TORONTO — The names are seared into the Jewish consciousness: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, Sobibor.
So are the names of Jewish ghettos set up across Nazi-occupied Europe. Many will also recall dozens of sub-camps, detention facilities, forced-labour sites and transit centres during the Holocaust.
But recent research shows that the extent of the Third Reich’s apparatus for killing, imprisoning, dehumanizing and re-educating, not just Jews but gentiles, and even Germans themselves, was much vaster than previously believed.
Last March, the New York Times, in a story headlined “The Holocaust just got more shocking,” reported on the results of research by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which 13 years earlier, began cataloguing all the ghettos, slave-labour sites, concentration camps and killing factories that the Nazis had set up throughout Europe.
Seven decades after the fact, the results, to be contained in 12 encyclopedic volumes, showed there were some 42,500 Nazi camps and ghettos throughout Europe from 1933 to 1945. The figure staggered many Holocaust scholars.
“The numbers are so much higher than what we originally thought,” said one. “Unbelievable.”
The final bewildering list tabulated 30,000 slave-labour camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for police detention, euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners or transporting victims to killing centres. There were re-education camps for doctors, professors, lawyers, librarians, and even philosophers.
About the only Holocaust historian not shocked at the new figures was Robert Jan van Pelt of the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto, who has conducted his own research, which closely parallels the results of the USHMM.
“The older number of 25,000 was a number that I knew quite well,” van Pelt told The CJN. Asked if the new findings surprised him, he replied, “no, absolutely not.”
One of the world’s leading experts on Auschwitz, van Pelt is careful to point out that the first part of the title to his Nov. 5 talk for Holocaust Education Week – “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking” – was not his idea, but that the second part – “The Camp as Form of Life in Nazi Germany” – was.
That’s because his research reveals that camps which served either to punish or indoctrinate blanketed Germany even before World War II. They were considered a normal part of German life.
The proliferation of “betterment” camps in Germany in the mid-1930s “was a key element in the formation of a state and society that was willing to use internment, forced labour, concentration, and death camps as a common tool of politics,” van Pelt’s research has shown.
He believes that as many as 90 per cent of Germans who came of age during the Third Reich had some experience with being incarcerated for non-criminal offences.
“When people start talking about camps in Nazi Europe, what comes to mind are the concentration camps,” van Pelt told The CJN in an interview prior to his talk at Shaar Shalom Synagogue. “In fact, the concentration camps are only a small part of this enormous phenomenon of German-controlled camps that covered the continent… these camps were everywhere, not only in 1944, but earlier.”
Among the thousands of pre-war camps, van Pelt has been able to distinguish at least 44 different kinds in Germany alone. There were camps for “Aryans,” for party functionaries, for the SS, “re-education” camps for lawyers, artists, physicians, civil servants and managers, for men and for women, and for the young and the very old. Pro-Nazi thinker Martin Heidegger even ran one for philosophers.
The idea was to Germanize and later, to Nazify. “Ideologically, they were dedicated to the idea of renewal and regeneration outside the confines of civil society,” van Pelt noted.
In 1933, the Nazis quickly and effectively brought all of these initiatives under their control. By 1935, labour service camps for young men prior to military service were mandatory.
These were harsh places: hair was shorn, uniforms were mandatory and a tough physical regimen followed. There was little or no freedom.
Van Pelt sees a continuum between these early camps and the later Nazi death mills.
The camps helped create the “Nazi Man – the human being who was conditioned to be a bystander and ready to become a perpetrator. [They] created the human being who was willing to tolerate and even operate the other camps—the camps meant for ‘The Other.’ [They] created the preconditions for the Holocaust.”