Thousands of dead and dying – liberation of Belsen

A general view of part of the squalor and filth in the camp at the point of its liberation by the British Army.

A general view of part of the squalor and filth in the camp at the point of its liberation by the British Army.

It was about 5pm on 15 April when the miracle actually happened: the first British tank rolled into the camp. We were liberated! No one who was in Belsen will ever forget that day. We did not greet our liberators with shouts of joy. We were silent. Silent with incredulity and maybe just a little suspicion that we might be dreaming.

Survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

A prisoner, too weak to move as a result of starvation, sits by the wire fence with an expression of agony on his face.

A prisoner, too weak to move as a result of starvation, sits by the wire fence with an expression of agony on his face.

It was the pictures and stories from the first concentration camps liberated, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen, that first made a real impact on public consciousness of the Holocaust. It was these names that became closely associated with the worst horrors of the Nazi system of brutality, even though they were, in some senses, not the “worst” camps. These were not extermination camps like Auschwitz, where people were sent to be killed immediately if they did not survive ‘the selection’. They were nevertheless lethal systems of incarceration and no less murderous over time.

…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.

BBC radio broadcaster Richard Dimbleby in an historic broadcast just days after the liberation which alerted the British and the world to the real horrors of Nazism.

Women inmates prepare food in the open air, using the boots of the dead (which can be seen piled up in the background) as fuel for their fires.

Women inmates prepare food in the open air, using the boots of the dead (which can be seen piled up in the background) as fuel for their fires.

Bergen-Belsen had gone through a number incarnations, starting out as a Prisoner of War camp for Soviet prisoners, at a time when the Nazis seemed intent on letting them all starve to death. Some 20,000 died here. Then as an SS concentration camp for Jews who might be used as hostages, the regime was probably somewhat better than at many other work camps. Then a variety of different groups were sent or passed through, including may women and girls – Ann Frank died here.

Then at the end of 1944 Bergen Belsen started receiving prisoners who had survived the forced marches from the camps in the east. Soon its primitive facilities were overwhelmed by over 60,000 sick and malnourished people. They had been dying in their hundreds every day for months. They would continue dying in their hundreds every day for the next two months, despite the best efforts of the Allied medical teams.

But we went further on into the camp, and seen these corpses lying everywhere. You didn’t know whether they were living or dead. Most of them were dead. Some were trying to walk, some were stumbling, some on hands and knees, but in the lagers, the barbed wire around the huts, you could see that the doors were open. The stench coming out of them was fearsome.

They were lying in the doorways – tried to get down the stairs and fallen and just died on the spot. And it was just everywhere. Going into, more deeper, into the camp the stench got worse and the numbers of dead – they were just impossible to know how many there were…Inside the camp itself, it was just unbelievable. You just couldn’t believe the numbers involved…

This was one of the things which struck me when I first went in, that the whole camp was so quiet and yet there were so many people there. You couldn’t hear anything, there was just no sound at all and yet there was some movement – those people who could walk or move – but just so quiet. You just couldn’t understand that all those people could be there and yet everything was so quiet…

It was just this oppressive haze over the camp, the smell, the starkness of the barbed wire fences, the dullness of the bare earth, the scattered bodies and these very dull, too, striped grey uniforms – those who had it – it was just so dull. The sun, yes the sun was shining, but they were just didn’t seem to make any life at all in that camp.

Everything seemed to be dead. The slowness of the movement of the people who could walk. Everything was just ghost-like and it was just unbelievable that there were literally people living still there. There’s so much death apparent that the living, certainly, were in the minority.

British soldier Dick Williams

The bodies of victims in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The bodies of victims in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

What happened was we were all allocated to a hut. We divided into pairs, as I said, and each pair was given a hut to cope with. And into the hut you went and it was designed, I think, to take about 60 soldiers. It was a typical army Nissen hut-type – only it wasn’t a Nissen hut because it wasn’t the same shape – and inside it were upwards of six or seven hundred people lying on the ground.

