BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP PART 1/4
When British soldiers in the early afternoon of 15 April 1945 liberated the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen , they faced a picture of horror which had come as a shock to them , despite all the atrocities they had experienced during the war , what offered them were approximately 10,000 unburied corpses which lay scattered on the grounds of the camp , some already half decayed. Seeing the almost to skeleton emaciated corpses, the troops became aware, that the prisoners were not killed by gassing or shooting , but by starvation or epidemics. Even the sight of the still-living prisoners gave an idea of the extent of the crimes that had been committed in this concentration camp. The liberators received hardly any cheering , rather apathy and almost disbelief . Most prisoners lacked the strength to be happy about their arrival or to express joy to be free. Some of the inmates were already so weakened that they literally died before the eyes of the liberating soldiers.
For many prisoners, the help provided came too late. Despite the prompt onset of relief efforts of the Britons more than 13,000 former prisoners died in the first twelve weeks after the liberation from the consequences of their detention, that is about a quarter of the 55,000 prisoners who had been freed in mid-April at Bergen-Belsen. The total number of victims of the concentration camp is estimated at 50,000.
Immediately after the liberation members of a Film and Photographic Unit of the British Army began their work , what they saw themselves here with stunned horror, was captured and held in hundreds of photos and film footages. These pictures were just shortly afterwards published in newspapers, magazines and newsreels, in particular in western foreign countries, pictures with which the public was confronted quite unexpectedly, and were for many a symbol of the totality of a National Socialist concentration camp and its systematic method of crimes committed.
THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A 'HOLDING CAMP'(AUFENTHALTSLAGER)
The history of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen began quite early but, in due course with very different aims. At the end of 1942 leading officials of the Foreign Ministry met together with Heinrich Himmler considering similar plans , both aimed at the continuation and intensification in the exchange (Austausch) of Jews from the German sphere of influence, against German citizens abroad . Special attention was paid to Palestinian Germans living in Palestine or the German Jews who possessed Palestinian nationality papers, Palestine certificates or family ties in the British Mandate and Jews with the corresponding relations in America. Hitler had agreed to establish such a special camp for Jews in a conversation with Himmler on December 10, 1942. Himmler ordered the Reich Security Main Office in December 1942 , that the Jews , "with influential relatives in America , should be concentrated into a special camp (Sonderlager) . There, they will indeed work , but under conditions that they remain healthy and stay alive . Himmler felt, "that these types of Jews are valuable hostages (Geiseln) for us. I anticipate that this would be in the figure of about 10,000".
These plans associated with similar considerations in the Foreign Office and conducted in March or at the latest, early April 1943 , Himmler ordered the establishment of a special camp for certain groups of Jewish prisoners that should be excluded from extermination, if they did possess one for the SS or the Foreign Office any " exchange value " . In return for the release of these Jews the SS and Foreign Office wanted the return of interned Germans in enemy countries or the payment of foreign exchange, to obtain the delivery of urgently needed goods. In addition, conflicts should be avoided with those States through the release of Jews byz neutral or friendly counties with Germany. The next question for Jewish persons qualifying, was defined as follows at the end of August 1943:
1.Jews who have familial or other relationships with influential persons in enemy countries .
2. Jews who come on the basis of a low-key, as a replacement for Reich's-Germans held as internees or prisoners in enemy countries abroad.
3. Jews that could be useful as hostages and as a political or economic leverage.
4. Jewish top officials .
As the site of this new camp, the southern half of the not fully occupied POW camp Bergen-Belsen was selected. It was set up in 1940 as a camp for Belgian and French prisoners of war in 1941, but after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the second half of that year, thousands of Soviet POW were housed here under totally inadequate conditions. The majority of them died in the winter of 1941/42, from hunger, cold and disease. After its completion of a hospital for Soviet prisoners of war, this complex existed parallel to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen until its dissolution in January 1945. Overall, about 20,000 Soviet POW perished in the camp.
