MEMORY OF THE CAMPS
Original Airdate: May 5,1985
Fifty one years ago camera crews with the British and American armies entered
the Nazi death camps and filmed the horror they found there.
For decades that film was stored in the archives of the Imperial War Museum in
The documentary was unfinished with missing sound tracks.
But the directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, had developed a script to go
with the pictures.
Tonight, FRONTLINE presents that film unedited, as close as possible to what
the producers intended over a half-century ago.
They made it as a document to serve our collective memory.
In March 1933, 17,264,296 Germans voted for the National Socialist Party;
20,680,000 others cast their vote for Democrats, Communists, Christian
Socialists, People's Party, etc., etc. Lack of unity among these parties
opposing the Nazis proved fatal. The National Socialist Party was in power.
They made many claims and many promises.
The German people had embarked on that long, incredible journey that led
seemingly out of chaos to unprecedented triumph.
Promise after promise had been fulfilled. Austria 1938, Czechoslovakia 1938,
Poland 1939, Norway, Denmark, and France in quick succession. A place in the
sun at last. True, they had lost their trade unions and a lot of books had
been burned, but it seemed a good sort of bargain, and one got to like being
told what to do, having one's views prescribed, especially if it meant a vista
bright with the promise of grandeur and conquest.
In the spring of 1945, the Allies, advancing into the heart of Germany, came
to Bergen Belsen. Neat and tidy orchards, well stocked farms line the wayside
and the British soldier did not fail to admire the place and its inhabitants--
at least until he began to feel a smell
It came from a concentration camp, a waste ringed with barbed wire and
overlooked by watchtowers. Coming in from the flowering countryside in spite
of the frightful smell, things didn't seem so bad at first; children smiled
through the barbed wire and women laughed and waved their hands.
But Belsen camp was vast and inside was a different story. They had not eaten
for six days and every soldier's stock of food was called into use. Water,
too, had been cut off and so the water cart was the most important thing to
Most of the people seemed to be listless, beyond hope and astonishment.
Hunger had probably affected them that way. We discovered that among this
stench of disease and decay was something a bit worse than hunger. Moving
vaguely on rickety skeleton legs, they were too ill to eat.
How grateful they were for a kindly word or gesture! What misery, to live
amongst such unmentionable filth with scarcely the strength to pick the lice
which inevitably swarmed over them.
They seemed accustomed to the smell and the horror. They had seen all there
was to see.
Huts were almost impossible to go near; they were full of tangled masses of
people who had died slowly and painfully of starvation and disease writhing in
agony, helpless in puddles of excrement.
It was difficult to imagine the orchards now, those rich fields where the
stolid cattle cropped the juicy grass, for here, a few minutes away inside the
barbed wire, was nothing but filth and death.
Dead prisoners hurled out and stacked in twisted heaps. Dead women like
marble statues in the mire.
This was what these inmates had to live among-- and die among.
The dead which lay there were not numbered in hundreds, but in thousands; not
one or two thousand but 30,000.
Here is a pit where the inmates-- in order to earn food-- had to drag the
bodies of their comrades, but they were too weak to keep up with the rate at
which they were dying so the pit remains only half filled.
The S.S. Guards in charge of the camp were captured and lined up for
examination. Their papers were gone through to confirm their status, their
Each with his death's head badge.
Each justified by German law.
They were unashamed, well-fed, well-dressed and cheerful.
There were women also on guard in Belsen. Volunteers who came of their own
free will, to do their bit.
Not sickly pale with hollow faces and hungry eyes, but well-fed and well-kept
with a strutting arrogance.
The commandant of the camp, Joseph Kramer, was removed for trial as a war
criminal by an Allied Military Court.
There was an urgent need to get rid of as many bodies as possible, as quickly
as possible, so all the S.S. were set to work.
Five hundred Hungarian troops, captured with the S.S., were started on a
grave-digging operation. The S.S. themselves were made to do the unpleasant
job they had forced the inmates to do.
This, after all, was nothing to these men, they, the "Master Race," had been
taught to be hard; they could kill in cold blood; and it seemed to the British
soldier fit and proper that the killers should bury the nameless hopeless
creatures they had starved to death.
