After Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British and Canadian forces on 15 April 1945, the horrors found and documented there saw the camp’s name become synonymous with the crimes of Nazi Germany and, in particular, the Holocaust.
Bergen-Belsen’s Jewish prisoners were dying at a rate of 500 a day when the Allied forces arrived, mostly from typhus, and thousands of unburied bodies lay everywhere. Among the dead were the teenage diarist Anne Frank and her sister, Margot. Tragically they had died of typhus just weeks before the camp was liberated.
The BBC’s first war correspondent, Richard Dimbleby, was present for the camp’s liberation and described nightmarish scenes:
“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 …
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
A (relatively) innocuous beginning
Bergen-Belsen began life in 1935 as a camp for construction workers who were building a large military complex close to the village of Belsen and the town of Bergen in northern Germany. Once the complex was complete, the workers left and the camp fell into disuse.
The camp’s history took a dark turn following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, however, when the military began using the former construction workers’ huts to house prisoners of war (POWs).
Used to house French and Belgian POWs in the summer of 1940, the camp was significantly expanded the following year ahead of Germany’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union and the expected influx of Soviet POWs.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and, by the March of the following year, some 41,000 Soviet POWs had died at Bergen-Belsen and two other POW camps in the area.
Bergen-Belsen would continue to house POWs until the end of the war, with the largely Soviet population later being joined by Italian and Polish prisoners.
A camp of many faces
In April 1943, part of Bergen-Belsen was taken over by the SS, the paramilitary organisation that oversaw the Nazi regime’s network of concentration camps. Initially it was used as a holding camp for Jewish hostages who could be exchanged for German citizens being held in enemy countries or for money.
While these Jewish hostages waited to be exchanged, they were put to work, many of them on salvaging leather from used shoes. Over the next 18 months, nearly 15,000 Jews were brought to the camp to serve as hostages. But in reality, most never actually left Bergen-Belsen.
In March 1944, the camp took on another role, becoming a place where prisoners at other concentration camps who were too ill to work were brought. The idea was that they would recover at Bergen-Belsen and then return to their original camps, but most died due to medical neglect and the harsh living conditions.
Five months later, a new section was created at the camp to specifically house women. Most only stayed a short while before being moved on to other camps to work. But among those who never left were Anne and Margot Frank.
A death camp
There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen and it was not technically one of the Nazis’ extermination camps. But, given the scale of the numbers who died there due to starvation, mistreatment and outbreaks of disease, it was a death camp all the same.
Current estimates put it that more than 50,000 Jews and other minorities targeted during the Holocaust died at Bergen-Belsen – the overwhelming majority in the final months before the camp’s liberation. Nearly 15,000 died after the camp had been liberated.
Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding at the camp led to outbreaks of dysentery, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and typhus – an outbreak of the latter proving so bad at the end of the war that the German army was able to negotiate an exclusion zone around the camp with advancing Allied forces to prevent its spread.
Making matters worse, in the days leading up to the camp’s liberation, prisoners had been left without food or water.
When Allied forces finally arrived at the camp in the afternoon of 15 April, the scenes that met them were like something out of a horror film. More than 13,000 bodies lay unburied at the camp, while the approximately 60,000 prisoners still alive were mostly acutely sick and starving.
Most of the SS personnel who had been working at the camp had managed to escape but those who remained were forced by the Allies to bury the dead.
Military photographers meanwhile documented the camp’s conditions and the events that followed its liberation, forever immortalising the Nazis’ crimes and the horrors of the concentration camps.