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Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

Bergen-Belsen

Conditions inside Bergen-Belsen were extremely poor. Following liberation, the British troops relocated the surviving prisoners and burnt down the camp in an attempt to stop the spread of disease.

Conditions inside Bergen-Belsen were extremely poor. Following liberation, the British troops relocated the surviving prisoners and burnt down the camp in an attempt to stop the spread of disease.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Bergen-Belsen was initially established in May 1940 as a prisoner of war camp, named Stalag 311. It was situated in north Germany.

In spring 1943, Himmler ordered the creation of a camp to hold Jewish prisoners who might be used in exchange schemes with the Allies. These prisoners either had connections to places such as the United States of America or Palestine, or were viewed to be of particularly high value for other reasons.

Establishment of Bergen-Belsen

A photograph showing one section of Bergen-Belsen, enclosed by barbed wire.

A photograph showing one section of Bergen-Belsen, enclosed by barbed wire.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

On 30 April 1943, approximately 500 people arrived at Bergen-Belsen on a transport from Buchenwald. These prisoners were held in a section of Bergen-Belsen called the Prisoner Camp. Over the following two months, these prisoners were forced to convert the former prisoner of war camp into a concentration camp. The prisoners focused on constructing the Residence Camp, which became the main holding area for future prisoners. The Prisoner Camp was closed in February 1944 following the completion of the Residence Camp. However, it was quickly reopened as a camp for the sick and prisoners in transit to other camps.

Both the Prisoner Camp and the Residence Camp were split into several different sections, which segregated different groups of prisoners.

From July 1943 onwards, large amounts of prisoners arrived at the camp. These prisoners totalled approximately 15,000 people by the end of the year. They were primarily housed in the Residence Camp.

In 1945, Bergen-Belsen started to receive inmates from various other camps across the eastern half of the Third Reich. By March 1945, the prisoner population was approximately 45,000 prisoners, leading to severe overcrowding in all sections of the camp.

Conditions inside Bergen-Belsen

Throughout its existence, conditions inside the Bergen-Belsen were poor, as there was a lack of food, clean water and sanitation. As a result, disease was common. Despite this, as the Nazis hoped to use some of the prisoners in exchange schemes, there was a higher regard for prisoner welfare than at other camps. As the historian Nik Wachsmann puts it, conditions inside the camp were initially ‘poor but sufferable’ [Nik Wachsmann, KL, A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, (Great Britain: Little, Brown, 2015), p.337.

Some prisoners, such as those housed in the Star Camp, were also forced to complete heavy labour – usually on maintaining or expanding the camp.

As the prisoners placed at Bergen-Belsen had the potential to be used in exchange schemes with the Allies, many hoped that they would soon be released from the camp. However, in fact, by the end of 1944, the Nazis had exchanged just 2,300 prisoners out of the 120,000 people who passed through the camp.

By 1945, Germany was losing the war and the Allies were closing in on their occupied territories. As the Nazis were pushed into retreat, they ordered the evacuation of concentration camp prisoners in the East to camps within Germany. These evacuations were called death marches.

As the death marches began to arrive at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, the camp reached breaking point. Overcrowding was severe, conditions were abysmal, disease was widespread and starvation was extremely common. In some instances, this starvation led to occurrences of cannibalism. There was very little food or clean water, and a typhus epidemic spread across the camp.

In the month of March 1945 alone, 18,168 prisoners died.

Liberation of Bergen-Belsen

By early 1945, the Allies had crossed over the Rhine river and were pushing the German Army into a quick retreat. On 12 April 1945, the Nazis agreed to surrender the Bergen-Belsen camp. On 15 April 1945, the British troops officially occupied and liberated the camp.

The huge influxes of prisoners following the death marches of early 1945 meant that conditions within the camp were extremely inhumane. Over 60,000 starving and extremely ill people had been left in the camp by the Nazis. These people were surrounded by the bodies of 13,000 more people who had recently died. The British troops were completely unprepared for such conditions, and were extremely shocked by what they found.

In the immediate aftermath of the liberation, over 500 people died each day as a result of the extremely poor sanitation and widespread disease.

The British attempted to control the spread of disease by setting up temporary hospitals in the German Army’s former barracks, and burning down the dirty lice-infested huts that the prisoners had previously occupied. Despite British efforts, in May 1945 – a month after the relief operation had started – approximately 100 prisoners still died every day.

In total, over 50,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen throughout its existence.

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What was the Final Solution?

What was the Final Solution?

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