Bergen-Belsen

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Bergen Belsen after lib ushmm.jpg

A view of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after the liberation of the camp. 

© 2015 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Liberation

The British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945.

The liberators were totally unprepared to deal with the appalling situation they had discovered. 

Most of the 60,000 inmates were in a critical condition. During the next five days, 14,000 died, and in the following weeks, a further 14,000 fell victim to the conditions to which they had previously been subjected. 

A displaced person’s camp housing in excess of 12,000 survivors, was established by the British liberators in the former German military school barracks. Bergen-Belsen displaced persons' camp, remained in existence until 1951.

After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, the British forces burned down the whole camp to prevent the spread of typhus.


Executions

Forty-eight former members of the camp staff were arrested and tried by the British.

Eleven were sentenced to death, including camp commandant Josef Kramer. They were executed on 12 December 1945.

Bergen-Belsen

During 1940 the German military established Bergen-Belsen camp as a prisoner of war camp. The camp was located south of the towns of Bergen and Belsen, about 11 miles north of Celle in Germany. 

In April 1943, the SS took over part of the camp and converted it into a concentration camp to house persons who had been identified as people who could be exchanged for German nationals held in Allied countries. Jewish prisoners from Buchenwald and Natzweiler were used to build the camp. 

Bergen-Belsen’s first commandant, Adolf Haas, was succeeded, on 2 December 1944, by the brutal Josef Kramer.

By the autumn of 1944, five ‘satellite camps’ had been established:

  • A ‘prisoners' camp’, for the 500 inmates who had been brought in for construction work. Conditions were poor and death rates were high. The prisoners’ camp was closed on February 23, 1944, and the prisoners were sent to Sachsenhausen.
  • The ‘special camp’ housed prisoners of two transports of Jews from Poland. This group of 2,400 people were in possession of various documents, mostly South American. However, in October 1943, 1,700 were deported to their deaths to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Then, in early 1944, 350 more were deported. The remaining Jews were not assigned to work teams and were isolated from other sections of the camp.
  • The ‘neutral camp’, housed 350 Jews from neutral countries from July 1944 until liberation. These prisoners were generally treated better than other prisoners.
  • The ‘star camp’, housed 4,000 Jewish prisoners, intended for exchange for German nationals held by the Allies. These prisoners were mostly Dutch. They did not wear camp uniforms, but did wear a yellow Star of David, hence the camp's name.
  • The ‘Hungarian camp’, housed 1,685 Jews from Hungary. They had arrived on a transport organised by Rezs┼Ĺ Kasztner.

Of the Jews sent to Bergen-Belsen, very few were set free. One group of 222 Jews reached Palestine after leaving Bergen-Belsen on 10 July 1944. The second group left the camp in two parts - in August and December 1945, the Kasztner transport was sent to Switzerland. Finally, on 25 January 1945, 136 Jews with South American passports reached Switzerland.

Overcrowding

From March 1944, Bergen-Belsen gradually became a concentration camp. The Germans initially began transferring, from other camps, prisoners they classified as ‘unfit to work’. As more transports arrived from Flossenbürg, Gross-Rosen, Ravensbrück, Neuengamme, Mauthausen, and Buchenwald concentration camps, the prisoners were housed in the former ‘prisoners' camp’. German convicts, transferred from Dora, served as ‘block elders’ and Kapos. They treated other inmates brutally.

In August 1944, a women's camp was added. In October 1944 women from Plaszow and Auschwitz were sent to Bergen-Belsen, among them were Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

At the end of 1944 and early in 1945, a complete deterioration of living conditions set in as thousands of survivors of death marches began to arrive at the camp. The large numbers arriving at the camp soon overwhelmed the meagre resources available. The camp administration did not attempt to house them. Serious overcrowding and a lack of sanitary facilities resulted in the break-out of a typhus epidemic. From January to mid-April 1945, some 35,000 prisoners died due to typhus, starvation and the terrible conditions within the camp.