Bergen-Belsen, one of Nazi Germany’s more infamous concentration camps, was opened in April 1943. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen was not a death camp but many thousands died in the camp – as the Allies discovered when they liberated the camp.
Bergen-Belsen was built near the city of Celle in Lower Saxony. To begin with it was officially a transit camp and it was only later that it got the official transformation to a concentration camp. Its first commandant was SS-Hauptsturmfűhrer Adolf Hass. In 1944 Hass was replaced by SS- Hauptsturmfűhrer Josef Kramer who had worked in concentration camps since 1934. Prior to Bergen-Belsen, Kramer had worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau. While at Bergen-Belsen, Kramer got the nickname ‘Beast’. Many thousands died while he was in command of Bergen-Belsen. His solution for outbreaks of dysentery was not to feed the prisoners. A prisoner who survived Bergen-Belsen wrote later: “Kramer lost his calm. A strange gleam lurked in his small eyes, and he worked like a madman. I saw him throw himself at one unfortunate woman and with a single stroke of his truncheon shatter her skull.”
The most notorious female guard at Bergen-Belsen was Herta Bothe. After the war she was charged with war crimes. Bothe would shot at female prisoners and beat them with wooden sticks. She was sent to prison for ten years after the war.
As the German Army collapsed on both war fronts, many prisoners were sent to Bergen-Belsen. By 1945, thousands of prisoners were too ill to work and weakened by starvation, they easily succumbed to typhoid and typhus. In March 1945 alone, more than 18,000 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen, including the teenager Anne Frank who recorded her pre-capture thoughts and feelings in a personal diary. The chronic overcrowding in the camp ensured that epidemics spread at a fearsome speed.
The first to the camp were men from the British Army. The camp was officially handed over to the British on April 13th but a group of 120 soldiers went in on April 15th 1945. What they found shocked many. Knowing that few would believe any verbal description, the British filmed what they found. The black and white film could not depict the stench from dead bodies that surrounded the camp.
As the men toured the camp, they found an estimated 10,000 unburied bodies (the crematorium had broken down) together with about 40,000 barely living prisoners. Of these 40,000, 28,000 died after liberation - there was little that could be done to help those who were severely ill. Between 400 to 500 died each day after liberation – the task faced by the British simply overwhelmed them. Legend has it that some were killed by kindness – that British soldiers gave their chocolate ration to the prisoners and this accounted for about 1000 deaths. However, very many of those who received their gift were seriously ill. RAMC officers at the camp believed that most died of their condition prior to liberation not from chocolate.
Joseph Kramer remained at the camp even while the British were approaching. He had burnt as many documents as was possible and what struck the RAMC Brigadier who had entered the camp, Glyn Hughes, was his crass arrogance and seeming lack of any thought for his victims.
Colonel J A D Johnstone, RAMC, described what he saw at the camp when he arrived:
“I saw a very great number of dazed, apathetic, human scarecrows, wandering around the camp in an aimless fashion, dressed in rags and some even without rags. There were piles of dead everywhere – right up to the front gate.”
“I went to across to Hut 216 which was said to be the worst in the camp. George Woodwark was there and showed me round. It certainly was the worst. In many parts whole parts of the floor were missing and you squelched down onto the earth and God only knows what else. It was hopelessly overcrowded and faeces were even more abundant than in the other huts. George said they had pulled several bodies out from under what floorboards were left, and I could well believe it. I was jolly glad to get out into the fresh air again.” (Michael Hargrave)
Food distribution within the camp was a major problem. The British could not allow the prisoners to distribute food themselves as it became very obvious very quickly that each nationality at the camp looked after itself. The German SS guards were still used by the British to guard the camp but this in itself led to problems. The SS guards were too keen to open fire on the inmates at the slightest sign of trouble. On the night of April 15th, the day the British first entered the camp, the SS shot dead a number of prisoners when potatoes were delivered to the camp. Brigadier Hughes told Kramer that for every one prisoner shot by he SS in future, he would order the execution of one SS guard.
A few days later ten SS guards who had typhus were sent to the camp. They were put into the largest male camp block. Whether these men survived is not known. Having been introduced to the occupants of the block as SS guards, it would seem highly unlikely that they did not.
Within two weeks of the liberation of the camp, all of the German troops who had been ordered by the British to remain there to guard the camp had disappeared. Joseph Kramer was later caught and put on trial for crimes against humanity. He was found guilty and executed.