The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is liberated.
ergen-Belsen, or Belsen, was a Nazi concentration camp in what is today Lower Saxony in northern Germany, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle. Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of it became a concentration camp. Initially this was an “exchange camp”, where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps.
After 1945 the name was applied to the displaced persons camp established nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration camp. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there. Overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses, including those of Anne and Margot Frank, lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name “Belsen” emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site.
When the British and Canadians advanced on Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the German army negotiated a truce and exclusion zone around the camp to prevent the spread of typhus. On April 11, 1945 Heinrich Himmler agreed to have the camp handed over without a fight. SS guards ordered prisoners to bury some of the dead. The next day, Wehrmacht representatives approached the British and were brought to VIII Corps. At around 1 a.m. on April 13, an agreement was signed, designating an area of 48 square kilometers around the camp as a neutral zone. Most of the SS were allowed to leave. Only a small number of SS men and women, including the camp commandant Kramer, remained to “uphold order inside the camp”. The outside was guarded by Hungarian and regular German troops. Due to heavy fighting near Winsen and Walle, the British were unable to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 14, as originally planned. The camp was liberated on the afternoon of April 15, 1945. The first two to reach the camp were a British Special Air Service officer, Lieutenant John Randall, and his jeep driver, who were on a reconnaissance mission and discovered the camp by chance.
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them:
“ …Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.
Initially lacking sufficient manpower, the British allowed the Hungarians to remain in charge and only commandant Kramer was arrested. Subsequently, SS and Hungarian guards shot and killed some of the starving prisoners who were trying to get their hands on food supplies from the store houses. The British started to provide emergency medical care, clothing and food. Immediately following the liberation, revenge killings took place in the satellite camp the SS had created in the area of the army barracks that later became Hohne-Camp. Around 15,000 prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora had been relocated there in early April. These prisoners were in much better physical condition than most of the others. Some of these men turned on those who had been their overseers at Mittelbau. About 170 of these “Kapos” were killed on April 15, 1945. On April 20, four German fighter planes attacked the camp, damaging the water supply and killing three British medical orderlies.
Over the next days the surviving prisoners were deloused and moved to a nearby German Panzer army camp, which became the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Over a period of four weeks, almost 29,000 of the survivors were moved there. Before the handover, the SS had managed to destroy the camp’s administrative files, thereby eradicating most written evidence.
The British forced the former SS camp personnel to help bury the thousands of dead bodies in mass graves. Some civil servants from Celle and Landkreis Celle were brought to Belsen and confronted with the crimes committed on their doorstep. Military photographers and cameramen of No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit documented the conditions in the camp and the measures of the British Army to ameliorate them. Many of the pictures they took and the films they made from April 15 to June 9, 1945 were published or shown abroad. Today, the originals are in the Imperial War Museum. These documents had a lasting impact on the international perception and memory of Nazi concentration camps to this day. According to Habbo Knoch, head of the institution that runs the memorial today: “Bergen-Belsen became a synonym world-wide for German crimes committed during the time of Nazi rule.”
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was then burned to the ground by flamethrowing “Bren gun” carriers and Churchill Crocodile tanks because of the typhus epidemic and louse infestation. As the concentration camp ceased to exist at this point, the name Belsen after this time refers to events at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.
There were massive efforts to help the survivors with food and medical treatment, led by Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of 2nd Army, and James Johnston, the Senior Medical Officer. Despite their efforts, about another 9,000 died in April, and by the end of June 1945 another 4,000 had died. After liberation 13,994 people died.
Two specialist teams were dispatched from Britain to deal with the feeding problem. The first, led by Dr A. P. Meiklejohn, included 96 medical student volunteers from London teaching hospitals who were later credited with significantly reducing the death rate amongst prisoners. A research team led by Dr Janet Vaughan was dispatched by the Medical Research Council to test the effectiveness of various feeding regimes.