The faces of the bystanders showed just a little of the hate that Germany has
inspired-- and some of the anguish, too.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, those who were still living were being attended
to. Supplies of hot soup were prepared and those who could eat unaided were
fed as quickly as possible.
There had been no water supply for six days, the Germans pleaded it had been
cut. We laid on water in a few hours and before twelve hours had passed, had
sufficient to enable them to wash.
Soap was provided, the first they had seen for months, and an orgy of washing
A mobile bath unit was set up and provided hot water for baths.
Inmates thought there was a snag at first-- expected to be beaten for going
near it probably, but when they learned that the dream was true! Hot water!
And these are the people the Nazis said delighted in being dirty.
But the job of clearing up Belsen was a big one.
The Burgermeisters and Civil Officials of the neighborhood were brought to
witness the scenes that had been caused as part of the Nazi scheme of things.
This is what they expected.
It had been happening for years, but they shrugged their shoulders and beat
their brows and tried to say it had been none of their business; but they were
The S.S. men are not so spick and span now. Seven days of being shouted and
cursed at and handling corpses by the hundred are beginning to tell.
After seven dreadful days, the funerals still go on. There seems to be no
My name is Doctor Fritz Klein. I've been in this camp for one-and-a-half
years. I was born November 24, 1888; I'm 58 years old, a German from Rumania.
I'm speaking today, the 24th of April 1945.
They were given an address by a British officer through a loud speaker van.
BRITISH OFFICER (Translated)
You, who represent the fathers and brothers of German youth, see before your
eyes, some of the sons and daughters who bear the direct responsibility for
this crime. They are a small portion only. Therefore, it is more than the
human soul is able to bear. But who bears the real responsibility? You, who
allowed your leader to carry out this horrible madness; you, who couldn't do
enough for this degenerate triumph. You, who were a part of this camp....
One might ask why all the inmates surviving were not removed out of the camp
altogether to a large town, for example, where there would be feeding and
housing facilities; the answer is simply the dread word-- typhus.
A mobile bacteriological unit and all medical aid possible together with 90
medical students from London hospitals were rushed to the spot to deal with it.
Lack of soap and water brought lice to the inmates and lice carry typhus.
To get rid of typhus, one must first get rid of lice, so contaminated patients
were removed from their huts and put through a "laundry" process. D.D.T. was
dusted over them and they were washed clean, wrapped in blankets, and removed
in clean ambulances by teams working in relays in a miracle of relief work.
Two miles away from the camp was found a large S.S. Panzer training school and
hospital well stocked with medical supplies-- strange that these should not
have been used by the Germans for the inmates.
Scores still died every day: they were too far gone many of them to digest
any food and there was a desperate shortage of nursing staff. Still, one could
be thankful that they were not simply being left to rot away with neglect.
There were children, too, in Belsen camp, though what crime they had
committed was difficult to imagine. Most of them had been saved by the women
inmates who gave up what little food they could get to the children.
Meals for these children had always been few and far between, so they ate what
food we gave them with infinite care-- nothing could be more dreadful now than
to lose a piece of potato or a drop of soup.
Clothes was another urgent problem, so an outfitting department was set up,
and clothes gathered from shops in the surrounding towns, were soon being tried
on and gossiped over as women love to do.
There was something symbolic about new clothes. New clothes meant renewed
They donned them with pride.
Now, he can look forward to growing up to useful manhood.
There were more than 200 children under twelve years old found still alive in
To these children, clean dry clothes and kind words from a stranger were
strange, undreamed of, mysterious things.
Some had been born behind the barbed wire. In what circumstances, one dare
not try to imagine.
Where are their parents?
Or down here in this pit?
Today is the 24th of April 1945. My name is Gunner James William Illingworth and I live at
Cheshire. I am present in Belsen camp doing guard duty over the S.S. men. The
things in this camp are beyond describing. When you actually see them for
yourself, you know what you're fighting for here. A picture in the paper can't
describe it at all. We actually know now, what has been going on in these
camps and I know, personally, what I'm fighting for.
