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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

Concentration Camps

Concentration camps are so called because they concentrate the enemy into a restricted area. They were first used by the British in the Boer War (1899 - 1902) in South Africa, when women and children were removed from their homes by force and sent to concentration camps, in an attempt to force their men to stop fighting. The camps were overcrowded and food was limited, and over 26,000 died there. When people in Britain heard about the policy, they were shocked and conditions were improved.

Adolf Hitler's first concentration camp was at Dachau, near Munich, Germany, and opened, on 22 March 1933, to house political opponents of the Nazi Party: for example, members of the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party and trade unionists. By the end of 1933, over 150,000 political prisoners were in concentration camps. 
The Gestapo, or State Police, then began to send other people to concentration camps, including Russians, Poles, Jews, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, criminals, those considered anti-social, and homosexuals. Anyone, in fact, who did not fit in with the Nazi idea of racial superiority or who was opposed to the Nazis.

There were different camps for different functions. Not all concentration camps were designed specifically to kill the inmates, but treatment was so harsh that thousands died from cruelty, hunger, disease and random executions. Death camps were established in Poland after 1942, as part of the Final Solution, the systematic extermination of the Jews.

Other concentration camps were for forced labour. Internees were used for road building, quarrying, munitions production and for private companies.

The concentration camps referred to in 'Surviving Belsen' are as follows.

Auschwitz, Poland, the largest concentration and death camp, opened in June 1940. It operated four gas chamber centres, killing up to 6000 people daily.

Belsen, Germany, was established in April 1943. Its original purpose was to hold prisoners to be used in political exchanges. In 1944 it also became a 'sick' camp for prisoners classified as unfit to work.

Bodzechow, Poland, a forced labour camp.

Buchenwald, Germany, established 16 July 1937. One of the largest concentration camps in Germany, it was initially for political prisoners and criminals, later for Jews and Poles. In October 1942, most Jews were transferred to Auschwitz.

Dachau, Germany, the first concentration camp. It opened on 22 March 1933, initially for political opponents of the Nazi Party. The number of Jewish prisoners rose steadily until they numbered about 1/3 of the total.

Dora-Mittelbau, Germany, started as a unit of Buchenwald, then became a forced labour concentration camp under its own name on 28 October 1944. Prisoners were used to excavate tunnels for a production plant for V2 missiles and other experimental weapons. They were kept underground in unstable tunnels, deprived of daylight and fresh air. The camp was evacuated in March 1945, as the American Army approached, most of the inmates being transferred to Belsen.

Mauthausen, Austria, established in March 1938. The first prisoners were criminals and anti-social elements, later political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, gypsies and Poles.

Natzweiler, France, a forced labour camp established in May 1941. Prisoners worked in nearby granite quarries and on construction projects. In August 1943, a gas chamber was built, where scientific experiments were carried out, mainly on gypsies. The bodies of Jews killed there were sent to the University of Strasbourg, France, for experiments.

Ordruf, Germany, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. It was established in June 1944, when 1000 men were sent there to dig tunnels into the nearby hills, to provide an underground bunker for Hitler's government. Prisoners who were too sick to work were sent to Buchenwald to be put to death. The camp was liberated by American forces in April 1945. They found that most of the prisoners had been moved to Buchenwald. Those who remained, because they were too weak to march to Buchenwald, were being hanged or shot by the SS.

Radom Blizyn, Poland, a Jewish forced labour camp. Those unable to work were killed.

Sachsenhausen, Germany, near Berlin. It was built in 1936, to house large numbers of prisoners in wartime. It was a forced labour camp, with inmates working in a brickyard or in the armaments industry, especially producing engines for aircraft, tanks and vehicles.

Starachowice, Poland, a forced labour camp. Approximately 8000 Jews passed through the camp. In 1944, the camp was closed and its occupants were killed or transferred to Auschwitz.