A group of Roma waiting to be gassed in Bełzec concentration camp (Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Originally conceived as a place of detention for political opponents and socialists, the first concentration camps were erected in Germany as early as 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power. Before the outbreak of war, the most numerous prisoners were German Communists and Socialists, Social Democrats, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, and persons accused of “anti-social” or “deviant” behavior. The Nazi SS units took over the management of the camps in 1935, which became gathering places for all the “undesirable” elements in the country, especially Jews, Roma, Sinti, Slavs, Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, and clergy.
Scientists distinguish between different types of camps in the Nazi-occupied Europe: collection or transit camps used for gathering inmates and transporting them to other locations, labour camps where prisoners were forced to work in particularly harsh conditions, concentration camps used for detention and torture of “undesirable” elements of society and extermination camps designed and built solely for the mass murder of inmates as soon as they arrived. The total number of camps has not been determined, but on the territory under direct German occupation at least 1200 have been established, while it is speculated that the total number of camps in occupied Europe could be between 15 and 20 thousand. The largest camps were formed in occupied Poland.
Certainly the worst, the extermination camps were used for mass killings, primarily of Jews, but also Roma, Poles, Soviet soldiers, and homosexuals. The victims were most often killed using gas, in specially constructed chambers with the cyanide-based pesticide Zyclone – B, or carbon monoxide in mobile gas chambers – remodeled vans. Most of the victims were killed immediately upon arrival, while a few were separated into special units that help Nazis in the camp. At first, the victims were buried in shallow mass graves, but when it became evident that Germany could lose the war, most of the victims were burned, as were the bodies already buried to cover up the traces of the crime. With Allies taking control in Europe, the Nazis tried to destroy most of the concentration camps, while inmates were either quickly killed or sent on exhausting “death marches” to camps closer to the interior of Germany.
The total death toll during the Nazi regime has been estimated between 11 and 17 million. The most numerous victims were Jews, between 4.9 and 5.9 million were killed in the camps and ghettos, 1.4 million of those in the occupied part of the Soviet Union, which represents almost 60% of Europe’s Jewish pre-war population. Following Jews, the most numerous victims were prisoners of war, most of them Soviets, with just over 3 million killed. Nearly 2 million Polish civilians were killed and an undetermined number of Slavs, who were also considered a “lower” race. The Germans also sent their fellow citizens to the concentration camps, killing between 200 and 250 thousand disabled people, while arresting 100,000 homosexuals, of whom 5 to 15 thousand were sent to the camps.
A fate almost identical to that of the Jews was experienced during the Nazi regime by the Roma, who call this darkest part of human history Samudaripen, which in Romani means mass murder, extermination.