A thirteen-year long investigative research project has revealed that the horrific and murderous actions of the Holocaust were carried out in tens of thousands of designated sites – far more than historians had ever imagined.
The painstakingly thorough effort by researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to document every single ghetto, slave labor internment camp, concentration camp and murder factory established by the Nazis across Europe brought to light approximately 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps from 1933 to 1945.
The enormity of that number is so overwhelming that the other Holocaust scholars who were present needed to hear it again when the lead researchers unveiled their findings at an academic forum in late January at the German Historical Institute in Washington.
“The numbers are so much higher than what we originally thought,” stated Hartmut Berghoff, the institute’s director.
The documented camps encompass a lot more than “killing centers” – they include thousands of forced labor camps, where those who were held captive manufactured items needed for the war effort; prisoner-of-war camps; and sites purposely entitled “care” centers, where pregnant women were forced to undergo abortions or their babies were murdered after birth.
Historically, Auschwitz and a small group of other concentration camps have come to epitomize the workings of the Nazi system of human destruction in the public mindset. Similarly, the Nazi system for confining Jewish families to hometown ghettos has become represented by a single example — the Warsaw Ghetto, famous for the 1943 uprising. But the latest research findings demonstrate that these sites are only a tiny fraction of the entire network.
The lead editors of the research project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified as part of a vast multifaceted system.
The existence of many specific camps and ghettos was previously known only on a patchy basis. But the researchers, using data from about 400 contributors, have been documenting the complete scale for the first time, analyzing where each site was located, how it was operated, and what its unique purpose was.
The horrifying experience of Henry Greenbaum, an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor who resides outside Washington, offers a typical window into the vast range of Nazi sites.
When Greenbaum, who serves as a volunteer at the Holocaust museum, tells visitors there about his World War II experiences, they generally zero in on his months of imprisonment at Auschwitz, the most notorious of all the concentration camps.
But Greenbaum retains searing memories of the other brutal locations he was forced to endure. These include the Starachowice ghetto in his hometown in Poland; a slave labor camp; a chemical manufacturing plant in Poland that was called Buna Monowitz; and a slave labor camp at Flossenbürg, near the border with Czechoslovakia.
By the time he was 17, Greenbaum had been enslaved in five camps over five years, and was transferring to a sixth one when American soldiers liberated him in 1945. “Nobody even knows about these places,” Greenbaum said. “Everything should be documented. That’s very important. We try to tell the youngsters so that they know, and they’ll remember.”
The research could have valuable legal effects by enabling a small number of Holocaust survivors to authenticate their continuing claims over unpaid insurance policies, stolen property, seized land and other financial matters.
“How many claims have been rejected because the victims were in a camp that we didn’t even know about?” asked Sam Dubbin, a Florida lawyer who represents a group of survivors attempting to bring claims against European insurance companies.
According to Dr. Megargee, the lead researcher, the project was altering the thinking among Holocaust scholars about the evolution of the camps and ghettos.
At the outset of Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, the Third Reich set up approximately 110 camps specifically designed to jail some 10,000 political opponents and others, the researchers found. With Germany invading and then occupying European countries, the implementation of camps and ghettos was expanded to imprison and sometimes kill not only Jews but homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and numerous other ethnic groups within Eastern Europe. The camps and ghettos varied greatly in their mission, organization and size, depending on the Nazis’ requirements, the researchers have learned.
The biggest site identified is the well-known Warsaw Ghetto, which housed about 500,000 people at its height. But a small group of a dozen prisoners performed forced labor at one of the smallest camps, München-Schwabing in Germany. Small groups of inmates were sent there from the Dachau concentration camp under armed guard. According to testimonies, they were whipped and ordered to do manual labor at the home of an avid Nazi supporter who was dubbed “Sister Pia.”
When the research got underway in 2000, Dr. Megargee projected that he would pinpoint around 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept rising — first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and ultimately 42,500.
The specific sets of numbers truly boggle the mind: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; and thousands of other camps dedicated to euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, or transporting victims to killing centers.
Dr. Dean, a co-researcher, said that the study’s results made it absolutely clear to him that numerous German citizens, despite their repeated claims of ignorance in the years following the conclusion of World War II, must have been aware of the widespread existence of the Nazi camps at the time.
“You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps,” he said. “They were everywhere.”