04 November 2023

Bergen-Belsen 1945 (part 1: two witnesses)

References (for all posts on this subject)

[C] W.R.F. Collis, Belsen Camp: a preliminary report, British Medical Journal, June 9, 1945, pp. 813-816 (here).

[H4] Abel J. Herzberg, Amor Fati, 1946. (Relevant chapter, in English, here).

[H5] Abel Herzberg, Tweestromenland, 1950 (Dutch, here).

[K] Eberhard Kolb, Bergen-Belsen, 1962. (Relevant chapter, in German, here.) 

[L] Ella Lingens-Reiner, Prisoners of Fear, 1948 (here.)

[M,A] Alan Moorehead, Eclipse, 1945 (Relevant chapter here.)

[M,L] Leonard Mosley, Report from Germany, 1945 (here).

[S] Z.L. Smith (pseudonym), Buchenwald, Dachau, Belsen etc., 1945. (Relevant chapter, in Dutch, here.)

[T] R.I.G. Taylor, Report on Belsen Camp, 1945, including Appendices A, B, C  (here.)

Photographs and movie reels are available in Imperial War Museums (search for "Belsen, liberation").

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Advance of British 8th Corps in April 1945

Days before the end of WW2  three German armies surrendered in Lüneburg (see map above). Some three weeks earlier, the British had gained control of Bergen-Belsen, a huge prisoner camp, situated near the fork in the route of 8th Corps. This occurred in very strange circumstances. Below are two accounts by inmates of the camp.

Account I 

The "Star Camp" was one of the six subcamps of the Belsen complex, and was designed for Jews thought to be valuable enough to be traded with the outside world. Here, families were not separated, and people lived in their civilian clothes; on the other hand, they were set to work, unlike the other inmates.

Abel Herzberg and his family, inmates of this "Star Camp", were evacuated a week before the British would take over the camp. They left on a beautiful Sunday, while a large jazz orchestra sat merrily playing behind the barbed wire, looking healthy and clean in freshly laundered blue-striped prison uniform. (Note that these are not in the Star Camp.) Herzberg wrote an account of his life, in Dutch, in 1946. We quote from the English translation [H4]. 

On 8 April 1945, five or six empty trains, each some fifty wagons long, were standing in the station of the small town of Belsen on Lüneburg Heath. (...)

The sick were to be taken to the station in lorries. The healthy had to walk. However, the distinction between healthy or sick was no longer very clear. A scramble that became ever more desperate ensued. The evacuation took more than a day. The strongest, the boldest, secured a place. The weak, the hesitant, arrived too late. They had to go on foot. There was little or no food. During the past few weeks, there had been no bread, or so little, that no one could remember it. Instead, we had been issued with a few raw swedes and now and then, at irregular intervals, a container of swede soup arrived which on rare occasions was thickened with a little flour that would immediately send us into a state of ecstasy then. (...)

Evacuation means fighting, shouting, punching, quarrelling, pushing, and securing a place for oneself. For children it means crying and wailing, for mothers snapping, for the sick shivering with fever, and for everyone, being herded, beaten, and afraid. We, who must walk, carry our luggage on our backs. We left behind as much as possible, but everyone still has a pair of trousers, a shirt, a pair of socks, usually inherited from a dead person in the camp, and a book that he does not want to part with under any circumstance. It is all in the rucksack. He has also gathered as many swedes and carrots as he could, because he realises that there will be nothing to eat. He also does not part with a dish or a pan, a mug, a spoon, or a knife. Of course, he also has his blankets to lug along, as many as possible, and a pillow. Altogether, it is terribly heavy and in his present condition, almost too heavy to hump. Nevertheless, all this is called being bevorzugt: The other prisoners are not troubled by luggage. They have nothing. Some amongst us are also without anything. They were robbed. Onwards! Where to? They are clearing the camp. The archives are being taken to the crematorium by the cartload, to stoke the fire to burn the corpses. The British are advancing. 

