Belsen) was a Nazi concentration camp in Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany, southwest
of the town of Bergen near Celle.
- Not to be confused with the Belzec
- Belsen redirects
here. For other meanings, see Belsen .
Originally established as the prisoner of war camp Stalag XI-C
, in 1943 it became also a
concentration camp on the orders of Heinrich Himmler
, where Jewish
hostages were held with the intention
of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. Later
still the name was applied to the displaced persons camp
nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration
camp it became as conditions deteriorated between 1943-1945. During
this time an estimated 50,000 Russian
prisoners of war
and a further
50,000 inmates died there, up to 35,000 of them dying of typhus
in the first few months of 1945.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945 by the British 11th Armoured
. 60,000 prisoners were found inside, most of them
seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses lay around the camp
unburied. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by
the BBC's Richard
, who accompanied them:
"I could not believe the horror of these camps," said one
liberator. "We found piles of bodies in train
that had been dead for days."
September 1939 a prisoner of war
camp was established at Fallingbostel, and the nearby Bergen-Belsen site became a
HÃ¤ftlingslager, or "prison camp", initially housing around
500 prisoners who were used as construction workers for the
A barrack block at Belsen
In June 1940 it became a prisoner of
war camp for around 600 French and Belgian soldiers, under the
authority of the Wehrmacht
, and in May
1941 it was designated prisoner of war camp Stalag XI-C
, (Stalag XI-C/311 for the Belgian
and French POW's). Conditions in the camp were very basic, with
inadequate food and little shelter. Around 20,000 Soviet prisoners of
war were sent to the camp between July 1941 and the spring of 1942,
of whom about 18,000 died of hunger, cold and disease.
Bergen-Belsen became a concentration
camp, and part of it was placed under SS command in
Having initially been designated
("civilian internment camp"), in
June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager
camp"), since the Geneva
stipulated that the former type of facility must be
open to inspection by international committees. This was the "Star
Camp" (so called because the inmates were made to wear the yellow
star badge that designated them Jews
). The Star
Camp held several thousand Jews, mainly Dutch
Jews, who were intended to be exchanged
for German civilians interned in other countries. Star Camp inmates
were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which
salvaged useable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought
to the camp from all over Germany and Occupied Europe. Families
were permitted to meet during the day, and in general the Star Camp
prisoners were treated less harshly than some other classes of
Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their
perceived potential exchange value. From September 1943 Italian
military internees were also held at Bergen-Belsen. In March 1944,
part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager
("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought
from other camps. In August 1944, a shipment of approximately
8,000 female prisoners of various nationalities arrived from
Auschwitz, most of whom were sent to Arbeitskommandos to work in factories, and
from October 1944 captured Polish Home
Army soldiers also began arriving at the camp.
there were eight separate sections to the camp with different
groups, treated differently according to their status.
December 1944 saw the completion of the change-over of
Bergen-Belsen into a concentration camp when SS-HauptsturmfÃ¼hrer Josef Kramer
, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau,
became the new camp commander. The number of inmates in the camp on
December 1, 1944, was 15,257. In 1945, large numbers of prisoners
were moved to Belsen from the eastern camps as the Soviet forces
advanced. The resulting overcrowding led to a vast increase in
deaths from disease (particularly typhus
malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000
inmates. The number of inmates increased from 22,000 on February 1,
1945, to 41,520 on March 1
, 43,042 on
and ultimately to about 60,000 on
. The number of deaths increased
from 7,000 in February to 18,168 during March and 9,000 during the
first half of April. The bodies of these prisoners were buried in
There were no gas chamber
in Bergen-Belsen, since the mass executions took place in the camps
further east. Nevertheless, an estimated 50,000 Jews
, anti-Nazi Christians
, and Roma
died in the camp. Among them were Czech painter and writer Josef ÄŒapek
(est. April 1945), as well
as famous Amsterdam residents Anne Frank (who
died of typhus) and her sister Margot,
who died there in March 1945.
The average life expectancy of
an inmate was nine months.
After the war, there were allegations that the camp (or possibly a
section of it), was "of a privileged nature", compared to others.
filed by the Jewish community in Thessaloniki against 55 alleged collaborators claims that 53 of
them were sent to Bergen-Belsen "as a special favor" granted by the
Some of the 60 tables, each staffed by
two German doctors and two German nurses, at which the sick were
washed and deloused.
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
the agreement, Hungarian and regular German troops guarding the
camp returned to German lines when Allied troops liberated the camp
on April 15, 1945. Although many SS guards had fled the camp, a
small number remained, wearing white armbands as a sign of
surrender. Following the German retreat, the water supply to the
barracks was disconnected , exacerbating the Allied troops
difficulties in treating the ill prisoners.
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found
thousands of bodies unburied and approximately 55,000 inmates, most
acutely sick and starving. 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
. The remaining
SS personnel were then forced by armed Allied troops to bury the
bodies in pits.
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was then burned to the ground by
mounted on Bren carriers
because of the typhus epidemic
infestation. The name Belsen after this time
refer to events at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp
In spite of massive efforts to help the survivors, about another
9,000 died in April, and by the end of June 1945 another 4,000 had
died (after liberation a total of 13,994 people died). On the 13th day after
liberation, the Luftwaffe bombed one of
the hospitals in the DP camp, injuring and killing several patient
The total number of deaths at
Bergen-Belsen from 1943 to June 1945 was about 50,000.
The British troops and medical staff tried these diets to feed the
prisoners, in this order:
- Bully beef from Army rations. Most of
the prisoners' digestive systems were in too weak a state from
long-term starvation to handle such food.
- Skimmed milk. The result was a bit
better, but still far from acceptable.
