When Concentration Camps Were a Way of Life

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Nazi German camps loom large in popular portrayals of the Holocaust — and rightly so. Germany started the war and was the driving force behind the Holocaust. More people were killed at the Nazi camp/killing center Auschwitz-Birkenau than any other site.

But the ubiquity of German-run camps in representations of the Holocaust could obscure a larger truth: Germany did not act alone. Its allies and collaborating regimes across Europe assisted in carrying out the “Final Solution,” as well as implementing their own programs of racial and political persecution. Indeed, during the late 1930s and early 1940s, the imprisonment of those deemed inferior or dangerous became routine in lands that fell under the Nazi sphere of influence, leading to a proliferation of camps throughout Europe and north Africa — from the Arctic Circle* to Timbuktu.**

The recently published third volume of the Museum’s Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 documents more than 700 such camps, ghettos, and other detention sites. It follows volume two, which documented more than 1,150 ghettos — far more than scholars had tallied in the past. Overall, the seven volumes will cover more than 44,000 sites.

The places covered in volume three — where people were incarcerated because of their beliefs, race or ethnicity, or politics — were by no means uniform in nature. They were operated by states following different ideologies, systems of government, and with varying relationships to Germany. The prisoners themselves came from all over Europe and North Africa. Finns held Soviets; Italians held Greeks, Macedonians, Albanians, and Arabs; French held Arabs and Spaniards; Croats held Serbs. Many regimes held Roma, most held political prisoners and resistance fighters from within their own populations, and almost all held Jews, whom they often killed themselves or handed over to the Germans.

For more than a decade, Museum scholars have compiled documentation on these camps, in order to create a description of each one that reveals its uniqueness and something of the people who ran it and those who lived in it. Here, for example, are three camps about which little information has previously been available in English:

—In Pithiviers, run by Vichy French authorities, prisoners were still able to maintain some semblance of Jewish life — holding Shabbat services and recognizing major holidays. The vast majority of the 18,000 Jews imprisoned there between 1941 and 1943 were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

—In Agnone, run by the Italian government, a former convent housed Jews and Roma (Gypsy) prisoners. The Inspector General of Public Security revealed his own racial biases when he wrote to the camp director urging “vigilance” and intensified “hygienic measures.” He later reported the inmates were following camp rules, despite enduring a lack of food, heat, and burst water pipes. Camp authorities sought out warm clothes for the prisoners and started an elementary school for the children. Following Italy’s armistice with the Allies in September 1943, the prisoners were released.

—Jastrebarsko, established by Ustaša authorities in Croatia, held Jewish and Serb prisoners before becoming a camp for children. The first transport of 566 young inmates arrived on July 11, 1942. Many were ill or in poor physical condition. Up to 3,000 children were held at the camp, which was liberated by partisans on August 26. The child prisoners then were incorporated into partisan ranks, transported to liberated territories, or cared for by Catholic institutions or private families. The hospital, housing 300 sick children, remained in operation until the end of the war.

In many cases, people living near such camps had to have been aware of them. For example, prisoners were marched from the train station in Pithiviers to the camp, which was just a third of a mile from the town. At Jastrebarsko, neighbors had access to the camp and tried to help the children.

The Encyclopedia presents abundant evidence — drawn from sources in 14 languages — that regimes aligned with Nazi Germany adopted many of its practices. Those governments employed teams of bureaucrats to run their camp systems and generate the reports that were so valuable in writing the volume. What it does not reveal is whether a government or individual ever said “no,” ever resisted the perceived normalcy of unjust incarceration. The number and pervasiveness of sites demonstrates that such camps became a routine tactic for controlling the population and brought the war into the daily lives of people who lived far from the military front.

Now the camps are gone, their sites often unmarked by any memorial. There is a tendency, in the countries where they existed, to forget the history, to speak only of German crimes. Such tendencies interfere with legitimate efforts to come to terms with the history, and thus to chart a path forward that relies on truth, difficult though that truth may be. The first step is to get the facts right, and that is where the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos is a crucial source.

* The Finnish government collaborated with Nazi Germany in its invasion of the Soviet Union. More than 70,000 Soviet POWs were held in Finnish camps; nearly one-third perished in captivity. Finland’s northernmost camp, Kolosjoki, was located above the Arctic Circle on territory now part of Russia.

** In 1941–42, the Vichy French government operated a camp for captured seamen of the Royal Merchant Navy in Timbuktu, then a part of French Sudan, now a major city in Mali. During the camp’s existence, the US consulate in Dakar relayed messages and packages between British authorities and the camp. As civilians, the merchant seamen were not entitled to POW status under the Geneva Convention of 1929 and suffered worse conditions than at other camps in French West and North Africa. Two prisoners died while in captivity and are presumed to be buried in a nearby cemetery.

Dr. Geoffrey Megargee is senior applied research scholar at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and general editor of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945.

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