Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a man who sent me a copy of a letter, written by a British army officer, which gives an eye-witness account of the liberation of the Belsen concentration camp by British soldiers in April 1945. I thought I knew the story of Bergen-Belsen, but I was wrong! It was much worse than I ever imagined. You can read what I wrote about Belsen on my website, starting here.
This quote from the letter describes how the Belsen prisoners were deliberately starved to death:
The conditions at Belsen camp were ghastly. Obviously it was used as a place where the prisoners could be exterminated slowly, and with least trouble to the Reich. This extermination took place in the form of slow starvation; the rations were a bowl of swede or turnip soup per person every day, and a loaf of rye bread between twelve persons every week. Thus the bare minimum was given; a minimum which would not allow anyone to die quickly of starvation, but which would make him or her gradually waste away into a living skeleton. When this had happened, death either followed by typhus or mere collapse. It was reckoned that at least four hundred persons died every day.
This particular part of the letter, written by the British officer, resonated with me:
Twenty of the SS guards who helped to run the camp were caught when the camp was overrun. Three have since committed suicide (and one has been shot). The other sixteen are working as they have never worked before. They have a heavy German lorry in which they carry away the bodies which they are made to collect. But they are not allowed to run the engine. Instead they all push behind, aided in their efforts by some very willing British Tommies who use all the means of persuasion to work that they can think of, from sticks to bayonets.
In the photo above, notice the Belsen survivors, on the left side, watching the German guards being forced to load the bodies onto trucks.
The letter from the British officer started off with this description of the Belsen camp:
Belsen is a small village 11 miles from CELLE, which is in the province HANNOVER. About a mile south of BELSEN, there is a concentraton camp, in which the Germans herded political prisoners of all nations. They were put in this camp for crimes which ranged from listening to the British radio to treason against the Reich. Altogether, when the camp was overrun, there were about sixty thousand men and women in it, the majority being women.
What the British officer, who wrote this letter, probably didn’t know is that Bergen-Belsen did not become a concentration camp until December 1944. Before that, it had been an exchange camp for Jews who wanted to go to Palestine. The Jews were held in the Belsen camp so that they could be exchanged for German prisoners being held in America and Great Britain. I have just recently learned that there were 900 German civilians in an American internment camp that were exchanged for Jews at Belsen.
When Belsen was “overrun” by the British, there were 60,000 prisoners in the camp, but 30,000 of them had just arrived a few days before. (more…)