By Lord Pickles
Today, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. This is a very British story, it is our story, one that as the co-chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation I am proud to say will feature in the new Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre next to the Houses of Parliament. I am also pleased that the UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Newark and the Holocaust Educational Trust, are working hard to help support teachers in educating young people about the Bergen-Belsen story.
Bergen-Belsen was the most significant site liberated by the British. By spring 1945 it held the largest concentration of Jewish men women and children incarcerated in the Nazi camp system. Tens of thousands had died or were dying from starvation and disease. Liberation was an ambiguous experience, characterised by trauma for those liberated and liberators but also a feeling of joy, that they had survived.
The impact of liberating Bergen-Belsen is possibly the single biggest event in shaping British awareness of the Holocaust. Bergen-Belsen was a unique camp in the history of the Holocaust, even though it had no connection with the murder of Jewish men, women and children for most of the war. The camp was first established at the site in north-western Germany in 1940 to hold French and Belgian prisoners of war. It was extended in 1941 to accommodate Soviet POWs, 14,000 of whom died over the following winter as part of a deliberate policy of starvation.
Its nature changed significantly in the spring of 1943 when most POWs were sent elsewhere, and its first Jewish prisoners arrived; it was also at this time that it became part of the concentration camp system. In this first period as a ‘Jewish’ camp, Belsen was almost the exact opposite of what it would later become: not a dumping ground for dying people but a special camp for relatively privileged prisoners, who included citizens of neutral countries, holders of visas from such countries, and, above all, so-called ‘exchange Jews’ held in readiness for potential trade for German prisoners in Allied countries or cash payments. Although few of these deals ever occurred, and 2,000 Polish Jews with entry papers for neutral countries were deported to Auschwitz after a few months, conditions in the camp seemed better for Jews than almost any other institution in the Nazi system.
This situation was transformed dramatically by two developments in 1944. The first was Belsen’s designation in the spring of that year as a ‘rest camp’ for sick prisoners from other camps, who were in effect brought there to die. This was followed in the autumn by the beginning of transports from camps in the East, especially Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first major arrival was a transport of 8,000 women from Auschwitz, which included Anne Frank and her sister Margot. There were insufficient barracks, so the women were accommodated in specially erected tents which blew down in heavy storms in November.
Then, from January 1945 onwards, tens of thousands of mostly Jewish prisoners were brought to Belsen, which was totally incapable of accommodating the influx. Lack of food, shelter and sanitation and a consequent typhus epidemic caused the deaths of 18,000 people in March alone. By April 1945, there were an estimated 53,000 people held in the camp, many of them on the brink of death from disease and starvation. This was not planned systematic genocide of the type that had characterised the Holocaust until late 1944; rather, it was the consequence of the chaotic collapse of the Third Reich, exacerbated, of course, by a complete lack of concern for the welfare of the prisoners.
It was these scenes which greeted the British troops of 11th Armoured Division, who entered the camp on the afternoon of 15 April 1945. A scene described by Richard Dimbleby, the first broadcaster to enter the camp, as scenes of ‘almost unimaginable horror’.
Richard Dimbleby was so overcome by what he saw that he broke down several times while making his report. The BBC initially refused to play the report, as they could not believe the scenes he had described, and it was only broadcast after Dimbleby threatened to resign.
What is remarkable is that out of the unimaginable horror of Bergen-Belsen came new life. A displaced people’s camp was set up near by the original camp and was the largest displaced persons’ camp in Germany. This was at a time when over 250,000 displaced, homeless Jewish survivors sought to recover from the destruction of their families and communities, regain their physical health, and gather the strength and hope to create new families and new homes in new lands. For five years, Bergen-Belsen became a self-governed Jewish community with political, cultural, religious, educational, and social activities that renewed Jewish life and a vibrant centre of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and rebirth.
As well as being the co-Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation, I am also the current chair of the international committee of the Arolsen Archive, formerly known as the International tracing Service. The International Tracing Service was a remarkable endeavour and the result of a wartime British initiative which assisted in reuniting families or in finding information on the fate of victims in the aftermath of the war. I am immensely proud of this institution which houses the world’s most comprehensive archive on the victims and survivors of National Socialism. The collection has information on about 17.5 million people and belongs to the UNESCO’s Memory of the World.
Our own Wiener Library based in London has a copy of the archive and through the Library the British connection with the Holocaust continues. 75 years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the Wiener Library continues to trace relatives of loved ones murdered during the Holocaust. The Library’s ITS research support has contributed to dozens of family reunions over the last seven years. The most recent reunion took place in January 2020, facilitating an introduction between two cousins, both of whom thought their family branch was the only surviving group of a far larger family wiped out by Nazi persecution: “Your note took my breath away, I am reading this stunned…many thanks for all you do for so many…G-d bless you. A family reunion to come.”