the camp and still stands today. Buchenwald also served as a forced labor camp, where many of the prisoners were subjugated to working the stone quarries there. Furthermore, many of the prisoners were subject to medical experiments with viruses and contagious diseases. Prisoners who were unable to work were exterminated either via gas or phenol injection. The prisoner population reached as high as 110,000 before the Americans liberated the camp in April of 1945. It is believed that no fewer than 56,000 people died here.
Dachau was the first of the holocaust concentration camps to be built, erected in 1933 – well before the Nazis began implementing their “Final Solution” in 1941. Located just 10 miles northwest of Munich, the camp served as the organizational and functional prototype for all of the other camps that would follow. It was split into two sections – the camp section and the crematorium section, where the SS officers also conducted executions. Dachau served mainly as a camp for political prisoners – which included German Communists, Social Democrats, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsies, and homosexuals. Over 10,000 Jewish men were sent to Dachau following the Nazi’s increasing Jewish persecution in November of 1938. Like at Buchenwald, prisoners were used both for forced labor and medical experiments. Those prisoners deemed unfit for work were sent to be murdered at the nearby camp of Hartheim in Linz, Austria. American forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945 finding 32,000 prisoners in the 20 barracks which were only meant to hold 250 people each. That’s approximately 1,600 people per barrack! It is also known that – in order to allow as few prisoners to be liberated as possible – more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, were led by the Germans on a death march during the final Allied advance toward the camp.