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Full Extent of Nazi Prison Camp System Still Emerging

June 5, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Scholars are still discovering the full scale of the Nazi prison camp system during WWII as President Obama visited remembrances and anniversary celebrations in Europe this week. Ray Suarez reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, new details about the number of Nazi prison camps during World War II, one of which President Obama toured today. Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: It was a visit both official and personal. President Obama walked the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany today with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The two leaders, born long after the Second World War, visited the camp with a man who had been a prisoner at Buchenwald, Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel.

They saw the foundations of barracks, guard towers, and railroad tracks. Later, the group placed white roses on a memorial to the camps’ victims.

The Nazis imprisoned 250,000 people here. Roughly 56,000 died, including some 11,000 Jews. The camp was in operation for almost eight years until its liberation by allied forces in 1945.

Mr. Obama pledged today never to forget what he saw at the camp, and he criticized those who deny the events of the Holocaust.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened, a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful. This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.

RAY SUAREZ: The visit had special meaning for the president. His great-uncle served in a U.S. infantry division that liberated Ohrdruf, a nearby satellite camp, in the spring of 1945.

BARACK OBAMA: He returned from his service in a state of shock, saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, along with the painful memories that would not leave his head. And as we saw some of the images here, it’s understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock.

Many little-known sub-camps

RAY SUAREZ: Even as the president tours Buchenwald today, more than 60 years after it was liberated, scholars are still uncovering the full extent of the Nazi camp system. It's part of ongoing research here at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The museum has just released the first volume of its "Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos." It's an attempt to document and catalog each forced-labor, prisoner-of-war, and death camp.

Geoffrey Megargee is editor of the series.

GEOFFREY MEGARGEE, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: What most people are familiar with are the major camps, Auschwitz, and Dachau, and Buchenwald, places like that. Most people don't realize that, for every one of those, there were dozens, hundreds, even thousands of other camps.

Buchenwald itself, for example, had 117 sub-camps. Ohrdruf -- that's come into prominence recently because President Obama's great-uncle -- was just one of them.

So it's been a situation where the scale of the thing has expanded in most people's awareness, even in the awareness of scholars. When we started the encyclopedia project, we thought we were dealing with 5,000 or 7,000 sites. That number is now at 20,000 or more, depending on what you count.

Camps had specific purposes

RAY SUAREZ: Does it change the way we should think about that chunk of Europe that the Nazis occupied during the late '30s and into the 1940s? Was all of Western Europe and much of Eastern Europe basically part of this prison network?

GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Yes, yes, absolutely. Germany and all of the countries that it occupied, from North Africa up to Norway, from France almost to Moscow, and down into the Ukraine, there were camps and ghettos everywhere.

One of the things that this does, I think, for people's awareness is to help them to understand that no one could've ignored this at the time. You know, civilians who after the war said, "Oh, we didn't know anything about the camp system," that couldn't have been true.

They might not have known the scale of it; they might not have known about the very worst places, the extermination centers, for example, although actually word of that did get out, too. But there were forced laborers. There were concentration camp prisoners. There were POWs everywhere in Germany doing all kinds of work.

RAY SUAREZ: The specialization of these camps, many of them had very specific purposes, didn't they?

GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Right. Beyond the concentration camps that people are aware of, beyond the ghettos, beyond the forced labor camps and POW camps, the big categories that most people are at least roughly aware of, there were smaller groups of camps set up for particular and often particularly horrible goals.

For instance, you had the so-called Germanization camps, where Polish and Russian children who were taken sometimes from orphanages, sometimes from their parents, sometimes literally kidnapped, put into these places. If they were deemed racially worthy, would be handed over to German parents and raised as German children.

There were places called -- well, historians called them "blood donation camps," where the German army took blood from Slavic children to use to treat wounded German soldiers and weren't feeding the children, so very often this proved to be fatal.

'Categorizing' people

RAY SUAREZ: When you look at the variety of places, does it also shine a light on what the Germans thought they were up to, their way of categorizing people, their way of sort of sorting the people that they were imprisoning during the war?

GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Everything was based -- or almost everything -- upon race, that, plus, the category of prisoner. So, for example, if you were an English or an American POW, you were in relatively good shape. I mean, we want to be careful here. Nobody had fun in these places. You know, nobody got fat.

But English and American POWs could get Red Cross parcels much of the time, at least until the very end of the war, and so they were relatively better off.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, you had the extermination centers, where people were simply brought there and killed. In between, in the concentration camps, much depended on what kinds of skills you had. If you were sent to a farm, you might be able to steal a little bit of extra food, you were in relatively good shape. If you were put into a mine or digging a tunnel for an underground factory, you were doomed within a matter of weeks.

So a lot depended on prison category, on your own skills, sometimes on the whims of an individual guard or an overseer at a worksite who might allow you a little bit of rest, something like that.

More new evidence possible

RAY SUAREZ: Do you expect to find more? Or are some of the trails cooling off, as far as finding new material, new archival evidence?

GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Well, people have been asking me that for a number of years. And for a number of years, I've been saying I think we have them all at this point.

But I'm starting to become more hesitant. Every time I answer the question that way, it seems that a few months later we come up with new ones.

People have to understand that this was all part of the war effort for the Nazis. This was not a separate issue; it was not a separate effort. This was part of winning the war for them, both in terms of eliminating the Jews, in terms of enslaving millions of people for war production, and in terms of racially rearranging Europe, which was one of their primary war goals.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, thanks for talking to us this morning.

GEOFFREY MEGARGEE: Thank you very much for having me.