The here and now, the newly built special camp Bergen-Belsen was called "Civil Internment Camp" (Zivilinterniertenlager), which was changed a little later in "Residence Camp (Aufenthaltslager)." The reasoning is rather revealing: "This change is necessary because civilian internment camps come under the Geneva Convention and must be accessible to International Commissions". Although Bergen-Belsen was restricted of its intended special functions, it was initially neither within the system of a forced labour camp for the armaments industry, nor could it be termed as a typical concentration camp. It was nevertheless controlled on the instructions of Himmler, by the Economic Administrative Main Office and thus incorporated into the system of a National Socialistic Concentration Camp , a decision that would prove to be for the later development of Bergen-Belsen as fatal, this facilitated a fateful process of an increasing expansion in its function in spring of 1944.
1. Bergen-Belsen was from the start a family camp, where a relatively large number of children and adolescents were housed. In general, no individuals were taken to the residence camp, but whole families, even if, for example, only a single family member met the conditions for the exchange program.
2. The living conditions in the occupied camps were much better than those in the other concentration camps: The considered hostage prisoners had to stay alive to exchange them or to release them for other considerations. They should not show abroad by their physical condition, what prevailing conditions in the National Socialistic concentration camps in fact did exist. Their substantive "privileges" also counted, they were allowed to bring all their personal baggage into Bergen-Belsen. Thus the infrastructure of the camp was designed accordingly. No big incinerators were built, but rather a small crematorium, as it was expected for this camp that only a few deaths would occur.
3. In regard to the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen, it was unlike compared to all other concentration camps within the territory of the Reich, it was first and foremost a facility exclusively for Jews. Non-Jewish prisoners were housed initially in only one part of the complex, specified in the historiography as a "prison camp", and strictly separated from other sub-camps. Until about the end of 1944, the proportion of Jews to other inmates of Bergen-Belsen was about 80 to 90% and in the subsequent period, when the share of non-Jewish prisoners rose, the Jews remained separated and were accommodated in different parts of the camp. At the time of liberation in April 1945, the percentage of Jewish prisoners was still at about 50%
|Cremation oven used in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Bergen-Belsen, Germany, April 28, 1945'.|
The first appointed commandant was SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Adolf Haas, who had previously been commander of the KZ Niederhagen at Wewelsburg, which by now was in the process of its dissolution in the spring of 1943, he was ready for a new task. With him also changed almost all SS personnel from Niederhagen to Bergen-Belsen. They formed the core of the SS men who nevertheless underwent a change in the summer of 1944 as well by replacing usefully Front Fighting younger SS men by former members of the Wehrmacht. Further changes in the personnel composition of SS men were made by the commander himself in December 1944, with the inclusion of former members of the Auschwitz SS staff, which, as a camp was in the course of its own closure. Although Bergen-Belsen was a family camp from the beginning, the SS guards up to the winter of 1944/45 were exclusively males.
The first major prisoner transport to Bergen-Belsen was on April 30, 1943 which came from Buchenwald, this was followed in May and June with few minor transports from there and two other concentration camps Niederhagen and Natzweiler. Overall, they were not more than about 600 prisoners, mostly Russians, Poles and Frenchmen. For them, it was not a matter to exchange prisoners (Austauschhäftlinge), rather they formed a construction detail that had the "residence camp"(Aufenthaltslager) prepared and improvements made.
PRISONER GROUPS AND STRUCTURES IN THE "TRANSIT CAMP" (AUSTAUSCHLAGER)
The first Jewish "Exchange Prisoners" arrived on the 7th July 1943, from Warsaw . They were followed up to and until October 21, 1943 with nine other transports from Warsaw, Lvov (Lemberg) , Krakow, Bochnia and Radom. These consisted mainly of about 2,700 Polish Jews . Only about ten percent of them had Palestinian citizen certificates , but most of them were brought to Bergen-Belsen , because they had citizenship papers for Latin- American countries . Only in a few cases , however, that they were in possession of a passport. The majority had only "Promesas" , ie consular letters in which the future issuance of a nationality was promised . With these Promesas a flourishing trade was operating in the Jewish ghettos , partly because these papers were from Jews , in whose name the Promesas were issued , but had long since been deported , so the Certificates now got to third parties and had been accordingly falsified.
