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Remarks at the screening of the film
“The Relief of Belsen”
2 May 2011, United Nations Headquarters


Atina Grossmann, Professor of History, Cooper Union, New York

Two comments really struck me during the film:

First: the Englishman’s incredulous outburst: “What are the Krauts still doing here”?

And secondly, Dr.Hadassah Bimko’s sad matter of fact statement to her English colleagues, “Belsen is an overcrowded prison camp, Auschwitz was a Vernichtungslager” (extermination camp).

Both statements speak to the unusual history of Bergen Belsen and its unique status in Holocaust and World War II history and memory. Bergen Belsen was and remains a very complicated place and what I’d like to do here tonight very briefly is to sketch some background and larger context.

The film Relief of Belsen reminds us of three very important historical circumstances: first that “liberation” was for those persecuted, oppressed, and occupied by the Germans during the second World War never an event but always a process, a process that took place over time both before and after the official zero hour on May 8/9, 1945 of unconditional German surrender. It began with the Red Army’s bloody march westward in 1944, continued through the first Soviet  liberation of a large death camp, Majdanek, which had only about 500 inmates left alive on July 23, 1944, and an event that received relatively little attention in the Western press;  the Soviet takeover of an Auschwitz almost emptied out by the inmates’ death marches westward on January 27, 1945; the American liberation of camps in Germany after the British entered Belsen; until the final Soviet assault on Berlin in late April and early May 1945.

Moreover, and secondly, liberation, was a process that, as we see so dramatically in this film, did not end with the arrival of the Allies and the announcement to desperate or apathetic inmates that “you are free”. For all too many who had endured too much horror, too much privation, liberation was only the prelude to death – and for others it was just the beginning of a process that especially for Jews (in contrast for example to political prisoners who often did have a nation, home, and family to return to) usually meant confronting the loss of their entire (or almost their entire) families and the recognition that their former homes, particularly in Eastern Europe, were now, as they said, “vast graveyards”. “Even as Jewish survivors gradually regrouped and started new lives and families, generally within the confines of Displaced Persons (DP) camps – like the one that was erected on the grounds of the former Panzer Training School in Belsen and where Menachen Rosensaft’s parents became such important leaders – they often said, certainly at the beginning, “we have been liberated from death but not yet freed for life”. That was a process in which the DP camps scattered throughout Austria, Italy, and especially the American zone of Germany – although Belsen in the British zone was the single largest such camp – with their revival of Jewish culture, the making of new families and the birth of babies, and the development of political agency with dreams and activism for a Jewish homeland in Palestine – played a crucial role. But it was also a process that probably lasts a lifetime, perhaps even into the next generations.

And thirdly, and very importantly for understanding the evolution of Belsen, even at liberation, “only” about 55% of the surviving inmate population was Jewish, most of them Jewish women who had recently arrived on death marches from other labor and death camps. Indeed it is instructive to remember that in October 1942 Heinrich Himmler declared that camps within the German Reich were to be judenfrei and most Jewish prisoners were deported to the East. Even to be a prisoner in Germany’s wretched concentration camp (KZ) system was a “privilege” to be denied Jews – until the end when the emaciated ill and dying survivors of death marches arrived in places like Ravensbrück and Belsen, causing catastrophic conditions of overcrowding, starvation and disease. Only at the very end does Belsen really become part of the Holocaust in the way that we understand it today; the National Socialist camp system was a vast multifarious enterprise, controlled by competing agencies and officials, both within and outside the Reich; a murderous military industrial complex that also incarcerated, as was the case in Belsen, Sinti and Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, political prisoners (from Communists to partisans of all political hues, participants in the failed July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, or survivors of the Polish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1944), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and so-called “asocials,” the latter groups mostly “Aryan”. And even among Jews, there were extreme differences in conditions, between for example the “privileged” in the so-called residence/detention camp, many of them Dutch Jews, and/or Jews with valid entry visas for Palestine, and the masses who, like Anne Frank, crowded into the camp at the very end.  

That is the larger picture. Now where does Belsen, this very peculiar place, fit in?

The history of Belsen is layered and changes dramatically over time. It was not one camp, but many different camps, at different times and even at the same time, culminating finally in a rather different kind of camp, the Bergen Belsen Displaced Persons camp, which despite British efforts to rename as Belsen –Hohne, the survivors insisted on naming and memorializing as Belsen.

