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.