They were all totally emaciated. They were all in filthy rags – rags is literally what I mean, rags. They were all, or most of them, lying in pools of vomit and faeces and urine. A considerable number of the ones in the hut were dead and the first job to do each day was to go in, and with the help of two Hungarian soldiers – strangely enough we had a company of Hungarian soldiers to help as labourers – you’d go into the hut and pick out the dead bodies. You’d just go around and see who’s dead and who wasn’t.

It was sometimes very difficult to be certain who was dead and who wasn’t.

Remove the dead, take them outside, leave them in a heap and the Hungarians then moved them by truck to the mass graves where they were put in the mass graves. And having got rid of the dead you then made a sort of so say ward round to try and do what you could for the remainder, all of whom had diarrhoea, or the vast majority had diarrhoea.

They all had the most appalling coughs, they all had the most dreadful skin diseases, they were all filthy dirty and they were all absolutely skeletally thin… And we were dealing with the killer, the main killer, which was typhus. And typhus was killing a very large number of people every day.

Medical student Roger Dixey

A British soldier talks to an emaciated prisoner. The prisoner, Louis Bonerguer, was also British and had been dropped by parachute to work in German occupied territory in 1941. After his capture, he was interned at Belsen.

A British soldier talks to an emaciated prisoner. The prisoner, Louis Bonerguer, was also British and had been dropped by parachute to work in German occupied territory in 1941. After his capture, he was interned at Belsen.

Josef Kramer known as the "Beast of Belsen"

The camp commandant, Josef Kramer, known as the “Beast of Belsen”

These people had been degraded by the Germans. It was a systematic depersonalisation, degradingness. They’d been for as long as they’d – the Germans had degraded these people from the time they’d occupied their countries. They degraded them by putting them into ghettos, they degraded them by making them into second and third class citizens, they degraded them by herding them like cattle, by transporting them in conditions which were worse than animals would be transported, by totally dehumanising them.

Dr Laurence Wand

A young woman photographed two days after the British entered the camp; her face still bearing the scars of a terrible beating by the SS guards.

A young woman photographed two days after the British entered the camp; her face still bearing the scars of a terrible beating by the SS guards.

Something had changed for me after I’d seen that camp. Although I’d seen the terrible things in war, to have treated ordinary people like this. And there were so many theories and reasons as to who was responsible and everybody seemed to point a finger around until the finger came round in a circle and I had to think hard about it.

Why the Germans? They had their own culture, their own civilisation of a kind. They produced Beethoven, great scientists, how could it be?

The terrible discovery came to me, this sort of revelation like a flash of lightning, because it penetrated these terrible scenes to make me think – all the stories I’d heard about the persecution of people from my mother and father, here they were true.

But this was on a scale of – it had to be organised, it had to be done it could only be done with modern administrative service. It could only be done by moving masses of people by rail. It had to be planned and worked for. It was a sort of death by administration.

British soldier Mike Lewis

British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.

British troops stand guard as German SS troops are made to load the bodies of the dead onto a lorry for transport to mass graves.

Women SS camp guards remove bodies from lorries and carry them to the mass grave.

Women SS camp guards remove bodies from lorries and carry them to the mass grave.

One of the mass graves at Belsen concentration camp.

One of the mass graves at Belsen concentration camp.

Dr Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro- Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945.

Dr Fritz Klein, the camp doctor, standing in a mass grave at Belsen. Klein, who was born in Austro- Hungary, was an early member of the Nazi Party and joined the SS in 1943. He worked in Auschwitz-Birkenau for a year from December 1943 where he assisted in the selection of prisoners to be sent to the gas chambers. After a brief period at Neungamme, Klein moved to Belsen in January 1945. Klein was subsequently convicted of two counts of war crimes and executed in December 1945.

As soon as possible, we were transferred to the tank training school six kilometres away for delousing and then to makeshift hospitals, where German doctors and nurses were made to look after us. I was unconscious for 10 days after we were liberated. Two days after I regained consciousness, on 27 April, my mother died aged 42 and was buried in a mass grave, together with the thousands of others who died from starvation and disease after the liberation.