The history of Bergen Belsen camp starts already in 1936 when c. 3000 German and Polish workers were drafted to build a military training ground in northern Germany, about 12 miles south of the town of Celle; after the fall of France, those workers were exchanged for French and Belgian POWs. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the first Soviet POWs arrive in July; by November some 21,000 have been delivered into horrendous conditions, with no adequate food or medical care. Especially Jews and politicals among the prisoners were murdered, the rest died of typhus (already a huge problem), hunger, and cold. It is important to note that these horrific Stalags were under the command of the regular Wehrmacht, not the SS.

Until 1943, even as a string of concentration camps was established within Germany, and ghettoes and extermination centers were built up in occupied Poland and Soviet Union, Bergen Belsen remained solely a POW camp, which it also continued to be until January 1945. 

Only in April 1943, at the height of the war and shortly after the February/March Factory Action in Berlin had essentially emptied Germany of its last “full” Jews except those very few who managed to endure in hiding, was a portion of Belsen POW camp taken over by a SS Branch. The Economic Administration Office (WHA) turned it into two different kinds of camps, a so-called “civilian residence camp” (rather than internment camp which would have made it subject to inspection by the Red Cross) and a “prisoners’ camp (Häftlingslager) which included two camps especially for women.

By the middle of 1944, Belsen had been further divided into various different camps: for “exchange” Jews, “Neutrals”, criminals, and political prisoners, all separate. Everywhere there was hierarchy; potentially privileged Jews included Poles who also held other more valuable nationalities, some 7500 Dutch Jews who were released shortly before the British took over; a Hungarian camp maintained in relatively good condition for Jews who were ransomed in 1944, others with special claims and connections, and as Ben Shepherd points out in his valuable carefully researched book, After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen Belsen, 1945 (New York: Schocken, 2005), perhaps the most valuable document of all – valid entry permits for Palestine.

By end of 1944 as the transports from the East kept arriving and the overcrowding became more and more catastrophic, Belsen became a death camp; and appropriately Joseph Kramer was dispatched from Auschwitz to be the commandant of this transformed camp. Only in January, as the Red Army advanced, was part of the POW camp dissolved and turned into the large Frauenlager, with women “evacuated” from other camps, including sub and labor camps in the East. In August 1944 came the establishment of the notorious tent camp, all pretense of orderly camp administration vanished. From October to December 1944 some 8000 women arrived from Auschwitz, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

Just to give you a sense of how the camp changed over time (and this process was not so different for other camps located with the German Reich): by the end of July 1944 only the complex counted only 7300 inmates, by early December 1944 there were 15,000, and in  February 1945, 22,000, with numbers growing daily and food rations shrinking to virtually nothing. More and more inmates were crowded in; women from Auschwitz, men from Neuengamme, up to 30,000 from Mittelbau Dora as the Americans approached. The closer the end of the war, the more catastrophic and dangerous the situation became for the inmates who were still clinging to life.

In February 1945 the second and worse typhus epidemic broke out and conditions descended into apocalyptic chaos. Some managed to hang on; exchange Jews, for example, tried to sell and barter what possessions they had left, and desperate women attempted to trade the two possible currencies of survival, money and their bodies, for a chance at life.  In the midst of all of this horror, two extraordinary women, one a dentist named Hadassah Bimko along with a self-trained  young Polish Jewish nurse named Luba Tryszynska, managed to keep alive in the inmate hospital a group of Dutch Jewish children. But the overwhelming story was of death and dying: no food, no water, no latrines, the excremental assault of which Terence des Pres wrote so eloquently in his book, The Survivor (1), while the fighting was still going on, further disrupting the water supply.

It was at this point that the Nazis, fearful of the “Eastern plague”, the “Jewish Fever” as they named typhus – as of course were the British who needed to keep their fighting men going – made their move to get rid of the nightmare camp. On March 1, 1945 Commander Kramer informed his superiors of the desperate conditions and finally on March 19, Himmler’s deputy Oswald Pohl toured Belsen and decided to move the exchange Jews out, thereby rescuing the Dutch Jews who were liberated on their trains by American and Soviet troops. At the same time, international and Jewish organizations, well aware that the end was near and that perhaps some Jews could still be saved, were working frantically to arrange some sort of deals. Hitler resisted these efforts but they played into Himmler’s delusional hopes that he could still somehow negotiate himself into a favored position with the Allies. Through the bizarre liaison work of his   masseur, Himmler met with Swedish Count Bernadotte who would also organize the famous white buses that took inmates from Ravensbruck KZ toward Sweden and even secretly in Berlin with a representative of the World Jewish Congress. By now there were desperate fears that typhus could devastate Germany as fully as the Allied bombs.

