Politics & Policy

Bergen-Belsen through the Eyes of Its Liberator

A prisoner at Bergen-Belsen, April 1945 (Keystone/Getty Images)
Seventy years ago today, the British Army entered the infamous camp.

In the spring of 1945, with Germany near defeat, Heinrich Himmler countermanded Hitler’s order to kill the remaining concentration-camp inmates. Bergen-Belsen, located in northern Germany, near the town of Celle, was turned over to the advancing British Army.

On April 15, Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, deputy director of medical services for the British Second Army, entered the camp. He sent his reconnaissance party to check on food and water supplies, the availability of electricity, and the method of administration. What did they find? Not a blade of grass. Copious amounts of barbed wire. Bare cookhouses. Thousands of emaciated human beings stumbling along, hanging onto ten-foot-high barbed-wire fences for support, or lying where they had fallen.

Five compounds held 41,000 prisoners. With no working lavatories, the effects of dysentery fouled the overcrowded huts and the entire area around them. More than 10,000 corpses lay in piles on the ground. Hughes learned that 18,000 inmates had died the previous month. An enormous grave pit was half filled.

That evening, back at his billet, the 52-year-old officer sank into despair. He was expert at evacuating casualties. He could organize personnel and communications, medical and surgical teams, and hospitals. He had overseen burials, and controlled chaos during rescue missions. But in this hell, where to begin?

The next day, Hughes and Lieutenant Colonel R. I. G. Taylor, commanding officer of the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, traveled in a convoy of army vehicles down the dirt road bisecting the camp. They passed water tanks, a gallows, and cookhouses. They observed hundreds, then thousands, of skeletal figures staggering toward them.

A loudspeaker atop one of the vehicles blared an announcement: The camp is now under the control of the British Army; food and medical aid are being rushed up; help us and yourselves by obeying our instructions.

Surveying the camp on foot, Hughes and Taylor met aimless, ragged men and women. Around a concrete pit containing a few inches of dirty water, some tried to fill tins tied to the ends of long sticks. Hughes wept.

A distraught woman ran up to him and grabbed his sleeve. She asked whether he understood French. He nodded. With bloody hands she pulled him toward her block. There he saw why Dr. Gisella Perl was frantic. She was attending a woman who had just given birth. The baby was safe, but blood gushed from the mother’s typhus-infected body. Hughes ordered water and disinfectant.

The next day, Dr. Ada Bimko, who was caring for 150 children in a protected barracks, guided Hughes around the camp. Entering hut after hut, he realized the magnitude of the work ahead. Living skeletons shared bunks and floor space with the dead. They used the dead as pillows and mattresses. They wore filthy clothing or none at all; there was little in the way of straw or blankets. Tearful, he vowed to save as many he could.

Hughes then initiated a newcomer: BBC news correspondent Richard Dimbleby. He told Dimbleby, “I hope you have a strong stomach; you’re going to see something horrible.” When their slow-moving vehicle swerved around a man who fell in front of it, Hughes leaned out twice to look at him, the second time pronouncing him dead. He told the incredulous reporter: “There are 10,000 people dying here, and 10,000 dead.”

Following Hughes on foot, the dazed correspondent stepped over bodies in and outside of dark huts. In one hut, they heard a voice above the moaning. A girl with dark holes for eyes and skin like yellow parchment stretched out her “stick of an arm.” She repeated the words “English” and “medicine.” Hughes guessed she was 20. He knew she would die within minutes.

Dimbleby grasped how once-dignified people had stopped caring about convention. Women squatted, searching themselves for lice. Dysentery sufferers strained helplessly. Thousands shambled through germ-laden dust.

With the impending heat of summer, Hughes saw no alternative but to bury the victims as quickly as possible. On April 18, Rabbi Leslie Hardman arrived to see a bulldozer digging a pit for 5,000 bodies. “Is it not possible to show reverence to the dead?” he asked. Hughes promised that he would send for him after the work was done, so that the rabbi could say prayers over the dead.

Bernice Lerner is the author of All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

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