Every day in the news, there is yet another horror story told by a Holocaust survivor. A few days ago, a story was published in the online Albany Times Union here. The headline for the news article was
Recalling horror of Bergen-Belsen
WWII concentration camp survivor describes hellish experiences
By Paul Grondahl
This quote is from the article in the Times Union, which tells about a talk given by Holocaust Survivor Steven Hess to Albany teachers:
[Steven Hess] described his experiences during World War II and offered historical context Tuesday for two dozen middle and high school social studies teachers in Albany.” […]
When Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British on April 15, 1945, Hess, his sister and their mother and father had overcome what seemed like impossible odds. […]
Hess has almost no memory of what came before. His parents, who were German Jews, fled Nazi Germany in 1936 and raised the twins in middle-class comfort in Amsterdam, Holland. Their father, Karl Hess (he changed his name to Charles in the U.S.) was a sales manager for a textile company.
The Hess family was among 110,000 Jews from Holland deported to Nazi death camps. Fewer than 5,000 adults and a very small number of children younger than 15 survived. […]
The Hess family was allowed to board a train in April 1945 as the allied forces were routing the Germans and the Nazis tried to hide the evidence of Bergen-Belsen. The Hess family was jammed onto a cattle train with 2,500 Jews, and the “lost transport” meandered around Germany. More than 600 perished on the train ride until the survivors were finally set free after Russian soldiers killed the Germans operating the train.
There were around 35,000 deaths at Bergen-Belsen when the camp was in operation and 13,000 additional deaths after the camp was turned over to the British on April 15, 1945. How did the Hess family beat the odds? Is there something that Steven Hess left out of his story? Was Bergen-Belsen a “death camp,” as reported by Paul Grondahl?
There were 8 different camps at Bergen-Belsen. You can read about all the different camps here. The Hess family was probably in the “Star camp,” where they had a good chance of survival. In the last days before Bergen-Belsen was turned over to the British (because it was in a war zone), the Jews in the Star Camp and also the prisoners in the Neutrals Camp were evacuated, along with the Hungarian Jews, in three trains which held altogether about 7,000 Jews who were considered “exchange Jews.” Up until December 1944, Bergen Belsen was an exchange camp for the purpose of exchanging Jews, who wanted to go to Palestine, for German prisoners held in Allied camps. There was also a training camp for German soldiers right next to the prison camps at Bergen-Belsen.
One of the three trains that left Bergen-Belsen finally stopped on April 14, 1945 near Magdeburg in northern Germany; the guards ran away and the Jews on the train were liberated by American troops. The third train halted on April 23, 1945 near the village of Tröbitz in the Niederlausitz region; they were liberated by Russian troops after the guards escaped.
The Hess family was probably on the train that was liberated by Russian troops on April 23, 1945. In fact, Paul Grondahl wrote this in his article about Steven Hess:
The Hess family stayed in a small German farming village of Trobitz, which had been deserted. They squatted in an abandoned farmhouse and foraged for food.
Why had the German village been deserted? There was a war going on and the Germans were trying to escape from the Russian soldiers who were raping and murdering their way across Germany.
According to the Memorial Site at Bergen-Belsen, the camp population on December 1, 1944 was 15,257. By February 1, 1945, there were 22,000 prisoners in the camp, and by March 1, 1945, the number of inmates had swelled to 41,520. On April 15, 1945, there were an estimated 60,000 prisoners in the camp. The influx of prisoners was caused by the evacuation of other camps that were in the war zone. I repeat: There was a war going on!
In February 1945, a transport of Hungarian Jews arrived at Bergen-Belsen at a time when the disinfection chambers were temporarily not in use, and as a result, lice got into the camp, causing a typhus epidemic to break out. Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of all the concentration camps, ordered that “all medical means necessary to combat the epidemic should be employed” but in spite of this, the epidemic quickly spread beyond control.
The story of Bergen-Belsen can be summed up by a chart that hangs on the wall of the Museum there. It shows that there were 350 deaths in the camp in December 1944 before the typhus epidemic started. In January 1945, after a typhoid epidemic started, there were between 800 and 1000 deaths; in February 1945, after the typhus epidemic was out of control, there were 6,000 to 7,000 deaths. In March 1945, the number of deaths had escalated to an incredible 18,168 in only one month. In April 1945, the deaths were 18,355 in only one month, with half of these deaths occurring after the British took over. Unlike the death camps in Poland, the Bergen-Belsen camp was not equipped to handle this kind of death rate; there was only one crematory oven in the camp.
When the British arrived on April 15, 1945, there were 10,000 bodies that were still unburied, and more were dying every day because the Germans could not control the epidemics. By the end of April, in only two weeks time, 9,000 more had died. Another 4,000 died before the end of May.
Approximately 4,000 Jewish prisoners, mostly from the Netherlands, lived in the Star camp (Sternlager), where conditions were better than in other parts of Bergen-Belsen. In the Star camp, the prisoners wore a yellow Star of David on their own clothes instead of the usual blue and gray striped prison uniform.
The following quote is from Eberhard Kolb’s book Bergen-Belsen from 1943 to 1945:
From the Dutch “transit camp'” at Westerbork all those inmates were transported to Bergen-Belsen who were on one of the coveted “ban lists”, above all the “Palestine list”, the “South America list”, or the “dual citizenship list”. Holders of the so-called “Stamp 120000” were also taken to Bergen-Belsen, i.e. Jews with proven connections to enemy states, Jews who had delivered up large properties, diamond workers and diamond dealers who were held back from transportation to an extermination camp but who were not allowed to go abroad, as well as so-called “Jews of merit”. A total of 3670 “exchange Jews” of these categories, always with their families were deported from Westerbork to Bergen-Belsen in eight transports between January and September 1944.
The Hess family was probably in one of these 8 transports from Westerbork. Did Steven Hess leave this out of his talk, or did he tell the teachers that his family was sent to Bergen-Belsen as exchange Jews, and the reporter left that part out?
If there is a need to instruct teachers in America about the horrors of war, then they should be taught about the Prisoner of War camp at Andersonville, Georgia where 12,912 Union soldiers succumbed to dysentery and malnutrition in only 14 months time during the American Civil war. The reason was that 32,000 prisoners had been crowded into a camp that was meant for only 10,000. It was the worldwide outrage at this disaster that finally led to the Geneva Convention where rules for the treatment of POWs were made a part of international law.
At Bergen-Belsen, 60,000 civilian prisoners were eventually confined in a camp that was in no way designed to handle this number of people; a typhus epidemic got started and the only way to stop it was to burn down the prison camp and move the prisoners to the German Army training camp next door, which is what the British did after the Germans voluntarily turned the camp over to them on April 15, 1945.
Instead of teaching American High School students about a disaster that did not happen in America, the students should be learning about the Andersonville camp and the American Civil War.