While the labour camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek used inmates for slave labour to support the German war effort, the extermination camps at Belzec, Treblinka, and Sobibor had one task alone: killing. At Treblinka a staff of 120, of whom only 30 were SS (the Nazi paramilitary corps), killed some 750,000 to 925,000 Jews during the camp’s 17 months of operation. At Belzec German records detail a staff of 104, including about 20 SS, who killed some 500,000 Jews in less than 10 months. At Sobibor they murdered between 200,000 and 250,000. These camps began operation during the spring and summer of 1942, when the ghettos of German-occupied Poland were filled with Jews. Once they had completed their missions—murder by gassing, or “resettlement in the east,” to use the language of the Wannsee protocols—the Nazis closed the camps. There were six extermination camps, all in German-occupied Poland, among the thousands of concentration and slave-labour camps throughout German-occupied Europe.
Some of the inmates were exempt from work because they were too old or too young, but a few of the older prisoners worked on the herb farm. According to Paul Berben, "Statistics made by the camp administration on 16th February 1945 list 2,309 men and 44 women aged between 50 and 60 and 5,465 men and 12 women over 60." These figures are for the main camp at Dachau and all the subcamps.
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian unit. At the time of liberation, the camp had been without food or water for three to five days. As Matthew Nesbitt, a Canadian liberator, recounted, "…the first thing we had to do when we got to camp. Prior to even distributing the food. And that was to make sure we used the guards to separate the living from the dead, from the huts, because first of all, if we are going to save anybody, we had to know who was alive and who had to be buried…The only way you could do that was to go into each individual hut and shake whoever was on that little slab…if they didn't move, they were dead."
After 1945 the name was applied to the displaced persons camp established nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration camp. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there. Overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.