I'm the Reverend T.J. Stretch, attached as padre to the formation concerning
this camp. My home is at Fishguard. My parish is at Holy Trinity Church
Aberystwyth. I've been here eight days and never in my life, have I seen such
damnable ghastliness. This morning we buried over 5,000 bodies. We don't know
who they are. Behind me you can see a pit which will contain another 5,000.
There are two others like it in preparation. All these deaths have been caused
by systematic starvation and typhus and disease, which have been spread because
of the treatment meted out to these poor people by their S.S. guards and their
We shall never know who they were or from what homes they were torn. Whether
they were Catholics, Lutherans, or Jews, we only know they were born, they
suffered and died in agony in Belsen camp.
And so they lie, Jews, Lutherans, and Catholics-- indistinguishable
cheek-to-cheek in a common grave.
The living have been taken to a cleaner place.
The typhus infected huts are set afire.
Soon the fire will die, the smoke and ashes will drift away and grass will
cover the place.
The barbed wire goes down.
The striped livery goes with it.
Do not imagine this was the only black spot that was uncovered in Germany.
There were over 300 others.
No German can say he did not know about them. The whole world had heard of
Dachau, for it was publicized by the Nazis as a model camp ever since its
inception way back in 1933. On the 28th of February of that year, the
Presidential Emergency Decree suspended the basic civil rights of the German
people for an indeterminate period and so eliminated legal safeguards against
Here were 32,000 men of every European nationality, including 5,660 Germans.
From the outside one might, at a casual glance, have seen nothing remarkable
or horrifying, but Dachau was crammed with three or four times the number it
was designed for.
Here, as at Belsen, men knew hunger, men became weak, men fell sick, until
they died where they lay on the floor.
In the Hut 30, alone, there is recorded, for example, 72 deaths with 24 hours.
Every day the dead were taken from the huts.
Here, as at Belsen, there were many who were too weak to be saved, too sick to
eat. Typhus was taking its toll and truck loads of wretchedness had to be
somehow dealt with in the already overflowing hospitals.
Dachau had its own brothel for the use of guards and favored prisoners. As
the women died, they were replaced by a fresh contingent from the women's camp
This was not used as a bath house, but as a death chamber.
Batches of prisoners were marched in here to die.
When the chamber was full, the doors were shut and sealed, a man at the
controls let in the poison gas and another batch of helpless victims screamed
their lives out beyond the grill.
The gas chamber was conveniently placed next to the mortuary, and next to that
was the crematorium.
These great ovens were constructed exclusively for the burning of large
numbers of corpses.
In the last three months, official records show that 10,615 people were
disposed of here. Their clothes were turned over to the Deutsche Textil und
Bekleidungswerke G.M.B.H., a private corporation whose stockholders were S.S.
officials, which reclaimed and repaired the garments-- with the use of unpaid
prison labor-- and the re-sold them to the camp clothing depot for the use of
The prisoners arrived often in railway trucks. But, there had been no hurry
to unload this one. They went away, leaving the prisoners to die of hunger and
cold, and typhus.
We found them like this, frozen stiff in the snow alongside a public road. By
some miracle, seventeen men were still alive. All the rest, about 3,000, were
Germans knew about Dachau, but did not care.
In Buchenwald, there were about 80,000 of whom 34,000 were employed outside
the camp in an armaments factory.
During the first week of April, 25,000 were removed by the Germans to other
camps because of th approach of the Allied forces. When the camp was liberated
on April 13th, 20,000 inmates remained.
African Negroes, Albanians, Austrians, Belgians, Brazilians, Canadians,
Chinese, Croats, Czechs, Danes, French, Germans, British, Greeks, Dutch,
Italians, Yugoslavs, Latvians, Letts, Norwegians, Mexicans, Poles, Rumanians,
Spaniards, Swiss, Americans, and Russians.
Fifty-five thousand of them died because of this place. People were tattooed
across the belly with slave numbers and forced to work on starvation diet.
People were coldly and systematically tortured.
Here Schoker, the camp commandant said, "I want at least 600 Jewish deaths
reported in the camp office every day."
Thugs were appointed as overseers or block leaders.