- Bengal Famine Mixture.
This is a rice-and-sugar-based mixture which had achieved good
results after the Bengal famine of
1943, but it proved less suitable to Europeans than to Bengalis
because of the differences in the food to which they were
accustomed. Adding the common ingredient paprika to the mixture made it more palatable to
these Europeans and recovery started.
the former SS staff that
survived the typhus epidemic were tried by
the British at the Belsen Trial.
trial, the world got its first view of Irma
Volkenrath, Juana Bormann,
Fritz Klein, Josef Kramer, and the rest of the SS men and
women who before served at Mittelbau Dora, RavensbrÃ¼ck, Auschwitz I, II, III, and Neuengamme. Many of the female guards had served at
Rosen subcamps at Neusalz, Langenleuba, and the
Mittelbau-Dora subcamp at Gross
The entrance to Bergen-Belsen
Dozens of the personnel of Bergen-Belsen were
found guilty of murder and of crimes against humanity, and most of
those were hanged.
After liberation in April 1945, the military training barracks
became a camp for displaced persons. Jews awaited
transport to America, Australia and to the new Israel.
Jewish survivors inaugurated a theater company called Kazet
(the name played on the German
KZ, for concentration camp).
Bergen-Belsen fell into neglect after the burning of the buildings
and the closure of the nearby displaced persons' camp. The area
reverted to heath, with few traces of the camp remaining. Ronald Reagan
's visit to West Germany in 1985
included a hastily-arranged stop at Bergen-Belsen which prompted
the West Germans to put together a small documentation center. It
soon became inadequate to the accumulating archives, to the general
liberalizing process of German identity building after the wall
fell, and to the growing public appetite abroad for Holocaust
museums, along with the tourist economy they generated . On April
15, 2005 there was a commemorative ceremony, and many ex-prisoners
and ex-liberating troops attended.
In October 2007 the redesigned memorial site was opened, including
a large new Documentation Centre and permanent exhibition on the
edge of the newly redefined camp, whose structure and layout can
now be traced. The site is open to the public and includes a
monument to the dead, some individual memorial stones and a "House
of Silence" for reflection.
- We were headed for an airstrip
outside Celle, a small
town, just of Hanover. We had barely cranked to a halt
and started to set up the â€˜opsâ€™ tent, when the Typhoon thundered into the circuit and broke
formation for their approach. As they landed on the
hastily repaired strip â€“ a â€˜Jockâ€™ [i.e. Scottish] doctor
raced up to us in his jeep.
- â€˜Got any medical orderlies?â€™ he
shouted above the roar of the aircraft engines. â€˜Any
K ration or vitaminised
- â€˜Whatâ€™s up?â€™ I asked for I could see his face was grey with
- â€˜Concentration camp up the road,â€™ he said shakily, lighting
a cigarette. â€˜Itâ€™s dreadful â€“ just dreadful.â€™ He threw the
cigarette away untouched. â€˜Iâ€™ve never seen anything so
awful in my life. You just wonâ€™t believe it 'til you see
it â€“ for Godâ€™s sake come and help them!â€™
- â€˜Whatâ€™s it called?â€™ I asked, reaching for the operations
map to mark the concentration camp safely out of the danger area
near the bomb line.
- â€˜Belsen,â€™ he said, simply.
- Millions of words have been written about these horror
camps, many of them by inmates of those unbelievable places.
Iâ€™ve tried, without success, to describe it from my own point
of view, but the words wonâ€™t come. To me Belsen was the
- After VE. Day I flew up to Denmark with Kelly, a
West Indian pilot who was a close friend. As we climbed
over Belsen, we saw the flame-throwing Bren carrier trundling through the camp â€“
burning it to the ground. Our light Bf 108 rocked in the superheated air,
as we sped above the curling smoke, and Kelly had the last words on
- â€˜Thank Christ for that,â€™ he said, fervently.
- And his words sounded like a benediction.
internet-based manifesto contained an
account by Mervin Willett Gonin
DSO of the immediate
aftermath to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, including an extract
from Gonin's diary sourced by the Imperial War Museum.
- Leonard Webb, British veteran from
the liberation of the camp.
- Leslie Hardman, British Army Jewish
Chaplain and Rabbi, was the first Jewish Chaplain to enter the
camp, two days after its liberation, and published his account in
the collective book "Belsen in history and memory"
- Memories of Anne Frank, a
book by Hannah Goslar
- In his book From Belsen to Buckingham Palace Paul Oppenheimer tells of the events
leading up to the internment of his whole family at the camp and
their incarceration there between February 1944 and April 1945,
when he was aged 14 â€“ 15. Following publication of the book,
Oppenheimer personally talked to many groups and schools about the
events he witnessed. This work is now continued by his brother
Rudi, who shared the experiences.
- Shephard, Ben (2006), "After Daybreak - The Liberation of
Belsen, 1945", London, Random House. ISBN 9781844135400
- Oppenheimer, Paul (1996), "From Belsen to Buckingham Palace",
Nottingham, Quill Press. ISBN 0-9536-2803-5
- "Bergen-Belsen", United States Holocaust
- "The 11th Armoured Division (Great Britain)",
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- Bergen-Belsen, Jewish Virtual Library
- 8 separate sections
- Salonika Jews Sponsor Trial Of
- television program The Relief Of
4 (UK commercial television), 9.00-11.05 pm on Monday 15
- "The Holocaust, Viewed Not From Then but From the Here and
Now", The New York Times, viewed 22 January, 2009
- Liberation of Belsen commemorated. BBC News, 15 April,
- Horrors of Belsen flood back for survivors,
The Telegraph, 19/04/2005