Whilst in the Bergen-Hohne area of Germany, writes Stella Milner, a friend took me to a village called Belsen. I knew nothing of the lovely rustic area other than how beautiful is was. The long wooden hut on the roadside seemed unaccountably odd in the tranquil suburb; and the inside was equally intriguing but very disturbing. Indeed, the photographs were so grisly and distressing it was a relief to get outside, but the morbid atmosphere was worse. The bright sunshine had disappeared, leaving an ominous grey sky, with not a single cloud, nor the smallest breeze; no wildlife, not even a blade of grass between the huge concrete blocks; and there was not a sound, until the repetitive firing in the distance echoed amongst the hushed graveyard. Looking at the massive concrete block to my left, I remembered one of the photographs; on the edge of what seemed a gigantic hole was an enormous heap of human bones; bones that were all that was left of many human beings. In the background of the picture there was an army dump-truck waiting to shove them into the dark soil. Even in death they were without respect. It was the place where, sometime in early March 1945, Anne Frank died.
That brief subjoin into the past moved me far more than anything I had seen or heard before. I felt sad and yet angry as I left, but wanted to know more.
1933 – GERMAN CAMPS AND SUB CAMPS
The first German camp was Dachau which became their prototype and the model for all that followed during the Second World War. The Dachau camp was built on the sight of an abandoned munitions factory about 16 kilometres north-west of Munich and in the southern state of Bavaria. It was opened on 22 March 1933 and was a concentration camp for Germany’s own nationals; mainly political and those who opposed the Nazi regime.
Ironically, between 1945 and 1948 the Dachau camp contained SS officers; later, German people who had been expelled from Czechoslovakia and had nowhere to go; and lastly, it became a base for the Americans. It closed in 1960. During its first twelve years, Dachau’s intake was around 206,200 and of those people about 31,950 prisoners died.
It is thought that the Germans established about 15,000 camps and sub-camps, which were split into three uses; concentration, death and labour camps; of which, at least 600 camps were in Germany. But that is just an estimate and it is doubtful that an exact number will ever be reached. It is also thought that there were at least two sub-camps in the area of Belsen, but they were probably destroyed in 1945 along with the complete base camp.
BELSEN and BERGEN
Between 1935 and 1937 the Wehrmacht built an expansive military training complex between Bergen and Belsen. It was the largest exercise complex in Germany and was built as part of the Reich’s grand re-armament plans. They obviously chose the area because of its sparse population and varying landscapes, which were ideal for battle-size exercises with their armoured vehicles. It not only meant the relocation of around 3,635 residents but also the destruction of most of their twenty-five villages.
The Belsen sector consisted of over a hundred barrack blocks, fifty stables, forty massive garage blocks, a hospital, storage depots and a factory for making targets for the firing ranges, and, in the southern area, an ammunition dump. The construction workers were housed in huts in Fallingbostel- Oerbka. The two villages were neighbours that made up the West camp. By 4 May 1936 some units were in residence and in 1938 the entire complex was in use. However, when the training complex was finished the huts were redundant until just after Germans entered Poland in September 1939.
1940 – FALLINGBOSTEL
Fallingbostel- Oerbka, situated in the north-west of Belsen was the secondary area. In 1940 the whole section was fenced and designated as Stalag XI B, and in June the Wehrmacht took over the huts to house their first POWs (Prisoners of War); six hundred French and Belgians. As such, Fallingbostel became an integral part of the Bergen-Belsen camp complex and the whole extensive system of German camps.
Following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet POWs started to arrive and by autumn they numbered over 21,000, but whilst more huts had been erected there were not nearly enough to cater for such an influx. Therefore, many of the POWs had to sleep where they could; in earthen dens and shelters made with tree branches in the main, but neither were adequate from the autumnal and wintery weather. By April 1942, the number of Soviet Union prisoners in Belsen had drastically reduced. About 14,000 had died of disease, exposure and/or starvation. As such, only 7,000 remained.
1943 – MARCH
The first Bergan-Belsen commandant was appointed; Major, (SS-Obersturmbannführer) Adolf Haas. He was a Japanese POW and veteran of the First World War. He joined the SS in 1933 and on 1 March 1940 was sent to Sachsenhausen and trained as a Prison Camp Commander (Schutzhaftlagerführer). In September 1941 he was transferred to Niederhagen camp at Wewelsburg with the rank of captain Hauptsturmführer. In March 1943 Niederhagen was closed and Hass was transferred to Bergen-Belsen where he served as commandant. He left Belsen on 2 December 1944 and assumed the command of the Panzergrenadierbatallions18. He was killed in action on 1 May 1945
The SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt) commandeered a section of the Bergen-Belsen and designated it as a Civilian Internment Camp (Zivilinterniertenlager). The SS quickly changed that name because under the Geneva Convention they would be forced to allow international inspectors into the camp and its facilities. As such it was re-designated to a Holding Camp (Aufenthaltslager) and the SS divided the camp into seven sub-sections: Hungarian camp (Ungarnlager); special camp (Sonderlager); Polish Jews camp; neutrals camp (Neutralenlager); citizens of neutral countries camp; stars camp (Sternlager); and Dutch Jew camp.
