Since March 1945, around 15,000 new prisoners had been accommodated in a camp that was originally designed for 5,000 men. By the time the liberators arrived, there were over 30,000 prisoners in the camp. There was a typhus epidemic in the camp but the Germans had no DDT, nor typhus vaccine, available to stop it. Up to 400 prisoners per day were dying of typhus by the time that the Americans arrived. There was no coal to burn the bodies in the ovens and the staff could not keep up with burying the bodies in mass graves on a hill several miles from the camp.
There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, since the mass killings took place in the camps further east. Nevertheless, current estimates put the number of deaths at Belsen at more than 50,000 Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). Among them was Czech painter and writer Josef Čapek (estimated to be in April 1945). He had coined the word robot, popularised by his brother Karel Čapek.
And it turned out he had chosen the right man. Regulations soon established by Eicke included the standing order that any prisoner would be hanged who: "politicizes, holds inciting speeches and meetings, forms cliques, loiters around with others – who for the purpose of supplying the propaganda of the opposition with atrocity stories, collects true or false information about the concentration camp, receives such information, buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp into the hands of foreign visitors, etc."
By the end of 1934 Hitler was in absolute control of Germany, and his campaign against the Jews in full swing. The Nazis claimed the Jews corrupted pure German culture with their "foreign" and "mongrel" influence. They portrayed the Jews as evil and cowardly, and Germans as hardworking, courageous, and honest. The Jews, the Nazis claimed, who were heavily represented in finance, commerce, the press, literature, theater, and the arts, had weakened Germany's economy and culture. The massive government-supported propaganda machine created a racial anti-Semitism, which was different from the longstanding anti-Semitic tradition of the Christian churches.
As we moved down along the west side of the concentration camp and approached the southwest corner, three people approached down the road under a flag of truce. We met these people about 75 yards north of the southwest entrance to the camp. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and assistant camp commander and that they had come into the camp on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of turning the camp over to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative acted as interpreter and stated that there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower. He said he had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 half-crazed prisoners of war in the camp, many of them typhus infected. He asked if I were an officer of the American army, to which I replied, “Yes, I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42d Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the American army.”
In his book From Belsen to Buckingham Palace Paul Oppenheimer tells of the events leading up to the internment of his whole family at the camp and their incarceration there between February 1944 and April 1945, when he was aged 14–15. Following publication of the book, Oppenheimer personally talked to many groups and schools about the events he witnessed. This work is now continued by his brother Rudi, who shared the experiences.
The 15 men present at Wannsee included Adolf Eichmann (head of Jewish affairs for the RSHA and the man who organized the deportation of Jews), Heinrich Müller (head of the Gestapo), and other party leaders and department heads. Thirty copies of the minutes were made. Copy no. 16 was found by American prosecutors in March 1947 in a German Foreign Office folder. Written by Eichmann and stamped "Top Secret", the minutes were written in "euphemistic language" on Heydrich's instructions, according to Eichmann's later testimony. The conference had several purposes. Discussing plans for a "final solution to the Jewish question" ("Endlösung der Judenfrage"), and a "final solution to the Jewish question in Europe" ("Endlösung der europäischen Judenfrage"), it was intended to share information and responsibility, coordinate efforts and policies ("Parallelisierung der Linienführung"), and ensure that authority rested with Heydrich. There was also discussion about whether to include the German Mischlinge (half-Jews). Heydrich told the meeting: "Another possible solution of the problem has now taken the place of emigration, i.e. the evacuation of the Jews to the East, provided that the Fuehrer gives the appropriate approval in advance." He continued:
Construction on Baracke X began in July 1942, using the labor of the Catholic priests who were the only prisoners not forced to work in the factories at Dachau. The building was finished in 1943, but a sign that was put in the gas chamber in 1965 inexplicably informed tourists that this room was never used for gassing people. By May 2003, the sign was gone and a poster on the wall of the undressing room next to the gas chamber said that the gas chamber "could have been used" to kill prisoners.
On April 29, the day after the German guards completed their gruesome task of 10 days of burying the 10,000 decomposed bodies with their bare hands, they were taken to the prison in the city of Celle, which is 16 kilometers northwest of the camp. Also on that day, April 29, 1945, American soldiers entered the Dachau concentration camp and discovered bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus. The next day, 97 medical students arrived in Bergen-Belsen to help with the sick prisoners, and on May 4th, more British medical units arrived. On that same day, May 4, 1945, part of the German Army surrendered to the British in the area near the camp.
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them:
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.
