The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Imperial War Museums

In the closing months of the war in Europe, forward units of the Allied armies advancing from east and west came across the concentration camps. In April 1945, British troops liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Bergen-Belsen camp had originally been set up in 1943 to hold Jews with overseas passports for a possible prisoner exchange.  

By spring 1945, the camp held mainly Jewish survivors of the death marches, the forced movement of prisoners from camps in the East as the Nazis retreated from the Russian advance.  

Conditions in the camp were allowed to deteriorate badly in the last months of the war.

When British soldiers entered Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, they encountered appalling scenes. 

Some 60,000 starving and mortally ill people were packed together in barracks without food or water, whilst around them 10,000 unburied corpses lay strewn.

Major Dick Williams describes the terrible conditions in the camp

Disease was rife, with former prisoners suffering from dysentery, typhus and tuberculosis. 

Many were suffering from various stages of malnutrition.

Prisoners eating their first meal after the liberation of the camp
'Belsen camp: the compound for women', by Leslie Cole
Major Hugh Stewart describes the terrible suffering he witnessed

Relief efforts began which saw urgent supplies and personnel brought into the camp to assist. 

British forces had to bury the dead, isolate those with contagious diseases and provide diets for the starving survivors.  

Anita Lasker, a young German Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen camp after a death march from Auschwitz recalled:

'I remember the liberation very clearly. I wasn't very well at the time.

We were quite a formidable mass of people. The British didn't know what to do with us: how to feed us, what the next move should be - it must have been a very difficult situation for them, apart from the fact that what they saw was hideous.

At that time, I had been there for the best part of six months. I remember that a lot of people died because they suddenly started to eat. How I escaped that, I really don't know.

They wanted to send messages to find out if people had any family. In England, for instance, they would play it on the BBC. I had a sister here in those days and an uncle in America, and the message was broadcast, "This is Anita Lasker speaking. I have a sister. I am alive." and that's how my sister found out that I was still alive.'

'Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945', by Doris Zinkeisen
Two girls recovering from typhus
Food distribution
Lieutenant Colonel M W Gonin describes the illnesses suffered by former inmates of the camps

Images from this camp and others were disseminated through newsreels and the press across the world.

Relief organisations sought to assist in the rehabilitation process.

The repatriation of survivors continued long after the war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945. By late 1945 most survivors had gone home. The rest remained in Displaced Persons’ camps set up by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, sometimes for several years until these finally began to empty in 1948.

Menorah, created from a Sten gun's bullet case and cartridges, made by a soldier after liberation
Male doll made by a survivor after liberation
Female doll made by a survivor after liberation
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