Also in April, the SS commandeered the southern sector of the Fallingbostel-Oerbke camp to establish an exchange camp. The idea was that they would hold Jews in the camp and exchange them for German internees abroad.
1944 – MARCH
When a new section was designated as a recovery camp (Erholungslager) in the Bergen-Belsen camp the SS used it to hold thousands of men, brought in from other camps, who were sick or unable to work. That made space for able-bodied prisoners in other camps. Unsurprisingly, most of the men died from diseases, exhaustion, starvation or a lack of medical attention.
Another new sector was establish, this time for about 9,000 Polish or Hungarians women and young girl prisoners transferred from Auschwitz. Those able to work were sent to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. Those unable to work remained in Belsen.
By December 1944 over 14,600 Jews were transported into Belsen, of which about 2,750 were children. Many were set to work in what they called the Shoe Commando; pieces of leather mainly collected from shoes were brought to Belsen from around Germany and occupied Europe.
Also in December, Captain (SS Hauptsurmführer) Josef Kramer (pictured) was appointed as the Commandant of Belsen and immediately changed the entire complex into a concentration camp. Kramer had joined the Nazi party in 1931 and the SS in 1932. His SS training consisted of prison camp work. His promotion was rapid as he moved to Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Mauthawsen, Auschwitz, Natzweiler-struthof, Birkenau and finally Bergen-Belsen. Kramer’s regime was harsh and earned him the nickname of the Beast of Belsen.
1945 – JANUARY
The Germans were pushed further back into Germany they began to move the POWs out of Belsen and into other POW camps. Keeping POWS in concentration camps was breaking the Geneva Convention rules. By April about 85,000 prisoners had been transported out.
As the British and Canadian troop got closer and closer to Belsen the Germans moved another 6,700 prisoners out in three trains, it was presumed to the Theresienstadt Ghetto/concentration camp, which was in the fortress and garrison city of Terezin, now part of the Czech Republic.
The Allies and German troops were battling practically on the Belsen camps doorstep at Lüneburg Heath (Lüneburger Heide) which is right outside of the Bergen-Belsen complex.
The German Army sought to negotiate a truce zone around the camp to stop the spread of typhus.
An agreement was achieved; German soldiers at Belsen would not fight the Allied soldiers and a forty-eight square kilometre (19 miles) neutral zone would be adhered to. It was also agreed that the Hungarian and German Troops would guard outside the camp’s perimeters.
British troops entered Bergen-Belsen.
22-year-old Cambridge University student, Derek Knee, was the army interpreter at the Lüneburg Heath negotiations. He was the only soldier available who could understand German. He was called to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s office and later found himself standing in the middle of the Lüneburg Heath’s woodland with the field marshal and three German delegates. Montgomery was demanding an unconditional surrender but the Germans said they did not have the authority. Montgomery gave them a good lunch in his impressive carpeted tent then sent them off to find someone who could authorise his demands. That someone was Karl Doenitz who gave immediate permission.
MAY 4 1945
At last, the final surrender document was signed at 18.30 BST. Derek Knee was amongst the contingent who arrested Doenitz and the German government in Flensburg. Meanwhile, at Bergen-Belsen most of the SS slipped away, but a few men and women of the SS along with Kramer stayed in the camp to try to help the allied troops deal with the carnage inside the camp. Despite staying, Kramer was subsequently tried and found guilty of war crime and hanged in December 1945.
LIBERATION – 1945
Having agreed a truce with Heinrich Himmler on 11 April 1945 and the Wehrmacht representatives on 13 April, the Bergen-Belsen complex was liberated on the afternoon of 15 April. As early as 1942 there had been stories about Jews being killed in gas chambers and Nazi death camps, but neither the Americans nor the British peoples could truly believe it. As such, the young men who entered Bergen-Belsen on that afternoon were not prepared for what they found; nor were the British medical students who had responded to Ministry of Health appeal for help.
The Canadian and British troops who were the first to arrive were horrified when they were met with so many piles of dead and rotting corpses. There were so many it was difficult to tell who were dead and who were still alive. As the soldiers walked further into the camp they passed bodies everywhere and they also found a massive heap of dead, naked female bodies and, of all places, they had been dumped right opposite the children’s area; hundreds of children had full view of them but appeared to be acclimatised to the whole scene; they seemed more interested in the soldiers and what they were about to do and whether they had brought food.