By the side of the road at the end of the camp, behind barbed wire, a large orchestra, composed of Kapos, is playing jazz. It is Sunday. They look healthy and clean in freshly laundered blue-striped prison uniform. They play superbly. We stop for a moment to listen. When the piece has ended, we applaud, just like on the dance floor of a Parisian casino. The conductor bows obligingly, the drummer smiles, and the saxophonists tap the moisture from their instruments. Then a new piece commences, with a sentimental singer, whose crooning follows us. (...)

We meet endless convoys of prisoners who are being brought to Bergen-Belsen from the east. (...)

The prisoners have their orchestras. In the middle of the group they carry violins, cellos, basses, drums, timpani, trumpets, bassoons, flutes, copper horns, in short, every imaginable kind of instrument. The group consists of Mussulmen; those are the worn-out creatures on their final journey. They walk in rows of five, often with linked arms. If they were to let go of each other, they would topple over. The strongest march in front, then the weaker, then the still weaker, then the still much weaker, and stumbling along at the very end, are those who can go no farther. (...)

The train is the last train to carry Jews or prisoners from west to east. Hundreds of them went that way. When we arrive, it is already overcrowded. It was to carry two thousand four hundred people in all. Of these two thousand four hundred people, two thousand four hundred have dysentery. Additionally, we have seven hundred people who are sick with typhus, paratyphoid, rickettsia, camp-typhus, spotted fever, and similar diseases. Oedema cases are not included. It is crawling with lice. All this is about to set out on a journey together, around the world. The sick are lying partly in separate wagons, partly elsewhere on the floor. People fight for a place on the floor in the corridors. There is no water, not one drop. (...) 

Eventually, after a long journey, the train and all its people would be abandoned to the Russians.


Account II

In 1945 a Flemish inmate of Bergen-Belsen also left us an account in Dutch of the last days of the camp. The man, using the pseudonym "Z.L. Smith", has not been identified. He was a political prisoner, and must have arrived in Bergen-Belsen, coming from a different camp, around the time Herzberg left there. Their columns may have crossed each other, moving in opposing directions. Translation is ours; for the Dutch original, see [S].

To me it looks to be a very, very big camp. How many people are here I could not tell up to ten thousand: it's simply full. We are being divided into left and right without any order or rule. No one asks "where are you from? what are you doing, what can you do?"; no one tells us anything. With some ten men we have been pushed into an overfilled hut. No possibility for a corner of a bed, or a blanket or a little chair: simply nothing. We keep our mess tin and our spoon as if tied to our bodies, because in a camp it is not recommended to use a stranger's mess tin, we have seen enough.
We are hungry, but what does it matter, we have been hungry for ten months. I guess I lost forty kilo: on my chest the ribs lye as rails in a shunting spot in some station, and my thighs are exactly the width of my lower legs; I feel my neck has grown very long, and my belly is somewhat swollen. Even so, I feel fine. I watch with great pity the many men in my new hut: what misery! They all look like children with some old people's disease, their faces are like mummies; many are in bed and don't have enough power left to get upright; those in the lower bunks can occasionally rise, but when their place is taken they don't have the power to climb into the second or third level. (...) 

Those who do have some power left stand or walk outside and pass by all that misery with total indifference. The only thing they talk about is "liberation". The most insane gossip circulates here: the English have already crossed the Elbe, Hitler is dead, Keitel has capitulated, no... there is a revolt in the army. Hamburg is in revolutionary hands. The SS will shoot all the prisoners; we will be poisoned... Of all this something must be true however, because we notice how the SS, supplemented with old used Volkssturm men, flock nervously together and have agitated conversations.

Every day dozens of corpses are removed from each hut, of people having died that night or the day before. Is it some contagious disease? There is rumour of typhus and spotted fever. I cautiously keep clear of any hut, and go snooping around. In the yard packages of bones and skeletons are being stacked as if it were logs, the oven has ceased to function; probably out of fuel and, anyhow, what could a few ovens do in view of such numbers of corpses. Are they one hundred, one thousand? I don't even start to count them. A huge pit has been dug at the far side. This is terrible: I didn't know I was still able to shudder, but... I start sweating in horror: can this be possible? In front of me there are hundreds of corpses of men, women, almost children, as if poured from a huge handcart. Wouldn't there be any living among them? Half rotten, swollen, bloody and pale, blue and in excrements, everybody naked, in one hideous heap. More are poured in continuously... a sea of contamination...; a disgusting vision of demonic corruption...

