“When we passed through the gate of Bergen-Belsen, we dropped out of life and time.” — “We had nothing to go by, no point of reference, not even a ‘doctor’ who selected those of us who were to be murdered straight away and those who were to be murdered somewhat later.” — “Anyone who came to Bergen-Belsen dropped into chaos, into nothingness.” The words of three survivors of Bergen-Belsen
bergen belsen/bergen belsen 01
History of Bergen-Belsen
Emaciated bodies of dead prisoners at the Bergen-Belsen horror camp
The prison camp that became known as Bergen-Belsen in 1943 was located about a mile from the tiny village of Belsen and a few more miles from Bergen, a town with a population of 13,000. Today, there is no such place as Bergen-Belsen. The former camp is now a Memorial Site, but if you ask one of the locals how to get to Bergen-Belsen, they will ask you, “Which one? Bergen or Belsen?”
The scenery in this area is very beautiful; it looks much like England with mostly brick houses and charming old brick barns with green-painted doors. The Bergen-Belsen camp was in an area adjacent to an Army training camp for the Wehrmacht, as the regular German Army was called. Between the end of the war and 1950, this Army base was turned into the largest Displaced Persons camp for the Jews who did not want to return to their native countries. It is now a British Army base, and visitors to the Memorial Site on the grounds of the former camp can get an idea of what it must have been like in April 1945, with a war going on right outside the camp, as they listen to the sounds of gunfire coming from the Army training grounds next door to the former camp.
Because of the Army base which was located there, the area near the village of Belsen was first used for a Prisoner of War camp for 600 French and Belgian soldiers, who were housed in the existing Army barracks, beginning in 1940. In May 1941, the POW camp became known as Stalag 311. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, 20,000 captured Russian POWs were brought to Stalag 311 in July 1941; at first they were held in barbed-wire enclosures in the open air. Most of them died because the Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention and, because of this, the Germans were not required by international law to treat them humanely. According to the Memorial Site, “Huts to accommodate the prisoners of war were only provided over a period of time, and in most cases the prisoners themselves had to construct them.” In contrast, the Germans treated their American POWs very well and 99% of them survived. America and Germany had both signed the Geneva Convention and both countries abided by the rules for POWs, but the Soviet Union did not.
According to the Memorial Site, 18,000 of the Russian POWs had died by February 1942. There were only 2097 survivors of Stalag 311. Some of the prisoners died of dysentery, but most of them perished in an epidemic of spotted fever (typhus) which broke out in mid November 1941. Before the German invasion of the Soviet Union on July 22, 1941, Hitler had given the order that Communist Commissars within the ranks of the Soviet Army should be taken to the nearest concentration camp and executed. Consequently, Communist party officials were selected from the prisoners of war at Stalag 311 and taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where they were executed at a special shooting range in the Autumn of 1941.
The first Commandant in Bergen-Belsen was SS Captain Adolf Haas. Previously he had been in charge of the concentration camp called Niederhagen near the Wewelsburg Castle. When it was decided to make Bergen-Belsen into a concentration camp in December 1944, Haas was replaced by SS Captain Josef Kramer. Kramer was born November 10, 1906 in Munich; he joined the NSDAP (Nazi party) in 1931 and became a member of the SS in 1932. After the Nazis took over all important administrative positions in the state of Bavaria on March 9, 1933, in accordance with a new law passed by the Nazi-controlled Congress, Kramer was appointed to a clerical position in Augsberg. In 1934 he became an SS guard at Dachau and received instruction at the SS Training Camp at Dachau under Commandant Theodor Eicke, who is called “the father of the concentration camp system.”
Kramer served in many of the large concentration camps during his 11 years of service in the system. In 1940, he was an adjutant to Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss for several months before he was transferred to Natzweiler to become the Commandant there. After the war, Kramer admitted at the British Military Tribunal that he had murdered 80 prisoners, who were brought from Auschwitz, in a gas chamber in Natzweiler, so that their bodies could be used for research by Dr. August Hirtz at the University of Strasbourg.
In May 1944, Kramer was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he took over as the leader of the Birkenau camp just at the time that thousands of Jews from Hungary were being brought there to be gassed. In December 1944, when the Auschwitz Camp had to be evacuated because the Russian troops were advancing, Kramer was ordered to go to Bergen-Belsen. Many of the women on his staff at Auschwitz were transferred along with him, including the notorious Irma Grese (pronounced GRAY-suh). On December 2, 1944, he became the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen which was now officially designated a concentration camp (Koncentrationslager). On that date, there were 15,257 prisoners in the camp, of which 6,000 were exchange prisoners who were being held for possible trade for Germans detained by the Allies. Kramer’s first step in making Bergen-Belsen into a real concentration camp was to deny the exchange prisoners the special privileges that they had been accustomed to.
