Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis and their European allies operated a staggering number of detention sites and camps — more than 44,000 — geographically ranging from the United Kingdom Channel Islands in the west to Russia in the east, and from Norway in the north to Somalia in the south.
At these sites, millions of innocent people, including 6 million Jews, were murdered, while others were forced to work against their will, persecuted and tortured.
A comprehensive seven-volume encyclopedia documenting those camps is being produced by a small group of researchers, editors and writers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., along with hundreds of scholars from around the world.
Penn Hills native Andrew Kloes is one of those researchers at the Holocaust Museum’s Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies.
Kloes, the guest speaker on Feb. 8 at Rodef Shalom Brotherhood’s Herzog Breakfast Discussion, shared an insider’s look at new findings revealed within the “Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.”
Researchers have been working on the encyclopedia since 1999 and have completed its first three volumes, the first two of which are available for free online. The aim of the project is to provide scholars with leads for additional research and memorialize the places where millions of people suffered and died, according to Kloes.
“The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum undertook this project recognizing that it had a unique obligation to provide reliable and up-to-date reference for the study of the Holocaust, especially while eyewitnesses and survivors were still present to provide critical guidance and oversight,” Kloes said.
Each of the seven volumes of the encyclopedia focuses on a particular type of site, or group of related sites. The first three volumes, published by the museum in partnership with Indiana University Press in 2009, 2012 and 2018, total 5000 pages.
Volume 1 documents 110 camps that the Nazi regime established shortly after coming to power in 1933. About 80% of the 50,000 to 100,000 prisoners in these early camps were supporters or members of the Communist Party of Germany.
“Within this group, the camp guards singled out the Jewish prisoners for the most special and harshest abuse,” noted Kloes. Volume 1 also examines the 24 main concentration camps that the SS operated in Germany and German-occupied France, the Netherlands, Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the 874 “sub-camps,” or satellite camps, “which comprised their respective camp networks,” Kloes said. Volume 1 also documents the Auschwitz concentration camp and killing center, “where at least 1 million Jews were murdered by poison gas.”
Volume 2 of the encyclopedia covers the sites and towns in Eastern Europe, in German-occupied Polish and Soviet territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, where the Germans incarcerated local Jewish communities in ghettos.
“Whereas previous scholarly attempts to identify the number of ghettos that the Nazis created resulted in estimates ranging from 400 ghettos to 800 ghettos, our encyclopedia was able to document the existence of 1,143 ghettos,” said Kloes. The new results were achieved, in part, by examining records from the former Soviet Union, which scholars were not able to access during the Cold War. “The ghettos existed within urban landscapes, which commonly changed their appearance over time,” Kloes said, adding that “little, if anything, remains of the physical structures that form most parts of these ghettos.”
With a small number of exceptions, “at almost all the ghetto sites, there are no museums, no memorials, or even any sign of what occurred there,” he explained. “The danger is that as the last survivors pass away, so too will any knowledge of the places where they suffered. One goal of this volume was to collect detailed information about the locations of the ghettos to assist in the preservation of that memory.”
Volume 3 of the encyclopedia covers an additional 474 camps and 220 ghettos operated by the allies of Nazi Germany and 11 European countries, including fascist Italy, Vichy France, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia.
“For decades, scholars have researched and discussed the fact that Germans could not have carried out the genocide of the Jewish people of Europe without active participation of local collaborators in many countries,” Kloes noted. “This volume brings new clarity to the European collaboration with the Nazis and documents the wider European role in the Holocaust.”
Volume 4 contains the team’s latest research and is currently in the final stages of editing.
“It covers approximately 2,000 camps that were operated by the German Armed Forces,” said Kloes. “The main focus of this volume is on the prisoner-of-war camps for the enlisted men and officers, the various armies that fought against the Germans.”
Nazi racial ideology “influenced the way in which the Germans treated prisoners from the different national backgrounds of the soldiers whom they captured,” he noted. “For example, Croatian, Dutch, Dutch-speaking Belgians, Greeks and Norwegian prisoners of war were never put into camps, or they were released from prisoner-of-war camps after a very brief period. Allowing these prisoners of war to go back home was also a political decision, the calculation that doing so might make the German military occupation of these countries peaceful.”
Volume 4 also covers several hundred German military brothels that the Germans created for their soldiers, Kloes said.
“Almost all the women in these brothels were there against their will. Some had worked as prostitutes before the war. Other women were taken to these German military brothels from the concentration camps. And in other cases, women were sent to these brothels as punishment for committing a crime against the German occupation their home country.”
Volumes 5, 6 and 7 are currently in the works. Volume 5 focuses on the approximately 3,000 Nazi sites for racial persecution, detention, resettlement and murder, with most of the victims at these sites non-Jews. The volume also includes the so-called euthanasia centers in Germany, “where people with mental and physical disabilities were gassed to death, as well as sites in Germany where forced abortions and infanticide were performed, primarily on women brought to Germany from Poland and the Soviet Union to work as forced laborers in agriculture,” and documents the detention camps for the Roma people persecuted because of their ethnic identity.
Volume 6 covers approximately 2,000 camps that were separate from the concentration camp system covered in Volume 1, including “many cases in which the SS brought Jewish men and women from ghettos to work on agricultural estates or in factories, where they persecuted, exploited and murdered them.” It also covers the camps where “the SS brought millions of Jewish people for the sole purpose of murdering them, the so-called extermination camps.”
Volume 7 focuses on sites where millions of non-Jews, mostly Eastern Europeans, were brought to work as forced laborers in Germany and throughout German-occupied Europe.
The researchers working on Volume 7 have identified between 30,000 and 40,000 sites where the Germans used forced laborers, most from the Slavic countries, said Kloes. About 12 million forced laborers were brought to Germany from other countries, and another 10 million were made to work as forced laborers for the Germans in their own countries.
Concentration camp expansion continued until the final months of the war, noted Kloes.
“The month in which the most people were held in the concentration camp system was January 1945,” he said. “At this time, only four months before the end of the war, there were a total of 715,000 prisoners across all the different camps in the system. Of these, an estimated one-third to one-half, approximately 250,000 to 350,000 people died before the end of the war, many on forced marches.”
While the research team has been working on the encyclopedia for 21 years, it aims to complete its work within the next five years, Kloes said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at