When the British liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 they found thousands of unburied bodies and starved prisoners. The site was originally used as a prisoner-of-war camp, but by 1943 it became a concentration camp. Overcrowding led to epidemics of typhus and typhoid.
The concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen was located in Lower Saxony, close to the city Celle. The camp was built in 1940 and during its early years it was used to hold prisoners of war and also as a holding pen for those being transported elsewhere. However, by 1943 Bergen-Belsen had been turned into a concentration camp.
Adolf Hass, who was an SS-Hauptsturmfűhrer, was the camp’s first commandant although he was later replaced by Josef Kramer, also an SS- Hauptsturmfűhrer, in 1944. Kramer was well experienced in concentration camps, which this camp now was, having worked in them for a decade, including having spent time working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. During his time at Bergen-Belsen, Kramer was given the nickname as the ‘Beast’ because of his cruel, merciless approach. Indeed, many thousands lost their lives while he was the camp’s first commandant.
Kramer quickly earned his reputation as one of the more evil SS leaders. For example, if dysentery would break out in his camp he would respond by starving the prisoners.
Kramer also has his female equivalent in the form of Herta Bothe, who was regarded as the camp’s most notorious female officer. Bothe, who would reportedly beat prisoners with sticks or even shoot them was sent to jail for 10 years after being found guilty of war crimes at the end of the war.
Captured by the British after liberation, SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer was arrested, tried, and later executed.
As the war progressed the German army began to lose battles on both the east and the west front. As a result the decision was taken to send a lot of the prisoners they had near the front lines to Bergen-Belsen. The result was a huge swell of inmates at the camp, jumping from a little more than 7,000 in July 1944 to around 15,000 at the end of that year and then increasing to 22,000 by February 1945. But, with the war drawing to a close as 1945 went on, even more were sent to the camp and in April 1945 the number of inmates is believed to have reached 60,000.
Conditions were poor at the camp in 1944 so as it became overcrowded things deteriorated further; thousands of the prisoners were taken ill with various diseases while others died as a result of starvation. Anne Frank was among the 18,000 prisoners who lost their life in the camp during the month of March 1945 alone.
A Bergen-Belsen survivor, Fania Fenelon, described conditions at the camp before it was liberated: “The stench had become intolerable; wrapped in my cloak, a priceless possession, I went out in search of air, to stretch out, to sleep in the open. The ground was muddy and cold, so I kept walking. In front of me, a pile of corpses balanced carefully on one another, rose geometrically like a haystack. There was no more room in the crematoria so they piled up the corpses out here.
“I climbed up them as one would a slope; at the top I stretched out and fell asleep. Sometimes an arm or leg slackened to take its final position. I slept on; in the morning, when I woke up, I thought I that I too must be losing my reason…”
On 15 April 1945 British arrived and liberated the camp. What they found shocked and appalled them, including there being around 10,000 dead bodies that lay unburied because the crematorium within the camp had broken down. There were still 60,000 others alive but many of prisoners were barely clinging to life. Indeed a quarter of those found at the camp on that day lost their life (at a rate of around 400 a day) after liberation because they were too weak or disease ridden.
Surprisingly, unlike most SS officers in charge of the Nazi camps, Kramer did not flee when the Allied troops approached; instead he stayed to destroy as much evidence as possible. The British troops that found him commented on his arrogance and lack of guilt about what he had done at the camp. He did later flee but was caught and put on trial for crimes against humanity, for which he was found guilty and executed.
One RAMC, Colonel Johnstone, described the scenes when they liberated the camp:
“I saw a very great number of dazed, apathetic, human scarecrows, wandering around the camp in an aimless fashion, dressed in rags and some even without rags. There were piles of dead everywhere – right up to the front gate.”
When the British troops liberated the camp they order the German guard to remain there. However, within three weeks they had all fled.
See also: Drancy Transit Camp
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