For three days I have been living among that dead putrefaction. Here hunger attains its climax: sometimes we receive a spoonful of soup and a piece of bread; there is no supply here for that many thousands of people. Each day more remain inside because their legs are no longer strong enough to get outside: they are condemned, because there is nobody to bring them food, let alone to care for them. The prisoner-doctors do what they can, they run the whole day long to attend some of the dying, but to what avail? Food and medicaments are totally lacking. Here it is "help yourself, so help you God". Everyone tries to save his own life.

Friday 13 April 1945. It won't be long now: in the distance we already hear cannon firing and, sweating anxiously, we listen how rapidly they get closer. The SS men don't look angry: they stand their guard and don't care for anything. The Lagerschütze seem to be converted into common political prisoners, and even they don't have cigarettes or food left. It really is the end... will we live to see it? I am still strong, I can walk around in the camp, I still can climb into the uppermost bed, where I lay all by myself because the others can no longer make it. I slept a lot, this being the best thing to do in order to shorten the waiting...

Saturday 14 April 1945. Saturday a large part of the SS guards has disappeared, thousands of planes circle in the air and pursue the Germans rushing away... they flee... he who sits down is taken prisoner... he who runs on will be taken tomorrow... Only a few SS men stayed behind to guard us... Are we still dangerous? O yes, if we got loose of the camp, probably the whole region would be contaminated with typhus and dysentery.

During the night I lay listening hopefully, artillery is heard to approach... If only they could arrive this very night... What shall I tell the English? I collect all the words I have been taught previously... No, I don't manage to construct a single sentence and then, will I get the opportunity to talk to them? When will I be home? (...) Will I be able to go by train? And what direction to take? Let there be may trains, because thousands and thousands of prisoners will want to go home... and the workers that are still in Germany will want to go home too... Can I go home in this outfit? what will people say? (...) But what if the SS really wanted to poison us or shoot us in our beds while we are asleep... In a rush I jumped to the ground and waited between the beds. It was dark and in the pale light I saw phantoms moving slowly about...

Sunday 15 April 1945. I was relieved when it grew lighter... there was no morning call. I already heard machine guns firing, and a heavier shot now and then. The SS guards stood in small groups with their rifles hanging from the shoulders... I counted twenty-two of them and about a dozen some distance away. What if they were afraid and willing to shoot back?

The morning was spent in waiting... An English tank rolled by, two, three... the men did not even look at us, and just drove on... The SS men had withdrawn behind a hut and returned... nothing more...

And the day was drawing to a close. Were we liberated now? or what?

A British tank at the gate of Bergen-Belsen camp on 15 April 1945


Monday 16 April 1945. The next day a few jeeps accompanied by motorcycles entered the camp: I wanted to yell but I couldn't; like all the others I just stood there gazing with a silly smile on my face. One of the men simply said: "German rule has ended... we will care for food and everything that is needed." Not a cigarette, not a piece of bread, nothing... and half an hour later they had disappeared again. The SS men continued to guard us. (...) We were taken back to the SS baracks where we met again with our old friends: several green triangles lied there murdered. [This is in Camp 2. "Green triangles" were common-law criminals serving their prison sentences in Belsen.]
There were already English there, as well as a few Belgians serving in the English military. A Belgian officer from Antwerp gave each of the Belgians two cigars which we immediately lighted as Rotschilds... Slowly more and better food came... We came to life again... We would go home. And it went fast. The French were the first to leave, some thousand of them, and we Belgians, with Luxemburgers end Dutch, also some thousand, followed. We were loaded into large trucks and left for the West... home.

To the inmates the situation was utterly incomprehensible: Were we liberated now? or what? Shots were heard, but British tanks and jeeps entered the camp without actual fighting, only to leave it again under German custody. For an explanation, read the subsequent posts. 


Continued in Part 2.