The Bergen-Belsen camp is perhaps one of the best-known of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. It has been 70 years since British troops liberated the camp which claimed the lives of around 50,000 inmates. Dan Stone, author of The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath, explores here the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, examining the indescribability of what the troops initially saw and how the horrors were dealt with.
Bergen-Belsen: 15 April, 1945
by Dan Stone
“My God, the dead are walking!” exclaimed Leslie Hardman, the British military rabbi, on entering Bergen-Belsen two days after the camp was liberated. “They are not dead”, said the girl, a former inmate, who was accompanying him on his tour of the camp, “but they soon will be.”
Perhaps the most iconic of all camp liberations, the images from Bergen-Belsen have been seared into the world’s consciousness thanks to reports such as Hardman’s. Richard Dimbleby’s radio broadcast of 19 April is regarded as one of the most famous media events of the twentieth century and was responsible for preparing the British public for the eye-watering scenes they would soon see in newsreels on the cinema screens. Medic Robert Collis, writing for the British Medical Journal, said that “It is impossible to give an adequate description on paper”; journalist Patrick Gordon Walker noted that “Life had reverted to the absolute primitive”; and Hardman, using imagery that would permeate British consciousness for decades afterwards, wrote that “These once human beings, flesh and blood like you and me, were now reduced to hideous apparitions bearing no resemblance to man, but only witnessing to man’s inhumanity.” One of the first British soldiers into the camp, Derrick Sington of the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, was also the author of a fine book about Belsen. Sington had entered Belsen on a tank, announcing through a loudspeaker, to the sound of cheering and weeping, that the British had arrived and that the inmates were free. “I had tried to visualise the interior of a concentration camp, but I had not imagined it like this”, he wrote. “Nor had I imagined the strange simian throng, who crowded to the barbed wire fences, surrounding the compounds, with their shaven heads and their obscene striped penitentiary suits, which were so dehumanising.”
‘Though difficult to read, such reports act as a continual reminder of what Nazism means and this is what requires us to keep rereading them.’
What was it that the liberators found at Belsen? The camp, which had been surrendered to the British by a German delegation who warned them that they would encounter a camp where typhus was present, were entirely unprepared for what they in fact came across: a vast population – some 60,000 people – crammed into a space far too small for the purpose; some 10,000 corpses lying unburied and most of the rest of the camp’s population close to death. In Camp One, the so-called “Horror Camp”, were about 40,000 dying men, women and children. In Camp Two were about 16,000 inmates who were starving but not infected by typhus, which was rampant in Camp One. Of the approximately 60,000 inmates discovered alive at Belsen, fewer than half were among those registered in the camp at the start of April (when there were about 40,000); 30,000 only arrived in Belsen in the week before the liberation, survivors of “death marches” from camps further to the east. This was a death camp like Treblinka or Sobibor; of the 37,000 people estimated to have died at Belsen, the vast majority died in the spring of 1945.
It was hard for the liberators to find words to describe what they saw, and it remains hard to this day. The intermingling of the dead and the living, the extraordinarily cynical subjugation of civilians was like nothing that the battle-hardened soldiers had ever seen, and it still boggles the mind. An indication of the brutal dehumanisation of the inmates that the Nazis had deliberately brought about – the liberators found food in nearby stores that could have been given to the dying survivors of the death marches but was not – can be found in this extract from Lieutenant-Colonel M. W. Gonin’s report:
‘Piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand, propping herself against them as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire; men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open, relieving themselves of the dysentery which was scouring their bowels; a woman standing stark naked washing herself with some issue soap in water from a tank in which the remains of a child floated.’
Though difficult to read, such reports act as a continual reminder of what Nazism means and this is what requires us to keep rereading them.
The liberating soldiers, with means at their disposal which were wholly incommensurate to the task at hand, immediately set about doing what they could to help the survivors. Switching back on the water supply – there had been none for a week –, forcing former guards (many Hungarians) to bury the corpses, and starting the triage process of helping those who could be saved marked the first days. Shortly after that, British medics and nurses and a Quaker team of volunteers arrived, and the so-called “human laundry” was set up, under the direction of Brigadier Hugh Llewellyn Glynn Hughes and inmate doctor Hadassah Bimko (a survivor of Auschwitz before arriving at Belsen). Although there have been complaints that the British did not feed the survivors correctly, when one considers the emaciated state of the survivors, the fact that Belsen quickly became the largest hospital in Europe, that it was in the middle of a war zone, and that even at their highest numbers the doctors and nurses were faced with an impossible task, it can only be concluded that those who died after liberation were unlikely to have survived whatever had been done for them. On 21 May after its last inmates had been transferred and by which point 23,000 corpses had been buried in mass graves, the ‘horror camp’ was burned down. In its place the British erected a sign in English and German which read:
This is the Site of
The Infamous Belsen Concentration Camp
Liberated by the British on 15 April 1945.
10,000 unburied dead were found here,
another 13,000 have since died,
all of them victims of the
German new order in Europe,
and an example of nazi kultur.
Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has published widely on the Holocaust, genocide and twentieth century European history.
The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath by Dan Stone is now available from Yale University Press.