On 15 April 1945, British troops liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The camp was established in the north of Germany in 1940 and originally functioned as a prisoner of war camp, initially housing French and Belgian soldiers. In July 1941 Soviet prisoners of war began arriving at the camp. Within one year approximately 18,000 of the 20,000 inmates had died of disease, hunger or cold.
In April 1943 control of the camp was handed over to the SS who established a ‘detention camp’, primarily for Jewish prisoners. However, Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men, ‘asocials’ and criminals were also imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen.
As Allied forces liberated concentration camps closer to the frontline the Germans transferred prisoners from these camps to Bergen-Belsen. In the period from July 1944 to April 1945 the camp population grew from approximately 7,300 to over 60,000. The inhumane conditions in the camp, including lack of adequate food and water, poor sanitation, overcrowding and lack of shelter led to the spread of diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever and tuberculosis.
When the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945 they found over 60,000 prisoners, the majority of whom were emaciated and suffering from various diseases. The liberators also found over 13,000 dead bodies.
Liberation did not mean an end to the suffering of the prisoners. In the days following the arrival of the British Army approximately 500 prisoners a day continued to die as a result of the maltreatment they had previously received. Approximately 50,000 prisoners, the majority of whom were Jewish, were murdered at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Following the liberation of Bergen-Belsen the camp buildings were burnt to the ground to stop the spread of disease. British troops established a displaced persons’ camp in a nearby German military school to house over 11,000 Holocaust survivors. This camp was in operation until 1951.
Find out more:
- The liberation of camps
- BBC reporter Richard Dimbleby’s broadcast from Bergen-Belsen soon after its liberation.
- The testimony of a liberator Iolo Lewis.
Image: © Wiener Library