Survivor Renée Salt

For more on the liberation of Belsen and its context in the concentration camp system see UK government information leaflet. Quotes from British soldiers are transcripts of some of the audio recordings made by the Imperial War Museum.

German nurses wash an emaciated man lying on one of the tables in the cleansing station at the newly established hospital at Hohne Military Barracks, nicknamed the "Human Laundry".

German nurses wash an emaciated man lying on one of the tables in the cleansing station at the newly established hospital at Hohne Military Barracks, nicknamed the “Human Laundry”.

French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Camp No 2 at Hohne Military Barracks after having been passed fit to return to their own countries.

French, Belgian and Dutch camp inmates prepare to leave Camp No 2 at Hohne Military Barracks after having been passed fit to return to their own countries.

Miss S J Reekie, a British trained nurse and child welfare specialist works with the very young children in the kindergarten set up at Belsen after the liberation of the camp. All the children in the photograph were orphans

Miss S J Reekie, a British trained nurse and child welfare specialist works with the very young children in the kindergarten set up at Belsen after the liberation of the camp. All the children in the photograph were orphans

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

PETER ELLIOTT October 10, 2017 at 1:11 am

My father Staff Sargent John Elliott of the Dental Corps was one of the first people to
be in the capture of Burgen-Belsen Camp. He had to work hard in the first days as some German troops who had been the guards came to the hospital with broken jaws; the result of blows to the jaw by the butts of the first British soldiers who had fought their way into the camp. He then went on with the Army Hospital to secure the sanitanization of the camp before the huts were burned to eradicate any further diseases. He eventually fought with the Army Hospital all the way to Hannover where he was when the war ended.

Jack Mitchell April 4, 2017 at 12:23 am

My father was a crewman in a flamethrower tank (Crocodile) with The Royal Tank Regiment during the war, he never said much about Belsen when he was alive, other than saying he was there around the time it was liberated, I often wonder if he was perhaps involved in the burning of the camp and maybe seen things that he didn’t want to talk about.

Raine Margoliner November 25, 2016 at 1:47 pm

I believe this is written very well and greatly I enjoyed reading it. My great grandfather was a German Jew during this time and was a holocaust survivor. He has since passed and I was too young to hear his stories unfortunately. I have been trying to learn more about my family past from Germany and the concentration camp my grandfather was in.

richie April 17, 2016 at 2:45 pm

it makes me cry to see such cruelty, cruelty that cant even be allowed to be done to animals, why did the other countries remain silent for so long???

eileen July 17, 2015 at 7:26 am

My father was in Belsen during the war to guard the German soldiers while they buried the dead like a lot of men at that time he did not talk about what he had seen. HE has since passed. But I was always interested to hear what he had to say about that time in Belsen, I think what you wrote about it exceeding the ability of people to comprehend how people could have done this to other people that’s what is the hardiest to comprehend. Dad never said anything else about it.

Donna Cliff May 13, 2015 at 11:48 pm

I agree with Andrew,
I have been reading a lot about Belsen since starting to trace my family history. My grandfather was amongst the first British soldiers to enter Belsen.. but like so many other stories that I have read he didn’t like to talk about it. I wanted to get a feel of what it must have been like for him when he met with those scenes for the first time

It;s most certainly one of those situations no one can comprehend unless involved first hand. Depravity in its wildest form!

Andrew Shakespeare April 16, 2015 at 10:26 am

Reading accounts like this, I always have a sense that I’m not quite getting it. That this is so far beyond the experience of a civilian living in a quiet Welsh village, that I simply cannot conceive the scenes that the witnesses are trying to convey.

What is a “truly dreadful stench” like? The worst smell I’ve ever dealt with is urine on a street corner, and my children’s nappies.

What do hundreds of emaciated corpses look like? I’ve never seen anything like that, a grainy, black-and-white photo don’t quite seem real, and even the noble efforts of movies like Shindler’s List don’t really convey the sense — not least because of the lack of truly emaciated actors.

It’s a level of depravity that simply exceeds the ability of most people to comprehend.

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