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.