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The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

By Dr Geoffrey Megargee

Most people are aware that Nazi Germany maintained a complex of concentration camps, extermination camps, ghettos, forced labour camps, and prisoner-of-war camps. However, aside from some specialists, very few people are aware of the scale of the detention system that existed in Germany and occupied Europe and North Africa, which held millions of people between 1933 and 1945. Moreover, information about most of those sites is complicated to find. At most places, there are no memorials or any sign at all of what occurred there, while the written records are scattered and require expertise in many different languages. The danger exists that, as the survivors fade from the scene, so too will any knowledge of the places where the Nazis and their allies detained, persecuted, exploited, and killed their victims.

Women and children survivors in Mauthausen speak to an American liberator through a barbed wire fence, May 1945. (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Col. P. Richard Seibel)

With those points in mind, the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are compiling an encyclopedia of the camps and ghettos in the territories that Nazi Germany and its allies controlled between 1933 and 1945. Its primary goal is to provide a single source for information about particular sites within the Nazis’ system. Also, scholars will also find aids to further research, so that the work of unearthing this history can continue. Only an institution such as the Museum can complete a work of this scope, which draws on the scholarly expertise of staff members throughout the organisation as well as that of hundreds of researchers around the world.

The encyclopedia will comprise seven volumes, each of which will contain entries of scholarly text, with footnotes, bibliography, and references to pertinent archival collections. Each volume will address a group of sites that share an organisational or functional connection. For example, the first volume, which appeared in 2009, deals with the SS concentration camp system, from its beginnings in 1933 as a loose collection of ad-hoc facilities, through its consolidation and expansion into a centralized system that included some of the Nazis’ most notorious camps, such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, as well as the roughly nine hundred satellite camps that the SS established around their main facilities. The second volume, which appeared in 2012, covers over 1,100 ghettos in German-occupied eastern Europe, including approximately 300 that had never been documented before.

The volumes to follow will cover these other categories of sites:

Volume 3: Camps and ghettos run by European regimes aligned with Nazi Germany, including sites under the control of Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Italy, France, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Finland, and Norway. This volume will appear in June 2018.

Volume 4: Camps and other facilities under the control of the German military, including prisoner of war camps, civilian internment and forced labour camps, punishment camps and prisons for German military personnel, labour camps for Tunisian Jews, and brothels in which the Germans forced women into sexual slavery. This volume should appear by the end of 2019.

Volume 5: Sites for the racial persecution, detention, murder, and resettlement of non-Jews. This volume will cover a variety of penal camps, prisons, and other sites that held mostly non-Jewish prisoners who were the victims of extra-judicial actions. Specific types include “euthanasia” centres, sites of forced abortion and infanticide, so-called work education camps, “Germanization” facilities, and resettlement camps for Poles.

Volume 6: Extermination, forced labour, and transit camps for Jews. This volume encompasses the various kinds of camps, outside of the concentration camp system, that the SS used to hold Jews, exploit their labour, and ultimately murder them.

Volume 7: Camps for foreign forced labourers. By the end of 1944, Germany had brought in millions of people and put them to work in every segment of the economy. Between 30,000 and 40,000 camps existed for such labourers. This volume will not address those sites individually but will examine the forced labour system from several broader perspectives. We are also working to compile a collection of data sets for researchers to use.

Each of the entries will provide as much information as possible about a particular site, such as:

  • the founding of the site, its purpose, its organisation, and its dissolution;

  • the individuals and entities that administered and guarded the site, and that used the prisoners’ labour;

  • the numbers and kinds of prisoners the site held, what kinds of work they did, how they lived and how they died;

  • elements of prisoner culture, such as leadership hierarchies, survival mechanisms and resistance;

  • significant events in the history of the site, such as revolts, and any other elements that made the site unique;

  • post-war trials of site personnel.

Prisoners of Auschwitz greet their liberators. (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography)

The process of creating the encyclopedia has already produced its share of scholarly advances. For example, the sheer number of camps and ghettos was far more significant than anyone imagined when the project began; from our initial working estimate of five thousand sites, the list has grown to over 44,000, and that is a conservative figure. Obviously, this development has affected our understanding of the task before us, but we remain committed to producing the most comprehensive and accurate work possible. The Museum is uniquely equipped to carry out this project, which requires a unique combination of substantial resources, institutional commitment over the course of years, access to documentation, in-house historical and linguistic expertise, organisational skill, and a network of specialists from many countries.

In all, this project promises to create a unique scholarly work of unsurpassed value, both for Holocaust scholars and for anyone who wishes to learn more about the Nazi system of persecution or a particular site. It also preserves a record of the thousands of places in which the Germans’ victims suffered and died.

The first two volumes of the Encyclopedia are available online, free of charge, on the Museum’s website, as downloadable pdf files. We plan to continue to make the volumes available in this way, approximately three years after the publication of each hardcover volume.

The project director and general editor is Dr Geoffrey Megargee, who joined the Center in 2000 to oversee this work. He can be reached at (202) 488-0457 or if any additional information is required.

Dr Geoffrey Megargee is the Senior Applied Research Scholar in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, where he is project director and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Megargee is also the author of Inside Hitler's High Command (winner of the Society for Military History’s 2001 Distinguished Book Award) and War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941, and he contributed a chapter to the new West Point History of Warfare.

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