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Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
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Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

On April 7, 1945, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Reich Security Office, sent an order directly to the Commandant of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Josef Kramer, that all the prisoners in the camp should be killed, rather than let them fall in the hands of the enemy. However on April 8, 1945, another 25,000 prisoners arrived at Bergen-Belsen from other concentration camps in the Neuengamme area. By now there were over 60,000 prisoners in the camp.
A sign reading "Danger Typhus" on the outskirts of Belsen to warn non essential traffic to clear the area.

Typhus epidemic

The Geneva Convention specified that civilian prisoners were to be evacuated from a war zone, and up until this time, the Nazi concentration camps had been either evacuated or abandoned as the war progressed. However it was impossible to evacuate all the prisoners from Bergen-Belsen because of the typhus epidemic. Nor could the camp be abandoned for fear that this epidemics would spread to the soldiers of both sides.

Negotiations with the British Army

Negotiations for the transfer of the Bergen-Belsen camp to the control of the British Army took several days. On the night of April 12, 1945, a cease-fire was signed between the local German Military Commander and the British Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Taylor-Balfour. An area of 48 square kilometers around Bergen-Belsen was declared a neutral zone.

Until British troops could take over, the agreement specified that the camp would be guarded by a unit of Hungarian soldiers and soldiers from the German Wehrmacht (the German army). These soldiers were assured that they would be allowed free return passage to the German lines within six days after the British arrived. The SS soldiers who made up the staff of the camp were to remain at their posts and carry on their duties until the British arrived to take over.

Thousands of bodies

Thousands of bodies in various stages of decomposition were lying in heaps all over the camp. As their last task before turning the camp over to the British, the SS began repairing the camp and trying to bury the bodies in mass graves. Between April 11 and April 14, all prisoners in the camp who were still able to work were recruited to help with burial of the corpses. This went on for four days, from six in the morning until dark and still there were 10,000 rotting corpses remaining in the camp.

British soldiers enter the camp

On April 15th, British soldiers arrived and the transfer of the neutral territory of the Bergen-Belsen camp was made and the first British units entered the camp. These units were a loudspeaker van from 14 Amplifier Unit, Intelligence Corps and 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. Three of the soldiers on the tanks were Jewish. Chaim Herzog was a young Jewish officer with the Intelligence Corps; he later became Israel's Ambassador to the UN and then President of Israel. The Camp Commandant Josef Kramer greeted British officer Derrick Sington at the entrance to the camp After handing over the camp he was later arrested by the British and five months later he was brought before a British Military Tribunal as a war criminal.

Medical units arrive in Bergen Belsen

Brigadier Llewelyn Glyn-Hughes, a medical officer, was in command of the relief operation. The British had known that there were terrible epidemics in the camp, and that this was the main reason the camp had been surrendered, but they were unprepared for the sight of the dead bodies, and it came as an enormous shock to them.

On April 17, 1945, British Medical units arrived. The first thing they did was to set up a hospital area in the barracks of the Germany Army training camp nearby. The British arrested the entire personnel of the SS Commandant's office, the 50 men and 30 women who had voluntarily stayed behind to help the British.

Burying the dead and evacuating the living

On April 18, 1945, the burial of the dead began. The staff members, who were now prisoners of the British, were ordered to bury the dead.

On April 21, 1945, the evacuation of those still alive began. The prisoners were first deloused and then moved into the barracks of the German Army Training camp next to the camp. The Red Cross were brought in to help. The epidemics had not yet been brought under control and 400 to 500 prisoners were still dying each day. However by April 28, the burial of the bodies in the mass graves was completed.

German civilians from the towns of Bergen and Belsen were brought to look at the camp on April 25, 1945. Prisoners continued to die, in spite of the medical treatment provided by the Red Cross and the British Army. Nine thousand died in the first two weeks after the British arrived, and another 4000 died in May. The bodies were buried in unmarked mass graves.

On April 29, the SS soldiers were taken to the prison in the city of Celle near to the camp. The next day, 97 medical students arrived in Bergen-Belsen to help with the sick prisoners, and on May 4th, more British medical units arrived. On that same day, part of the German Army surrendered to the British in the area near the camp.

Burned to the ground

By May 19, 1945, all the former prisoners had been evacuated to the nearby Army barracks and on May 21, 1945, the last hut at the Bergen-Belsen camp was burned to the ground. The horror that was Bergen-Belsen had been completely wiped off the face of the earth. Today the former camp is a landscaped park with heather which covers the mass graves In July 1945, 6,000 survivors were taken to Sweden to recover from their ordeal at Bergen-Belsen. Some of them stayed there as long as three years to recover from typhus.
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Photos courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
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