There was no efficient distribution of food. One prisoner collected the
rations for ten or fifteen men. Hunger and hopelessness turned some of them
into beasts. Sometimes, a prisoner carrying rations back to the hut was
waylaid and robbed by other prisoners. Sometimes, he ate the best part of the
food himself. Sometimes, he sold it.
Corruption was fostered for it gave another excuse for killing.
All this seemed so remote from humanity, so far beyond the behavior of man.
British Members of Parliament came, and saw, and were sick at heart.
It had to be seen to be believed.
German citizens were brought from Weimar. They had to see, too, to see what
they had been fighting for, and we had been fighting against.
They came cheerfully, like sightseers to a chamber of horrors, for there
indeed were some real horrors. If a prisoner had a curiously tattooed skin, it
was taken from him. We can only hope he was dead when it was done. The skin
was tanned and made into lampshades, etc.
These shrunken heads belonged to two Polish prisoners who had escaped and been
Some of the visitors did not care for the sight and were assisted by
Ebensee is a holiday resort in the mountains. The air is clean and pure. It
cures sickness and there is a sweetness about this place: a gentle peace.
In this place the Luftwaffe or S.S. Panzer officer on leave relaxes, eats
well, breathes deeply, finds romance. Everything is charming and picturesque.
But the concentration camp had become an integral part of the German economic
system, so it was here, too.
They were able to see the mountains, but what use are mountains without food.
Prisoners at Dachau and Buchenwald dreaded being sent here. To them, this
place did not mean recuperation, only starvation, tuberculosis through slavery
in an underground factory, and finally left to cough one's life out unaided and
crowded in the filth and stench of a hut, unfit for dogs, but for some reason
called a hospital.
The daily collection of corpses was disposed of through the chimney.
Mauthausen. First used in 1938, this camp was the center of a group of
Forty thousand people had died here since the beginning of the year.
Here the gas chamber held 200 at a time and the crematorium dealt with 300 per
day-- every day.
Ludwigslust. In the north of Germany, it was the same story. The few who
remained alive were staggering on the verge of death.
They were the survivors and these were the rest-- hurriedly murdered lest they
be set free to live a normal life.
The authorities in the camps took special measures to make sure that a man
would neither live normally nor die normally, neither should he sleep normally.
He was surrounded by barbed wire and he had to sleep on barbed wire.
Ohrdruf. Here was carnage and desolation. Prisoners had been dragged from
the sacks of straw in the hovels called hospitals, shot and hastily disposed of
by the first means to hand. There must have been some feeling of guilt or
presumably there would not have been an attempt to destroy the evidence.
In the outskirts of Leipig, an effort was made to prevent 300 forced workers
in a factory from being set free by advancing Allied troops. Three hundred
were locked in a mess hut and burned. This is where it stood. Some of the
desperate, screaming prisoners broke out. Flame throwers and machine guns were
waiting to receive them.
This was a woman.
Some almost reached the barbed wire, some got there and stayed there, for it
This was a Polish engineer.
Gardelegen. American troops advancing did not know that in this barn the
Germans had locked 1,800 prisoners and set burning straw alight to suffocate
them. In the morning before retreating they had poured petrol on the bodies in
an attempt to burned what remained. It still smoldered when the American
This man was shot because he gasped for air, trying to escape while the rest
of him burned in the barn.
Auschwitz. The most up to date institution was better equipped for killing.
Transports of prisoners from all over occupied Europe were went for
extermination in one of the special Vernichtungslager. Here, 4 million people
were murdered. As many men, women, and children as you could pack into a great
The final reel of this film was shot by Russian cameraman at Auschwitz
concentration camp. The film has been lost. But the script survives. This is
how it concludes.
The dead have been buried.
It remains for us to care for these, the living. It remains for us to hope
tht Germans may help mend what they have broken, and cleanse what they have
Thousands of German people were made to see for themselves, to bury the dead,
to file past the victims. This was the end of the journey they had so
confidently begun in 1933. Twelve years? No, in terms of barbarity and
brutality they had traveled backwards for 12,000 years.
Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall. But,
by God's grace, we who live will learn.