|Valid Certificate for a young boy|
Upon arrival In Bergen-Belsen these papers underwent a precise control and could be termed to a de facto selection procedure, because the majority of these personal documents were not recognized by the Gestapo as authentic and their owners were therefore sent to Auschwitz to all intents and purposes to be exterminated [the German text reads 'murdered']. A large transport, encompassing approximately 1,800 people left Bergen-Belsen on the 21st October 1943 and two smaller ones followed in the first half of 1944, the vast majority of this group was deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Only about 350 of the original 2,700 Polish prisoners group remained in Bergen-Belsen and were housed there in a separate section of the camp.
A transit station towards freedom from Bergen-Belsen was meant for a group of 367 Sephardic Jews of Spanish nationality who were brought in mid-August 1943, from Salonika into the camp. As citizens of a neutral state in World War II they were in early February 1944 released to Spain. As prisoners, however, remained 74 Greek Jews who had been deported in August plus 155 Spanish and Portuguese Jews as well from Greece who arrived in early April 1944. [There is no reason given why the latter Jews were not repatriated, as both countries Spain and Portugal remained neutral]
While the Spanish and Portuguese Jews were housed in one department of the camp, intended for nationals of neutral states, the Greek Jews came into a new complex from which it soon developed into the largest parts of the
Residence Holding Section, called the "Star Camp" because the prisoners there had to wear on their civilian clothes the Star of David. Men and women lived in separate barracks, but members of the same family were permitted to meet. Most of the prisoners in the “star camp” were Jews from the Netherlands.
|Women's 'Star Camp' (Sternlager) at Bergen-Belsen 1945|
From January to September 1944 a total of 3,670 Jewish exchange prisoners were transferred to Bergen-Belsen from the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands with eight transports, and sent to those parts of the camp, in which the Greek Jews already lived and who had there already occupied the most important functional positions. The deported prisoners from Westerbork were for the most part Dutch, to a lesser extent German Jews who had fled before the outbreak of war to the Netherlands.
In the first half of 1944 arrived in several smaller transports about 300 North African Jews in Bergen-Belsen who possessed British citizenship documents. From France, a group of Jews came to the camp, which predominantly composed of women and children whose husbands were in German Prisoner of War Camps. Added to this were several hundred Yugoslav and Albanian Jews.
Between 1911 and 1943, Libya was an Italian colony. The Jewish population of Libya counted some 30,000 souls on the eve of WW II and while most lived in the two main cities, the capital Tripoli and in Benghazi, the rest were dispersed in many villages. With the rapprochement of Italy to Nazi Germany, the first racial laws were applied against Libyan Jews as early as 1938. Just as in occupied European countries, Jews' lives became progressively much harder. After Italy entered the war on the side of her ally Germany, all the Jewish French and British citizens were interned in Giado concentration camp situated at 240 km south of Tripoli. Cyrenaica was conquered by the British army in June 1940 and re-conquered back by the German Afrika Korps in May 1941, thus restoring Italian rule. Afterwards, the Jewish French citizens were sent to Tunisia, while the 300 Jewish British citizens were deported to several temporary internment camps in Italy. From there they were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
At the end of July 1944 lived in the residence camp (Aufentaltslager) 7,300 prisoners, two thirds of them in the "star camp" that was therefore until April 1945 by far the largest figure in the occupied "Exchange Camp". A total of at least 14,600 Jewish prisoners were taken to the Residence Section(Aufentaltslager) , between July 1943 and December 1944.