Of course, over time, we received help from outside. But we laid the foundation for this new community, we built it and ran it ourselves. We received food and books from outside, but we did the work and we can be proud of our efforts, Those who survived will always remember April 15, 1945 as their second birthday - in many ways more important than their first."5
In April 1943, the SS took over the southern section of the camp and turned it into an “exchange camp” for Jewish prisoners. The SS decided in the spring of 1944 to also use the camp for other purposes and additional groups of prisoners. This dramatically changed the character of the camp, the structure of the prisoner society and, above all, the prisoners’ living conditions. When the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated on 15 April 1945, British soldiers found thousands of unburied bodies and tens of thousands of severely ill prisoners.
The names of the Nazis who are mainly responsible for the cruelty toward and murder of the prisoners are the following: Weckerle, Erpsmüller, Dr. Frank, Steinbrenner, Heini Straus, Hofmann and Kantschuster. The great majority of the Storm Troopers did not take part in the torturing of the prisoners. Some of the guards even had the courage openly to oppose the torturing and murdering of prisoners. They were placed in “protective custody.” Several of the Special Police sympathized with the prisoners, so that every third week the guard had to be changed, and only the most brutal were kept permanently at the camp.
During the war, all sorts of other groups of prisoners from the occupied territories were sent to Dachau, and it increasingly became a place of mass murder. In October 1941, several thousand Soviet prisoners of war were deported and subsequently shot. From January 1942 on, some of the prisoners, known as the „invalids“, were taken to the castle of Hartheim near Linz, where they were murdered using gas. A gas chamber was also built in Dachau next to the large crematorium, but it was never used for mass murder. Killing at the camp took place by means of execution, until it was liberated.
From late 1944 to April, 1945, thousands of prisoners-many of them suffering from exposure and starvation from forced marches-flooded Bergen-Belsen from the East. Conditions, never good, deteriorated rapidly. Sanitary facilities were non-existent, food was scarce, the water supply grossly inadequate for the large influx of prisoners. A serious typhus epidemic erupted. In the first few months of 1945, up to 35,000 prisoners died, among them Margot and Anne Frank.
The AFPU recruited from the ranks of the British Army. Many of the photographers and cameramen present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen were tough, hardened by their own experiences of combat. Yet they were deeply shocked by what they witnessed at the camp. AFPU cameraman and photographer Sergeant Mike Lewis came from a Jewish family and describes how witnessing the camp's liberation made real for him the stories of persecution he had been told by his parents. He also reflects on his own reaction to what he had witnessed.
... In Bergen-Belsen, for example, thousands of corpses of Jewish prisoners were found by British soldiers on the day of liberation, which gave the impression that this was one of the notorious extermination camps. Actually, many Jews in Bergen-Belsen as well as in the satellite camps of Dachau died in the last weeks before the end of the war as a result of the quickly improvised retransfers and evacuations of Jewish workers from the still existing ghettos, work camps and concentration camps in the East (Auschwitz) ...
According to Marcus J. Smith, a US military doctor who was assigned to Dachau after it was liberated, there was an "experimental farm, the Plantage" just outside the concentration camp. Smith wrote in his book "The Harrowing of Hell" that "When the Reichsfuehrer SS (Himmler) inspected, he seemed particularly interested in the Plantage, discoursing enthusiastically on the medicinal value of herbs."
Responding with alarm to Hitler’s rise, the Jewish community sought to defend their rights as Germans. For those Jews who felt themselves fully German and who had patriotically fought in World War I, the Nazification of German society was especially painful. Zionist activity intensified. “Wear it with pride,” journalist Robert Weltsch wrote in 1933 of the Jewish identity the Nazis had so stigmatized. Religious philosopher Martin Buber led an effort at Jewish adult education, preparing the community for the long journey ahead. Rabbi Leo Baeck circulated a prayer for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 1935 that instructed Jews on how to behave: “We bow down before God; we stand erect before man.” Yet while few, if any, could foresee its eventual outcome, the Jewish condition was increasingly perilous and was expected to worsen.
It is frequently stated that such cruelties as are outlined above are due to certain deficiencies in the character of the German people. I am strongly opposed to this view, having observed that even among this selected group of Special Police, only about five percent take an active part in, or favor, the brutalities inflicted upon the prisoners. The atrocities committed are the work of a few criminal types who are strongly backed by their superiors. This substantiates the statement made by Dimitroff during the Reichstag trial, that “neither the Bulgarian nor any other people is barbaric, but fascism is barbaric wherever it appears.” The happenings in Dachau were not the uncontrolled actions of minor officials. The camp was continually visited by leading members of the Nazi party and government, among them being Heinrich Himmler, Commander of the Special Police; General Von Epp; Bavarian Minister of the Interior Wagner and others.