On April 15, 1945, British troops entered Bergen Belsen. They liberated some 60,000 prisoners, many of whom were on the verge of death. During the first weeks after liberation, close to 500 people in Bergen Belsen died every day. From liberation day until June 20, an estimated 14,000 people died from the terrible conditions that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis during the war.
After the death marches of the winter of 1945—forced evacuations of prisoners from concentration and extermination camps in the east—conditions at Bergen-Belsen deteriorated rapidly, and its death toll climbed. Originally it was designed for 10,000 prisoners but, by war’s end, with the arrival of Jewish prisoners forcibly evacuated from Auschwitz and other eastern camps, it held about 60,000 people, most of whom lacked any food or shelter. Although Bergen-Belsen contained no gas chambers, more than 35,000 people died between January and mid-April 1945 from starvation, overwork, disease, and, toward the war’s end, a typhus epidemic brought about by some of the most squalid, fetid living conditions of any of Germany’s camps. Anne Frank, whose wartime diary later became world-famous, died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in March 1945.
Jewish refugees were the subject of two international conferences, at Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943. Neither conference resulted in any concrete action. In general, Britain treated refugees from Nazi Germany as economic migrants, and took in only those who would be of economic benefit to the country. About 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme, and placed with British families, but their parents were excluded and had to pay for their children's support. The best that can be said for Britain's refugee policy is that it was less ungenerous than that of most other European states at the time.
Germany implemented the persecution of the Jews in stages. Following Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933, the regime built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and those deemed "undesirable", starting with Dachau on 22 March 1933. After the passing of the Enabling Act on 24 March, which gave Hitler plenary powers, the government began isolating Jews from civil society, which included a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933 and enacting the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935. On 9–10 November 1938, during Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass"), Jewish businesses and other buildings were ransacked, smashed or set on fire throughout Germany and Austria, which Germany had annexed in March that year. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Eventually thousands of camps and other detention sites were established across German-occupied Europe.
"Ceremony Recalls Victims of Bergen-Belsen," The Week in Germany (New York: German Information Center), April 27, 1990, p. 6; A figure of 50,000 is also given in Time magazine, April 29, 1985, p. 21; According to a stone memorial at the Belsen camp site, 30,000 Jews were "exterminated" there; A semi-official Polish account published in 1980 reported 48,000 Belsen "victims." Czeslaw Pilichowski, No Time Limit for These Crimes (Warsaw: Interpress, 1980), pp. 154-155.
Women who became pregnant shortly after the Holocaust had not always regained full strength and health. They and their babies were often in danger. There was a constant shortage of proper nutrition in the DP camp, undernourished mothers found it difficult to breastfeed, and there was not enough baby food in the DP camp. The fact that new mothers did not usually have guidance from their own mothers, grandmothers, sisters or aunts, as they would have had in previous happier times, also posed a challenge. As a result, the welfare agencies that operated in Bergen Belsen made great efforts to care for new mothers and babies. Moreover, young mothers at Bergen Belsen reached out to help one another, creating extended "families."
Medical experiments conducted on camp inmates by the SS were another distinctive feature. At least 7,000 prisoners were subjected to experiments; most died as a result, during the experiments or later. Twenty-three senior physicians and other medical personnel were charged at Nuremberg, after the war, with crimes against humanity. They included the head of the German Red Cross, tenured professors, clinic directors, and biomedical researchers. Experiments took place at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Natzweiler-Struthof, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and elsewhere. Some dealt with sterilization of men and women, the treatment of war wounds, ways to counteract chemical weapons, research into new vaccines and drugs, and the survival of harsh conditions.
While there will always be those who question the motives of others, those who have examined Schindler’s efforts find him heroic. “The defining measure of Schindler’s commitment to doing everything possible to save his Jewish workers came in the fall of 1944, when Oskar chose to risk everything to move his armaments factory to Brunnlitz,” writes David Crowe, citing Dr. Moshe Bejski, who was saved by Oskar Schindler during the Holocaust. “Oskar could easily have closed his Krakow operations and retreated westward with the profits he had already made. Instead, he chose to risk his life and his money to save as many Jews as he could.”
Owing to the severe refugee crisis mainly caused by the expulsions of ethnic Germans, the camp was from late 1948 used to house 2000 Germans from Czechoslovakia (mainly from the Sudetenland). This settlement was called Dachau-East, and remained until the mid-1960s. During this time, former prisoners banded together to erect a memorial on the site of the camp, finding it unbelievable that there were still people (refugees) living in the former camp.
Denazification courts were created by the Allies to try members of the SS and other Nazi organisations. Between 1947 and 1949 these courts initiated proceedings against at least 46 former SS staff at Belsen. Around half of these were discontinued, mostly because the defendants were considered to have been forced to join the SS.:39 Those who were sentenced received prison terms of between four and 36 months or were fined. As the judges decided to count the time the defendants had spent in Allied internment towards the sentence, the terms were considered to have already been fully served.
The survivors at Bergen Belsen, living under improved conditions, began to establish educational institutions shortly after liberation. They set up an elementary school as early as July 1945. After three years the number of pupils in the elementary school had grown to 340. This number was impressive considering that most children did not survive the Holocaust. In December 1945 the survivors founded a high school, where studies were carried out with the help of soldiers from the Jewish Brigade. Over the course of time the number of pupils in the high school reached 200. The school also included a yeshiva (institute of higher Jewish learning). The DP camp also had kindergartens, an orphanage and ORT vocational training institutions.There was a lively theatrical life in Bergen Belsen. In addition, the main Jewish newspaper in British-occupied Germany, "Unzer Sztyme" ("Our Voice") was published there.
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case. Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees. This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency. The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.