They lived here not according to all the same camp rules, but were , from the perspective of the SS, treated by different jurisdiction, according to their national origin, and had been spread over a number of different sections, first and foremost in strictly separate parts of the camp, each with different living conditions. Men and women were housed in segregated barracks , but were able to meet during the day . The children of the prisoners until the age of 14 years , were living with their mothers . From the age of 15 the boys were moved to one of the men's barracks. The food situation was bad from the beginning , the hunger determined more and more the inmates condition and behaviour everyday. In the Star Camp the adults were obliged to work . The largest of the labour detachments formed the "shoe commando " whose task it was to separate out from thousands of shoes the still usable leather uppers which had to be removed from the soles . Among the most dreaded labour detachments counted the exchange commando , they had to dig outside of the camp, uprooting remaining tree stumps and had thus to collect wood .
In a special camp (Sonderlager) that held 350 Polish Jews, who had remained after the transports of their brethren to Auschwitz from Bergen-Belsen. The great majority of them held Palestinian Certificates, to a small extent they had citizenship papers of the United States or South American countries. The probably reason that they did not live in the Star Camp was, because they were aware of the extermination of people in Poland and this should not be spread in Bergen-Belsen. Therefore, they were housed in an isolated part of the camp, nor were they used in work details outside the camp perimeter.
In the Neutral Camp (Neutrallager) more than 700 prisoners were brought in since August 1943, who had the nationality of neutral states, these Jews were in two main groups with Spanish or Turkish citizenship papers. Compared to the main camp they lived in better material conditions and were used only for internal camp work.
|Block 311 of the Neutralenlager|
THE HUNGARIAN CAMP was established on 8 July 1944 and held 1,684 Jews from Hungary, the transport organised by Dr Rezso (Rudolf) Kasztner. Here too, the prisoners wore their own clothes but were forced to display the yellow star.
Only a few of the Jews who were brought to Bergen-Belsen as candidates for exchange were in fact set free in exchange deals. On 10 July 1944, 222 Jews with immigration certificates to Palestine landed at the Haifa port. A few weeks later, on 21 August, 318 Jews from the “Hungarian Camp” reached Switzerland, followed by another 1,365 in December. In January 1945, 136 Jews with South American papers also reached Switzerland.
Beginning in March 1944, Bergen-Belsen gradually became a “regular” concentration camp, the Germans transferring to it prisoners from other concentrations camps who were classified as ill and unfit to work.
The first such group came in late March 1944 and consisted of 1,000 sick prisoners from the Dora camp. They were put into a new section of the camp where the sanitary conditions were extremely poor, they received no blankets, no medical attention and only minute food rations. Nearly all of them died within a short period -on the day of the camps liberation only 57 of the original 1,000 were still alive. More transports of prisoners “unfit for work” kept arriving from various camps up to the end of 1944, most of them made up of Hungarian Jews.
The majority were housed in the former “prisoners camp,” where conditions were at their worst and the mortality rate was the highest. Of the several thousand prisoners brought to this section of the camp in 1944, 820 died in the period from April to June alone.
Also transferred to this section of the camp were German convicts from the Dora camp, who were appointed “block elders” and Kapos, who treated the Jewish prisoners under their authority with great brutality, and caused a great number of cruel deaths.
The prisoners also suffered from the sadistic practices of the camp doctor, Obersturmführer Dr Karl Jäger, who forced them to keep running for long stretches of time. In the summer of 1944 some 200 prisoners were killed by phenol injections.
In August 1944 a new section was added, to serve as a women’s camp, consisting of twelve barracks, 4,000 Jewish women prisoners from Hungary and Poland were brought there, but after a short stay they were sent to Buchenwald and Flossenburg camps, to perform forced labour. Most of the women returned to Bergen-Belsen sick or exhausted by the hard labour that they had been forced to do.
In September and October 1944 transports of Jewish prisoners from the Plaszow camp, near Krakow, and 3,000 Jewish women prisoners from Auschwitz arrived in Bergen-Belsen, they were housed in the “star camp,” in new barracks put up for them, with no water, no beds, and no other facilities of any kind.
