Bergen-Belsen was a concentration camp near
Hanover in northwest Germany,
located between the villages of Bergen and Belsen. Built in 1940,
it was a prisoner-of-war camp for French and Belgium prisoners. In 1941,
it was renamed Stalag 311 and housed about 20,000 Russian prisoners. The POW portion of the camp remained in operation until January 1945.
The camp changed its name to Bergen-Belsen and was converted into a concentration
camp in 1943. Jews with foreign passports were kept there to be exchanged for German
nationals imprisoned abroad, although very few exchanges were made.
About 200 Jews were allowed to immigrate
to Palestine and about 1,500 Hungarian Jews were allowed to immigrate
to Switzerland, both took place
under the rubric of exchanges for German nationals.
Bergen-Belsen mainly served as a holding camp for the Jewish prisoners. The camp was
divided into eight sections, a detention camp, two womens camps,
a special camp, neutrals camps, “star” camp (mainly Dutch
prisoners who wore a Star of David on their clothing instead of the camp uniform), Hungarian camp and a
tent camp. It was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, however, by the
wars end more than 60,000 prisoners were detained there, due to
the large numbers of those evacuated from Auschwitz and other camps from the East. Tens of thousands of prisoners from other
camps came to Bergen-Belsen after agonizing death marches. The POW camp was converted to a women's camp (Grosses Frauenlager) in January 1945 after a large influx of female prisoners evacuate from other camps.
Conditions in the camp were good by concentration
camp standards, and most prisoners were not subjected to forced
labor. However, beginning in the spring of 1944 the situation deteriorated rapidly. In March, Belsen was redesignated
an Ehrholungslager [Recovery Camp], where prisoners of other
camps too sick to work were brought, though none received medical treatment.
As the German Army retreated in the face of the advancing Allies, the
concentration camps were evacuated and their prisoners sent to Belsen.
The facilites in the camp were unable to accommodate the sudden influx
of thousands of prisoners and all basic services - food, water and sanitation
- collapsed, leading to the outbreak of disease. Anne
Frank and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in March 1945,
along with other prisoners in a typhus epidemic.
While Bergen-Belsen contained no gas
chambers, an estimated 50,000 people died of starvation, overwork,
disease, brutality and sadistic medical
experiments. By April 1945,
more than 60,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Belsen in two camps
located 1.5 miles apart. Camp No. 2 was opened only a few weeks before
the liberation on the site of a military hospital and barracks.
Members of the British Royal Artillery 63rd Anti-Tank
Regiment liberated Belsen on April 15, 1945,
and arrested its commandant, Josef
Kramer. The relief operation which followed was directed by Brigadier
H. L. Glyn-Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of the Second
As the first major camp to be liberated by the allies, the event received a lot of press coverage and the world
saw the horrors of the Holocaust. Sixty-thousand
prisoners were present at the time of liberation. Afterward, about 500
people died daily of starvation and typhus, reaching nearly 14,000.
Mass graves were made to hold the thousands of corpses of those who
Between April 18 and April 28, approximately 10,000 dead were buried.
At first the SS guards were
made to collect and bury the bodies, but eventually the British had
to resort to bulldozers to push the thousands of bodies into mass graves.
Evacuation of the camp began on April 21. After being deloused, inmates
were transferred to Camp No. 2, which had been converted into a temporary
hospital and rehabilitation camp. As each of the barracks was cleared,
they were burned down to combat the spread of typhus. On May 19, evacuation
was completed and two days later the ceremonial burning of the last
barracks brought to an end the first stage of the relief operations.
In July, 6,000 former inmates were taken by the Red Cross to Sweden
for convalescence, while the rest remained in the newly-established displaced person (DP) camp
to await repatriation or emigration.
In 1946, Belsen served as the largest DP camp in Europe for more
than 12,000 Jews; it was the only exclusively Jewish camp in the British
zone of Germany. The refugees formed a camp committee within three days
of liberation. Political, cultural and religious activities were organized
by the committee, such as searching for relatives and spiritual rehabilitation.
Jewish family life was renewed, more than twenty marriages were performed
daily during the first few months. More than 2,000 children were born
to survivors. An elementary school was founded in July 1945 and, by
1948, 340 students attended the school. In December 1945, a high school
was started and was partly staffed by the Jewish brigade. A kindergarten,
orphanage, yeshiva and religious school were also formed. ORT sponsored
a vocational training school. The DPs also wrote the main Jewish newspaper, Unzer Shtimme (Our Voice), in the British zone.
Many of the DPs wanted to immigrate to Palestine, however,
they faced strict British immigration policies. Clandestine military training sessions held by the Haganah were performed at the camp in December 1947 to prepare DPs for immigration
to Palestine. Free departure from the camp was prohibited until 1949.
By the middle of 1950, most of the DPs had left and,
by 1951, the camp was empty. Most of Bergen-Belsens DPs immigrated
to Israel, the United States and
The camps SS commandant, Josef Kramer,
known as the “Beast of Belsen” was tried and found guilty
by a British military court and was subsequently hanged. Forty-five staff members were tried, fourteen
Today, nothing remains of the camp because the British immediately burned down every structure to prevent the further spread of typhus. What is left is a graveyard, “the largest Jewish cemetery in Western Europe,” according to Renee Ghert-Zand. She notes that “there are no grave markers or monuments save for a small number of symbolic ones, placed in recent years by family members or memorial foundations to supplement a number of official monuments erected on the site in the late 1940s and early ’50s.” Nearby, another cemetery was built after liberation as the final resting place for 4,500 Jews and Christians. Most of the graves are umarked, and several of those with grave stones say only, “Here lies an unknown deceased.”
A documentation center and museum can now also be visited at the site.
Sources: U.S. Holocaust
Memorial Museum; Encyclopedia
Wiesenthal Center Multimedia Learning Center Online; Georgia Tech Library; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; “Rebirth after the Holocaust: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced
Persons Camp, 1945-1950”; Renee Ghert-Zand, “At Bergen-Belsen, where tens of thousands perished… and others began their lives,” Times of Israel, (April 27, 2015).