^ The caption for the photograph in the U.S. National Archives reads, "SC208765, Soldiers of the 42nd Infantry Division, U.S. Seventh Army, order SS men to come forward when one of their number tried to escape from the Dachau, Germany, concentration camp after it was captured by U.S. forces. Men on the ground in background feign death by falling as the guards fired a volley at the fleeing SS men. (157th Regt. 4/29/45)."
As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to more prisoners from concentration camps near the front to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau, resulting in a dramatic deterioration of conditions. After days of travel, with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem due to overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
In many instances, their imprisonment was a result of the emergency decree that Adolf Hitler proposed and President Paul Von Hindenberg approved on February 28, 1933. The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State (commonly called the Reichstag Fire Decree) suspended the civil rights of German civilians and prohibited the press from publishing anti-government materials.
But in the spring of 1945, photographs and eyewitness accounts from the liberation of camps like Bergen-Belsen afforded the disbelieving world outside of Europe its first glimpse into the abyss of Nazi depravity. All these years later, after countless reports, books, oral histories and documentary films have constructed a terrifyingly clear picture of the Third Reich's vast machinery of murder, it's difficult to grasp just how shocking these first revelations really were. The most horrific rumors about what was happening to the Jews and millions of other "undesirables—Catholics, pacifists, homosexuals, Slavs—in Nazi-occupied lands paled before the reality revealed by the liberation of the camps.
"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.
Mike Lewis, a Jewish soldier in the British Army, filmed the bulldozers, driven by British soldiers, as they shoved the emaciated bodies towards the mass graves. This documentary film is still shown today at the Memorial Site. In the film, Mike Lewis said that he took a turn driving the bulldozer himself, while another soldier held the camera. The SS men and women were forced, at gunpoint, to carry the bodies with their bare hands to the mass graves.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses, including those of Anne and Margot Frank, lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name "Belsen" emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site.