Wherever the young soldiers went everything was cluttered and filthy; the people who were lucky enough to find a niche in a hut were just too tired and hungry to move. Those who could walk shuffled slowly in what BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby described as an aimless, emaciated almost ghostly way; it was as though they had lost the will for anything and everything.
In truth the main reason for the German’s meek surrender on 11 and 13 and 15 April was the disgusting unsanitary state of the camp. There was no running water at all in the whole camp. It was thought to have been sabotaged by deserting German soldiers, but Kramer blamed the Allies bombs, but there was no evidence to indicate that, nor was there any paperwork since the SS had destroyed it all the before sloping away.
The consequence of the lack of water was disease. It broke out throughout the whole complex; epidemics of tuberculosis, typhoid and typhus left thousands of women helpless and lying on hard, bare, bug-ridden boards because there were no bunks, no hospital and no medical care of any kind.
The British Medical Officer, Brigadier Llewellyn Glyn Hughes, had served in both wars and for his role in the care and rehabilitation of Bergen-Belsen victims he received the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. He was the first Allied Medical Officer to reach Belsen and quickly took control. He had two main problems; eradicating the diseases and feeding the emaciated inmates. He also took control of the local hospital, removed the German patients and put his charges in their place. It took several days to delouse the surviving, able inmates who were taken to a German Panzer Army camp closeby, which he had commandeered too. It was designated the Bergen-Belsen DP camp (displaced peoples). It took four weeks to delouse the 29,000 people.
In the beginning the Allies forced the remaining SS personnel to take the bodies to the pits, by hand. It was taking too long to get the bodies to the graves and it was imperative that they cleared the whole area before the deadly diseases spread any further; and to do that they had to use machinery.
During the latter part of April another 9,000 had died despite all the efforts of the troops and medics; by the end of June another 4,000 died. Indeed, during the post-liberation a total of 13,994 people died. The British Troops and Medical staff tried various diets but the average internees’ digestive systems were too weak, because of the long-term starvation they had endured, they were unable to digest any food at all. Even the recipes used in the Bengal Famine of 1943 which had saved many lives, was unsuitable for the Second World War prisoners.
When the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was completely emptied the British Soldiers burned everything to the ground. By using flame throwing Bren-Gun Carriers and the Churchill Crocodile tanks, they eradicated the lice and diseases. Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons’ camp was all that was left.
LIBERATED – BUT NOT QUITE
Only two kilometres away from what was the Bergen-Belsen main complex was the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. It was for refugees after the war and was open from 21 April 1945 until September 1950; and was the largest Jewish DP camp in Germany and the only one in the British occupation zone with an exclusive Jewish population. On 21 April patients were disinfected and given new clothing and by 18 May the former German Army Barracks had about 12,000 hospital beds. The British added the Wehrmacht Reserve Hospital (Reservelazarett) in a nearby spruce forest, which provided another 1,600 beds. During the first four weeks almost 29,000 survivors were moved into the emergency hospital, but 1,400 died and in June 11,000 survivors still required emergency treatment.
For those who were able the DP wards were turned into living quarters which gave them a modicum of privacy and a little self-respect, which had been torn away over the years. The Wehrmacht hospital was turned into the central Jewish hospital and was run by liberated Jews aided by several organisations, and was renamed the Glyn Hughes Hospital.
In the beginning, the British army could only supply the basic essentials: food, clothing and living quarters. When most of the Soviet citizens were repatriated it eased the burden but there were still over 25,000 survivors of several nationalities; mainly Jews (about 11,000) and Polish (about 15,000). 4,500 were moved to another area and about two thirds of the Polish DPs returned to Poland; others went to America and Canada. Gradually large numbers of Jews began to leave the DP camp, mainly immigrating to Palestine. In May 1948 around 4,200 Jews from the British zone area, mainly from Belsen, legally immigrated to the new State of Israel. The DP camp was closed in 1950 and the remaining 1,000 or so survivors were transferred to Upjever near Wilhelmshaven which also closed in 1951. About 800 stayed in Germany; others went to America and Canada.
THE DOCUMENTATION CENTRE
In 2007, sixty-two years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a Documentation Centre was opened in Belsen as a memorial to all those who suffered and died in the Bergen-Belsen complex. It is a permanent exhibition of the history of the Bergen-Belsen complex, Bergen-Belsen DP camp and the POW camps on Lüneburg Heath.
It is a two-storey concrete construction with stony paths on either side. The ground floor has in information desk, bookshop and cafeteria; and the first floor library contains the library and archives. Outside there are now numerous monuments between the massive graves and what they call ‘the redesign concept’ has made redesigns or ‘careful landscape modifications’ to ‘reveal the camps historical topography’.
The Bergen-Belsen Documentation Centre is a place to learn, see and understand what happened during and after World War Two.