Prior to Kramer taking over as Commandant, the Star Camp had been self-administered with Jews being in charge of the day to day supervision of the camp. This was abolished and Kapos from the Prison Camp were put in charge of the work details in the camp. The Kapos were inmates who assisted the guards; they reported to Chief Senior Prisoner Walter Hanke.
Fortunately, America has never witnessed a tragedy on the scale of the disaster at Bergen-Belsen. The closest would be the infamous 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 were 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. Around 35,000 of the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen died from hunger and disease in just the three months prior to the camp being voluntarily turned over to the British on April 15, 1945.
The booklet published by the Memorial site calls the conditions at Bergen-Belsen “Hell.” Here is a quote from the booklet:
The more evacuation transports arrived in Bergen-Belsen the more catastrophic the situation became there. The over-crowded huts, often without any heating lacked all equipment or furnishings and people had to lie on the bare floors. The camp authorities deliberately refrained from easing the situation and made no attempt to draw on the reserves of food, clothing and medical supplies which were stored at the nearby military training grounds. The lack of water was so severe that prisoners in Bergen-Belsen died of thirst. Others went mad with hunger and thirst and turned to cannibalism in their despair.
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. A total of 50,000 prisoners died during the two years the camp was in operation, including 13,000 who died of weakness and disease after the camp was liberated. By far the biggest killer in the camp was typhus, a deadly disease that is transmitted by body lice.
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 broke out, 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, 9000 more had died. Another 4,000 died before the end of May.
To fight typhus epidemics during World War II, the Germans used an insecticide, called Zyklon B, to kill the lice which were common in the overcrowded Nazi concentration camps. Zyklon B was also used as a poison gas to kill the Jews in the gas chambers, although most historians say that there was no gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen. Initially, the Jews at Bergen-Belsen were well-treated because the Nazis were hoping to use them for exchange for German prisoners.
Normally, all new arrivals in the concentration camps were given a hot shower, all their body hair was shaved, and their clothes were then disinfected with Zyklon B. As a further precaution in the larger camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, newcomers were sometimes put into Quarantine barracks for a period of several weeks before being allowed into the main camp. Other prisoners arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau were “selected” to be gassed in fake shower rooms with Zyklon B.
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.
There were also epidemics of typhoid and dysentery at Bergen-Belsen, as well as a shortage of food and water after the camp became part of the war zone in Germany in the final days of World War II.
Anita Lasker-Walfisch, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, explained how important personal hygiene was for preventing disease during a British radio broadcast on August 9, 1999:
“Washing in Belsen was a big problem. Because the washing possibilities were outside. You can imagine what it was like in the winter. You were already hungry. You were half-dead. But we knew that, the moment you didn’t wash every day, it was the beginning of the end. So we used to wash each other and bully each other: “Come on”. We saw so many dead people that we didn’t even notice them, especially in Belsen. Heaps and heaps of corpses stacked up. There was no way of burying them, getting rid of them. People died so fast and in such enormous quantities, we didn’t even notice it. I think a way of survival is also just to let the shutters down and not see things. I mean, lots of people went mad, you know. How can you possibly survive this? You must be terribly tough or insensitive to actually survive.”
In December 1944, Bergen-Belsen had been designated a concentration camp (Koncentrationslager) and the Commandant of Auschwitz, SS Captain Josef Kramer, was transferred there as the new commandant.
By March 1, 1945 conditions in the Bergen-Belsen camp had reached the point of a major catastrophe and Camp Commandant Josef Kramer appealed for help in a letter to Gruppenführer Richard Glücks, who was the head of the SS camp administration.
Excerpts from Kramer’s letter are quoted below:
If I had sufficient sleeping accommodation at my disposal, then the accommodation of the detainees who have already arrived and of those still to come would appear more possible. In addition to this question a spotted fever and typhus epidemic has now begun, which increases in extent every day. The daily mortality rate, which was still in the region of 60-70 at the beginning of February, has in the meantime attained a daily average of 250-300 and will increase still further in view of the conditions which at present prevail.
