Josef Kramer (November 10, 1906 – December 13, 1945) was the Commandant of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Dubbed "The Beast of Belsen" by camp inmates; he was a notorious Nazi war criminal, directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. He was convicted of war crimes and hanged in Hamelin prison by noted British executioner Albert Pierrepoint after World War II.
Kramer was born in Munich and joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and the SS in 1932. His SS training led him into work as a prison guard and, after the outbreak of war, as a concentration camp guard.
In 1934, he was assigned as a guard at Dachau. His promotion was rapid, obtaining senior posts at Sachsenhausen and Mauthausen concentration camps. He became assistant to Rudolf H , the Commandant at Auschwitz in 1940 and later the Commandant of Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in April 1941.
In 1940, he accompanied Rudolf H to inspect Auschwitz as a possible site for a new synthetic coal oil and rubber plant, which was a vital industry in Germany given its shortage of oil.
Kramer served as commandant of Natzweiler-Struthof, the only concentration camp established by the Nazis on present-day French territory, though there were French-run transit camps such as the one at Drancy. At the time, the Alsace-Lorraine area in which it was established had been annexed by Nazi Germany.
As commandant at Natzweiler-Stuthof, Kramer personally carried out the gassings of 80 Jewish men and women, part of a group of 87 selected at Auschwitz to become anatomical specimens in a proposed Jewish skeleton collection to be housed at the Anatomy Institute at the Reich University of Strasbourg under the direction of August Hirt.
Cigar break at the Solah tte resort near Auschwitz. Left-to-right: Josef Mengele, Rudolf H ss, Josef Kramer, Anton Thumann. Photo from the H cker Album.
Kramer was promoted to the rank of Hauptsturmf hrer (Captain) in 1942 and, in May 1944, was put in charge of the gas chambers in Auschwitz concentration camp. He was to hold that position until December 1944, when he was transferred out and appointed as Commandant of Belsen.
At Auschwitz, Kramer soon became notorious among his subordinates as a harsh taskmaster. One of the defendants at the Frankfurt Trial, Dr. Franz Lucas, testified that he tried to avoid assignments given him by Kramer by pleading stomach and intestinal disorders. When Dr. Lucas saw that his name had been added to the list of selecting physicians for a large group of inmates transferred from Hungary, he objected strenuously. Kramer reacted sharply: "I know you are being investigated for favouring prisoners. I am now ordering you to go to the ramp, and if you fail to obey an order, I shall have you arrested on the spot".
In December 1944, Kramer was transferred from Birkenau to Bergen Belsen, near the village of Bergen. Belsen had originally served as a temporary camp for those leaving Germany, but during the war had been expanded to serve as a convalescent depot for the ill and displaced people from across north-west Europe. Although it had no gas chambers, Kramer's rule was so harsh that he became known as the 'Beast of Belsen'. As Germany collapsed, administration of the camp broke down, but Kramer remained devoted to bureaucracy. On March 1, 1945, he filed a report asking for help and resources, stating that of the 42,000 inmates in his camp, 250-300 died each day from typhus. On March 19, the number of inmates rose to 60,000 as the Germans continued to evacuate camps that were soon to be liberated by the Allies. As late as the week of April 13, some 28,000 additional prisoners were brought in.
With the collapse of administration and many guards fleeing to escape retribution, roll calls were stopped, and the inmates were left to their own devices. Corpses rotted everywhere, and rats attacked the living too weak to fight them off. Kramer remained even when the British arrived to liberate the camp. He remained indifferent and callous and took them on a tour of the camp to inspect the 'scenes'. Piles of corpses were lying all over the camp, mass graves were filled in, and the huts were filled with prisoners in every stage of emaciation and disease.
Trial and execution
Josef Kramer, photographed in leg irons
at Belsen before being removed to the POW cage at Celle, 17 April 1945.
Josef Kramer was imprisoned at the Hamelin jail. Josef Kramer and 44 other camp staff were tried in the Belsen Trial by a British military court at L neburg. The trial lasted several weeks from September to November 1945. He was sentenced to death on November 17, 1945, and hanged at Hamelin jail by Albert Pierrepoint on December 13, 1945.
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