Among these prisoners were Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who both died in March 1945 from the typhus epidemic that raged through the camp.
|Grave site of Anne Frank and sister Margot'. This is actually a memorial only, as both had been burried oin a mass grave|
On 2 December 1944 Adolf Haas the camp commandant was replaced by Hauptsturmfuhrer Josef Kramer. A census taken on 2 December 1944 showed that the camp population was 15,257 persons, of whom some 8,000 were women.
Kramer’s first step was to convert Bergen- Belsen officially into a concentration camp, the residues of self-administration that still existed in the “star camp” were abolished, and the internal management of the camp was put into the hands of the “block elders” and Kapos, as was done in all other concentration camps.
A final and complete deterioration of the prisoners living conditions set in when tens of thousands of prisoners poured in – survivors of the death marches who had been evacuated from the camps in the east. These included 20,000 women prisoners from the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps who had passed through the Gross- Rosen concentration camp on the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
In the period from January to March 1945 there were more death marches which brought thousands of male prisoners from the Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald concentration camps to Bergen-Belsen.
The camp administration did nothing to house the prisoners who were streaming in. Most of them had no roof over their heads, and were without water and food. There was now total chaos in Bergen-Belsen and a typhus epidemic broke out, in the month of March alone 18,168 prisoners perished in the camp and the number of deaths for the period from January to mid-April 1945 was 35,000.
|Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp September 1944'|
Despite its special function compared to other concentration camps as a temporary stay,(Aufenthaltslager) camp Bergen-Belsen from the outset was a place of suffering and humiliation. So Heinrich Hermann writes about the obligation to work in early 1944: "The age limit for compulsory labour fluctuated. In January 1944, the most severe months, they had even 75- and 80-year-old men work hard in wind and weather. This was a cruelty, through which many people have perished".
Although for the SS in Bergen-Belsen direct mistreatment of exchange prisoners was prohibited, a ban that was not always noted this but numerous harassment by the SS were at the mercy of arbitrary individual or collective bread withdrawal for one or more days up to the "fence standing "a kind of individual criminal appeal. Some prisoners were forced to stand in the latrine and to clean them with bare hands. The so-typical concentration camp ordeal of standing appeal, which was arbitrarily extended by the SS of, was also in Bergen-Belsen to the everyday life of the prisoners. "On Friday, February 11, 1944 Women and children stood for 9 hours in snow and ice," wrote S.H. Herman later.
" Bergen- Belsen " - was synonym of hunger and for the exchange-prisoners a daily occurrence right from the beginning. This became more and more of an all-determining , always life threatening appearance. On 4 September 1944 Hanna Levy-Hass noted in her diary : "Our shack is a real madhouse (Irrenhaus) . Only a few are able to control themselves . The slightest incident gives rise to quarrels , to insults, threats and often fights . All are highly irritable, always ready to get carried away and to see in their neighbour her personal enemy . The distrust, dishonesty, it would sneak into all hearts , as well as suspicion , that will leave one tremble . What a disaster. The unhappy faces , in which terror , hunger and animal behaviour of fear can be read. Especially at the food counter . Everyone has to watch herself as the Kapo fills his bowl to two thirds with a big ladle from the soup kettle which is drained to the bottom, but often fought over what might be still at the bottom of the cauldron .With expressions like a brutalized bunch, and tears in their eyes of those who fear not to receive their ration.
|Prisoners being given food at Plaszow forced labour camp,|
And under the date of 23 October 1944, she writes about bread rations: "The rations are getting smaller from week to week. The daily ration are measured with tape measure, which often amounts to only 3.5 centimeters. One trembles to this piece like it would be gold. You cut it carefully, with reverence, into pieces of one or two millimeters thick. It is almost a tragedy when a ration is stolen or if you will be punished for any reason, or no reason, with the withdrawal of one or two rations of bread".
