Sunday, June 14, 2009


Nazis had 20,000 separate camps in Europe, new research finds.

The findings of a US team could reshape our historical understanding of the Holocaust, writes MONICA HESSE in Washington

"A LITTLE more than a decade ago, researchers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum decided to create an encyclopedia of concentration camps. They assumed the finished work would be massive, featuring a staggering 5,000 to 7,000 camps and ghettos.

They underestimated by 15,000.

Their ultimate count of more than 20,000 camps – which they reached after a year of research – is far more than most scholars had known existed and might reshape public understanding of the scope of the Holocaust itself.

“What’s going to happen is that the mental universe of how scholars operate is going to change,” said Steven Katz, director of Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Centre for Judaic Studies.

“Instead of thinking of main death camps, people are going to understand that this was a Continent-wide phenomenon.”

The Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos: 1933-1945 “is the first major reference work for Holocaust studies since . . . the fall of the USSR” and the opening of many European archives, says Paul Shapiro, director of the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.

Scholars chased footnotes in old books and used internet mailing lists to find historians who might possess tiny pieces of the puzzle.

Most of the sites included in the encyclopedia were known, says Geoff Megargee, the encyclopedia project director. “But they were known to one or two people . . . Sometimes there would be just one person who had done research on one prison.”

The first volume focuses on SS-run camps and contains more than 1,100 entries written by some 230 contributors.

Few people might realise, Megargee says, that each of the 23 main camps had sub-camps – nearly 900 sub-camps, each placed into categories with chillingly euphemistic names.

There were “care facilities for foreign children”, where pregnant prisoners would be sent for forced abortions. There were “Germanisation” camps, where foreign youth with what were deemed desirable racial features would be indoctrinated.

There were “youth protection” camps for the rebellious German teenagers who’d been caught listening to jazz.

In his decade of working on the project, Megargee says that he never stopped learning of new atrocities or personal stories.

“There was a woman who was a professional singer in the barracks” in a sub-camp of Flossenburg, he recalls, “who sang Ave Maria for (her fellow prisoners) one Christmas. She moved the barracks to tears, then a guard overheard her and came and knocked her teeth out.” Her story is recounted in the entry on the Wilischthal sub-camp.

Shapiro says that the sheer number of camps could put an end to the lingering protestation that ordinary people knew nothing of the killing under way in their locales.

“In most towns, there was some sort of prison or holding area or place where people were victimised,” Shapiro says.

“Think about what this means. For anyone who thinks this took place out of sight of the average person, this shatters that mythology. There was one Auschwitz. There was one Treblinka. But there were 20,000 other camps spread through the rest of Europe.”

Says Shapiro: “What we are seeing in this project is that all of Europe was a camp.”

– ( LA Times/Washington Post service)

This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times

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