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Throughout German-occupied Europe, the Germans arrested those who resisted their domination and those they judged to be racially inferior or politically unacceptable. People arrested for resisting German rule were mostly sent to forced-labor or concentration camps. The Germans deported Jews from all over occupied Europe to extermination camps in Poland, where they were systematically killed, and also to concentration camps, where they were used for forced labor. Transit camps such as Westerbork, Gurs, Mechelen, and Drancy in western Europe and concentration camps like Bolzano and Fossoli di Carpi in Italy were used as collection centers for Jews, who were then deported by rail to the extermination camps. According to SS reports, there were more than 700,000 prisoners registered in the concentration camps in January 1945.
The Nazi camp system expanded rapidly after the beginning of World War II in September 1939, as forced labor became important in war production. Labor shortages in the German war economy became critical after German defeat in the battle of Stalingrad in 1942-1943. This led to the increased use of concentration camp prisoners as forced laborers in German armaments industries. Especially in 1943 and 1944, hundreds of subcamps were established in or near industrial plants. Subcamps were generally smaller camps administered by the main camps, which supplied them with the required number of prisoners. Camps such as Auschwitz in Poland, Buchenwald in central Germany, Gross-Rosen in eastern Germany, Natzweiler-Struthof in eastern France, Ravensbrueck near Berlin, and Stutthof near Danzig on the Baltic coast became administrative centers of huge networks of subsidiary forced-labor camps.
In January 1945, the Third Reich stood on the verge of military defeat. As Allied forces approached Nazi camps, the SS organized death marches of concentration camp inmates, in part to keep large numbers of concentration camp prisoners from falling into Allied hands. The term "death march" was probably coined by concentration camp prisoners. It referred to forced marches of concentration camp prisoners over long distances under heavy guard and extremely harsh conditions. During death marches, SS guards brutally mistreated the prisoners and killed many. The largest death marches were launched from Auschwitz and Stutthof.
As Allied troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives on Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, many of whom had survived death marches into the interior of Germany. Soviet forces were the first to approach a major Nazi camp, reaching the Majdanek camp near Lublin, Poland, in July 1944. Surprised by the rapid Soviet advance, the Germans attempted to demolish the camp in an effort to hide the evidence of mass murder. The Soviets also liberated major Nazi camps at Auschwitz, Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück. US forces liberated the Buchenwald, Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbürg, Dachau, and Mauthausen camps. British forces liberated camps in northern Germany, including Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen.
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