On April 6, SS Officer Kurt Becher, a relative “moderate” it seems, more interested in plunder than murder, took over as Reich Special Commissioner for the Affairs of all Jewish and political prisoners. After inspecting the horror camp on April 10, 1945, he decided, together with Kramer, that the best solution would be to try and hand over -- i.e. surrender -- the camp to the British as soon as possible. Himmler swiftly agreed. The Wehrmacht officers, led by their ranking officer Col. Harries, in the nearby Panzer (Tank) Training School (which would later become the “human laundry” for disinfecting typhus victims and then the hospital), were forced to seek a truce from the British – a move that, as you see in the film, mightily offended their honor. But there was no choice. On April 13, the Germans and British agreed to establish a “neutral zone” around the plague scorched camp, of 8X6 kilometers.

And so, in one of the stranger -- but also not incomprehensible --  episodes of the war, Bergen Belsen KZ was not conquered or liberated but handed over/surrendered to the British, who, in an indication of the chaos of war’s end, apparently, amazingly, really did not know what they were getting themselves into. They were preoccupied with the military situation and the general control of hunger and epidemics. Indeed their experience of mass human hunger and disease derived from their role as an imperial power in their colonies, especially, as it turned out, in India.

On April 12, Wehrmacht emissaries from the front informed the British General Staff about the camp, while apparently seriously downplaying the dire state of the camp. And indeed, incredibly, given the news that had been reported openly on the BBC, never mind existing intelligence reports, this seems to have been the first time that that the British were so informed. One thinks of the unforgettable images in the original documentary footage of the British tanks with unknowing Tommies, driving through the bucolic Spring countryside, apparently entirely clueless as to what they are about to encounter (and I must say that for me no color docudrama, even one as powerfully made as this made which incorporates some of that footage, can match the power of the original black and white film which still somehow trembles with the shock of the cameraman).

Until the British arrived on April 15th however, delayed by nearby battles – the war is after all still raging – a rump SS remained in nominal charge.  Many had fled, leaving behind a contingent of Hungarian soldiers who had been working under the Germans. On April 15, an advance British guard passed the camp without actually entering; in the afternoon, a tank unit arrived, and Medical Officer Glyn Hughes entered the nightmarish scene. It was at this point that some inmates plundered the food supply and were shot in plain sight by remaining SS and Hungarian soldiers, the event portrayed in the film that so shocked the new occupiers. Finally on April 17, the British take over fully, the Germans are forced to pull out, not to POW camps as they had hoped but to the still dangerous front (their parting present perhaps the sabotaging of the power supply). The Hungarians remain, and play an important role in the relief effort, as will eventually a motley crew of military doctors, fresh-faced medical students, English Red Cross volunteers, and German doctors and nurses and a very few inmate physicians who could still function as such. The Panzer (tank) Training School a few kilometers down the road is chosen as the site of the future hospital; within months it would turn into the DP camp where Menachen Rosensaft was born.

The British took over a camp with some 60,000 inmates, in various stages of fitness and dying, tens of thousands had already died of starvation, typhus, exhaustion, and maltreatment in early 1945. Some 14,000, as we see graphically, expired after their “liberation”. The story of how that happened, the medical, the bureaucratic, the military drama behind all this, the questions of how it might have been prevented, about the cluelessness and rigidity and also the selflessness and heroism of the British responsible is well captured I think --  even if melodramatically – in the film.

The questions that continue to agitate historians and catastrophe specialists – so many of the latter working here at the UN  -- about how to deal with starving dehumanized people, how to keep your own humanity and still somehow recognize the humanity in the often unruly ungrateful “human dregs” as they termed themselves, who make your best efforts so difficult, --these are questions that remain for all of us to address today.  They have not disappeared with the unique event that was the Holocaust or the exterminatory Nazi empire.

(1) Terrence Des Pres, "The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps". Oxford University Press, USA, 1980.