The rapidly proliferating vermin and the ever-expanding diseases were living in Bergen-Belsen unbearable for an ever larger share of the prisoners. Again H. Levy- Hass: " The little children suffered from specific diseases. A very small adorable girl of four years is lying for five weeks in bed. She has febrile seizures. The whole body is covered with boils. When her mother lifts her up from the bed , her head falls obliquely onto her shoulder, she no longer has the strength to hold it straight . She observes its surroundings with an intelligent , sensible , rather resigned look . Only her big , wonderful eyes still live in a fleshless face. And when her little body is once stripped , she is just a skeleton that is still alive that breathes , which suffers in silence. Without crying and screaming . She has no longer the strength to do so. Today, this morning, the boils have to be opened, this is terrible , so much pus. She only sobbed a little bit , and the rest of the time she remained silent , motionless ". (No indication of her final fate is given)
As British forces approached Bergen-Belsen, German authorities sought to turn over the camp to the British so that it would not become a combat zone. After some negotiation, it was peacefully transferred, with an agreement that "both British and German troops will make every effort to avoid battle in the area."
A revealing account of the circumstances under which the British took control appeared in a 1945 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association:
By negotiations between British and German officers, British troops took over from the SS and the Wehrmacht the task of guarding the vast concentration camp at Belsen, a few miles northwest of Celle, which contains 60,000 prisoners, many of them political. This has been done because typhus is rampant in the camp and it is vital that no prisoners be released until the infection is checked. The advancing British agreed to refrain from bombing or shelling the area of the camp, and the Germans agreed to leave behind an armed guard which would be allowed to return to their own lines a week after the British arrival.
The story of the negotiations is curious. Two German officers presented themselves before the British outposts and explained that there were 9,000 sick in the camp and that all sanitation had failed. They proposed that the British should occupy the camp at once, as the responsibility was international in the interests of health. In return for the delay caused by the truce the Germans offered to surrender intact the bridges over the river Aller. After brief consideration the British senior officer rejected the German proposals, saying it was necessary that the British should occupy an area of ten kilometers round the camp in order to be sure of keeping their troops and lines of communication away from the disease. The British eventually took over the camp.
On April 15, 1945, Belsen's commanders turned over the camp to British troops, who lost no time mistreating the SS camp personnel. The Germans were beaten with rifle butts, kicked, and stabbed with bayonets. Most were shot or worked to death.
British journalist Alan Moorehead described the treatment of some of the camp personnel shortly after the takeover:
As we approached the cells of the SS guards, the [British] sergeant's language become ferocious. "We had had an interrogation this morning," the captain said. 'I'm afraid they are not a pretty sight.' ... The sergeant unbolted the first door and ... strode into the cell, jabbing a metal spike in front of him. "Get up," he shouted. "Get up. Get up, you dirty bastards." There were half a dozen men lying or half lying on the floor. One or two were able to pull themselves erect at once. The man nearest me, his shirt and face spattered with blood, made two attempts before he got on to his knees and then gradually on to his feet. He stood with his arms stretched out in front of him, trembling violently.
"Come on. Get up," the sergeant shouted [in the next cell]. The man was lying in his blood on the floor, a massive figure with a heavy head and bedraggled beard ... "Why don't you kill me?" he whispered. "Why don't you kill me? I can't stand it any more." The same phrases dribbled out of his lips over and over again. "He's been saying that all morning, the dirty bastard," the sergeant said
After a military trial, the former Bergen-Belsen Commandant Josef Kramer in British captivity was put to death.
Commandant Kramer, who was vilified in the British and American press as "The Beast of Belsen" and "The Monster of Belsen," was put on trial and then executed, along with chief physician Dr. Fritz Klein and other camp officials. At his trial, Kramer's defense attorney, Major T.C.M. Winwood, predicted: "When the curtain finally rings down on this stage Josef Kramer will, in my submission, stand forth not as 'The Beast of Belsen' but as 'The Scapegoat of Belsen'."
CONTINUED UNDER PART 2/4