WWII Remembered - Holocaust - Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp


World War II Remembered
BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP

Bergen-Belsen

Mass Grave at Bergen-Belsen

Bergen-Belsen was the name of the infamous Nazi Concentration camp which has become a symbol of the Holocaust that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews sixty years ago. Bergen-Belsen was initially set up as a detention camp in 1943.

A section for sick prisoners, who could no longer work in the Nazi forced labor camps, was set aside in March of 1944. When WWII drew to a close in 1945, civilian prisoners were evacuated from other concentration camps as the Russian troops advanced westward. Thousands of these prisoners had been brought to the Bergen-Belsen camp which wasn't equipped to handle such a large number of people.

Finally Bergen-Belsen itself was right in the middle of the war zone where bombs were falling and Allied planes were strafing the Autobahn and the railroads. British and German troops were doing battle on the Luneberg heath right outside the camp. In February of 1945 the situation at Bergen-Belsen became catastrophic when a typhus epidemic broke out in the crowded camp. A typhoid epidemic was already claiming the lives of thousands.

By April of 1945 the war in Europe was definitely over. All that was needed now was a formal surrender signed by Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a broken man, his dream of uniting the German people into a Thousand Year Reich was gone, his health was ruined by Parkinson's Disease, and for the past several years his mental capacity had been increasingly failing. He was holed up in an undergound bunker beneath the Chancellory in Berlin, still moving his armies around on a map, and unwilling to admit defeat.

The Nazi's had gotten their start in 1919, fighting against the Communists in the streets of Berlin, now 26 years later Hitler was not ready to surrender his beloved Fatherland to the Communist Soviet Union and its British and American Allies. Hitler would rather see Germany completely annihilated. He ordered Albert Speer, his chief architect and the chief of Nazi war production, to level what was left of Germany after Allied bombs had reduced every major city to rubble. Speer ignored the order.

Hitler's second in command, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, had been plotting behind Hitler's back in an attempt to negotiate a peace with America and Great Britain, with the aim of forming an alliance to fight the Communists. He knew that half of Germany and all of Eastern Europe, with a population of 120 million people, had been promised to the Communists by American President Franklin Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. As the leader who was in charge of all the concentration camps, (his SS rank was equivalent to the rank of a 5 star General in the U.S. Army) he planned to use the Jewish prisoners as bargaining chips in his negotiations with the non-Communist Allies.

Himmler was determined to do all he could to hamper the inevitable take-over of Europe by the Communists. To this end, beginning April 5, 1945, Himmler ordered the execution of Communist leaders being held at the tree main camps in Germany: Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald.

Before surrendering Bergen-Belsen to the British on April 15, 1945, Himmler ordered about 7,000 people to be evacuated from the camp. The three train loads of prisoners, which left the camp between April 6 and April 11, were made up of prominent Dutch Jews, Hungarian Jews, Jewish prisoners from neutral countries, and Jewish prisoners who held foreign passports. Himmler was hoping to use these prisoners to negotiate with the Allies. The rest of the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were to be voluntarily turned over to the enemy.

On April 4, 1945, American soldiers had seen their first Nazi horror camp in Germany, the abandoned forced labor camp at Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. On April 11, American troops had discovered Buchenwald, which had already been taken over by the Communist political prisoners there. The next day, April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Himmler had renewed hopes of negotiating a surrender to the Americans and British. It was within this context that Himmler began negotiations to voluntarily turn the Bergen-Belsen camp over to the British in early April of 1945.

Two German officers were sent to a British outpost to explain that there were 9,000 sick prisoners in the camp and there was no water after the electric pump had been hit by an Allied bomb. The German's proposed that the British Army should occupy the camp immediately to keep the epidemics in the camp from spreading to the troops on both sides. In Return, the German's offered to surrender the bridges over the river Aller. At first the British rejected the German proposals, saying it was necessary that the British should occupy an area of 10 kilometers around the camp to be sure of keeping their troops away from the epidemics, but eventually a compromise was reached and the British agreed. On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was surrendered to British Army officer Derrick Sington, who later wrote about it in a small book called "Belsen Uncovered" which was published by Duckworth, London in 1946.

As a result of the British taking over, Bergen-Belsen became the first Nazi horror camp to become widely known to the American public. After the British revealed the Nazi atrocities to the world, this camp came to epitomize the brutality and depravity of the Nazi's who call the German people the "Master Race" and who were carrying out a systematic plan to kill the Jews and other people they deemed inferior or undesirable. Thanks to the British Army, who filmed the unbelievable sights that greeted them when they entered the camp, a grim record of the atrocities exists to this day.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower anticipated that future generations might find it hard to believe the horror they found when the Nazi death camp was liberated by the Allies. He ordered that both Ohrdruf camp and the Buchenwald camp be preserved for several weeks in the state in which they were found and German civilians living in nearby towns were forced to visit the camps and view the piles of rotting bodies. American soldiers, newspaper reporters, and Copngressmen were also called in as witnesses to the Nazi atrocities. But it was the British who had the biggest impact on the public conscience when they released their newsreel film of Bergen-Belsen to movie theaters around the world in the last days of the war. This was something Himmler hand not anticipated when he negotiated with the British to voluntarily turn over the camp over to them. And he certainly didn't expect that the staff members,who had voluntarily stayed behind in the camp, would be arrested, or that some of the Hungarian soldiers, who were assigned to help with the surrender of the camp, would be shot by the British.

When British soldiers were finally allowed to enter Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, they at first found nothing amiss. Smiling, healthy prisoners came out to greet them and some of the 500 children in the camp cheered and waved to them. But as they advanced further into the camp, they were stunned by the sight of over 10,000 unburied naked bodies. The horror was beyond human imagination. The sickening stench of the camp could be smelled as far away as 10 miles.

The British promptly fixed the broken pump that provided water from the creek for the camp which had been without water for six days. The nearby Army garrison had arranged for drinking water to be brought in to the camp by truck, but it wasn't nearly enough.

Some of the female guards, who had arrived in the camp a couple of weeks before the liberation, appeared to be overweight, while many of the surviving prisoners appeared to be starving. The German Army Garrison had facilities for baking 60,000 loaves of bread daily, but they had been providing only 10,000 loaves per day to the concentration camp, while keeping the rest to feed German soldiers. The Camp Commandant had to scrounge for food in the countryside which was in the middle of a war zone. According to the British, the camp had been without food for six days, and there were no medical supplies at all.

The condition of the surviving prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were so bad, that even with the best medical care, many of them couldn't be kept alive. Approximately 13,000 of the Bergen-Belsen inmates died after the camp was liberated, in spite of the heroic efforts of the British to save them.

The typhus epidemic was raging out of control in the camp, and the British were forced to move all the inmates to the nearby German Army garrison and then burn down the wooden barracks in the camp. Because typhus is transmitted by lice, burning down the barracks was the fastest way to stop the epidemic.


 

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