We continued to sing, to laugh, to dream, before the flames of the bonfires. We knew nothing as yet of the three hundred dead, twice the daily average of the last weeks before the liberation. We could not foresee that this figure would go even higher in the months to come and that our captivity was still far from being over. We could not admit that there were some among us who would never leave Dachau alive, as its inexorable law demanded. Dachau was to become in a way the symbol of all Europe, which believed itself freed, but was really only changing masters.
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.
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After a day’s journey, we arrived at Bergen-Belsen. This concentration camp was hopelessly overcrowded and we were not accepted. The right hand no longer knew what the left hand was doing, so we were sent to an adjoining Wehrmacht compound. As the soldiers of the Wehrmacht marched out, we moved in. The confusion was unbelievable; this time it was disorder with German perfection. We were moved into clean barracks, equipped for human beings with excellent bathrooms and clean beds stacked three on top of each other. After all we had experienced in the preceding year, this was sheer luxury. There was no mention of the usual camp rituals, no roll calls and no work, but also no food.
Compared to the appalling number of men, women and children killed at the Nazi extermination camps—places like Sobibor, Chelmno, Treblinka and others where, cumulatively, millions perished—the death toll at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany was (a horrible thing to say!) relatively small. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone; at Belsen, by most estimates, fewer than 100,000 died—from starvation and disease (typhus, for example), as well as outright slaughter.
The site is open to the public and includes monuments to the dead, including a successor to the wooden cross of 1945, some individual memorial stones and a "House of Silence" for reflection. In addition to the Jewish, Polish and Dutch national memorials, a memorial to eight Turkish citizens who were killed at Belsen was dedicated in December 2012.
According to Herbert Stolpmann, who was a former German soldier working for the US military at Dachau after the liberation of the camp, some of the Dachau prisoners lived with families in the town of Dachau during the war and worked for them. Stolpmann's father-in-law owned the Bielmeier bakery, which supplied bread for the prisoners in the camp. Two Russian boys, aged 13 and 14, lived with the family and worked at the bakery, which was called an Arbeitskommando or Work Commando. When the boys reached the ages of 16 and 17, they were taken to the camp and executed. They had been sentenced to death after they were captured as Partisans, but under the German law, no one under the age of 16 could be executed. The Bielmeier family also had a French woman from the Dachau camp living with them; she was engaged to be married to an SS guard, but she was also taken away, never to be seen again.
When the 42nd U.S. Infantry Division liberated Dachau on April 29, 1945, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its sub camps. American soldiers nearing the camp were appalled at the more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies brought to Dachau. Inside the camp, the Americans discovered approximately 32,000 prisoners, crammed 1,600 to each of 20 barracks designed to house only 250 people.
Typhus, transmitted by body lice, which had been prevalent in the ghettos and death camps in occupied Poland throughout the war, now spread to the concentration camps in Germany. After January 1945, conditions in all of Germany and Austria, including the concentration camps, became intolerable due to the chaos caused by the intensive Allied bombing of civilian areas in all the major cities.