Supply. When I took over the camp, winter supplies for 1500 internees had been indented for; some had been received, but the greater part had not been delivered. This failure was due not only to difficulties of transport, but also to the fact that practically nothing is available in this area and all must be brought from outside the area […]
For the last four days there has been no delivery [of food] from Hannover owing to interrupted communications, and I shall be compelled, if this state of affairs prevails till the end of the week, to fetch bread also by means of truck from Hannover. The trucks allotted to the local unit are in no way adequate for this work, and I am compelled to ask for at least three to four trucks and five to six trailers. When I once have here a means of towing then I can send out the trailers into the surrounding area […] The supply question must, without fail, be cleared up in the next few days. I ask you, Gruppenführer, for an allocation of transport […]
State of Health. The incidence of disease is very high here in proportion to the number of detainees. When you interviewed me on Dec. 1, 1944, at Oranienburg, you told me that Bergen-Belsen was to serve as a sick camp for all concentration camps in northern Germany. The number of sick has greatly increased, particularly on account of the transports of detainees that have arrived from the East in recent times — these transports have sometimes spent eight or fourteen days in open trucks […]
The fight against spotted fever is made extremely difficult by the lack of means of disinfection. Due to constant use, the hot-air delousing machine is now in bad working order and sometimes fails for several days […]
A catastrophe is taking place for which no one wishes to assume responsibility […] Gruppenführer, I can assure you that from this end everything will be done to overcome the present crisis […]
I am now asking you for your assistance as it lies in your power. In addition to the above-mentioned points, I need here, before everything, accommodation facilities, beds, blankets, eating utensils — all for about 20,000 internees […] I implore your help in overcoming this situation.
Kramer also appealed to the German Army officers at the nearby Army base for additional food after a trainload of food and the camp water pump were destroyed by Allied planes. Colonel Hans Schmidt arranged for the local volunteer fire department to provide water and for food supplies to be brought to the camp from abandoned railroad cars. Schmidt testified later that Kramer “did not at all impress one as a criminal type. He acted like an upright and rather honorable man. Neither did he strike me as someone with a guilty conscience. He worked with great dedication to improve conditions in the camp. For example, he rounded up horse drawn vehicles to bring food to the camp from rail cars that had been shot up.”
Joseph P. Farrell, who wrote a book entitled “The SS Brotherhood of the Bell,” has a different explanation for how the water pump at Bergen-Belsen was destroyed. Farrell claims that a small number of SS guards remained at the camp after the others had fled and as a final act of defiance, the retreating SS guards sabotaged the water supply to the barracks, making it hard for the British troops to treat the sick prisoners. There is another claim that “On the 13th day after liberation, the Luftwaffe bombed one of the hospitals in the DP camp, injuring and killing several patients and Red Cross workers.” The DP camp was the former SS training camp, next door to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which the SS had turned over to the British liberators.
Since Bergen-Belsen was in western Germany, it became the destination for thousands of prisoners who were evacuated from the concentration camps in the east, as the Russian Army advanced. In spite of the typhus epidemic in the camp, Bergen-Belsen had been kept open to receive prisoners evacuated from other camps, such as Buchenwald in eastern Germany, right up to the time it was turned over to the British on April 15, 1945.
Commandant Kramer described the situation at Bergen-Belsen after the evacuated prisoners were brought there from Auschwitz:
The camp was not really inefficient before you (the Allies) crossed the Rhine. There was running water, regular meals of a kind — I had to accept what food I was given for the camp and distribute it the best way I could. But then they suddenly began to send me trainloads of new prisoners from all over Germany. It was impossible to cope with them. I appealed for more staff, more food. I was told that this was impossible. I had to carry on with what I had.
Then as a last straw the Allies bombed the electric plant that pumped our water. Loads of food were unable to reach the camp because of the Allied fighters. Then things really got out of hand. During the last six weeks I have been helpless. I did not even have sufficient staff to bury the dead, let alone segregate the sick [… ]
I tried to get medicines and food for the prisoners and I failed. I was swamped. I may have been hated, but I was doing my duty.
One of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen was 24-year-old Freddie Knoller, a Jew who was a member of the French resistance. Originally from Vienna, he had been deported from Austria in 1938 and had gone to Paris. In an interview with the BBC News Online in July 2004, he said that he was captured by the Nazis after an angry girl friend denounced him to the Gestapo. He was eventually sent to Auschwitz where he was tattooed with the number 157103 on his arm. He was among the 60,000 survivors of Auschwitz who were death marched out of the camp just before Russian troops arrived on January 27, 1945. Out of 1,000 Jews on his train transport to Bergen-Belsen, he was one of only 13 survivors.