Moshe Peer has spent many years writing a first-person account of the horror he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen. He recalls the separation from his parents as excruciating. But surviving the horrors of the camp quickly became a priority: `There were pieces of corpses lying around and there were bodies lying there, some alive and some dead,` Peer recalled, `Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz because there people were gassed right away so they didn't suffer a long time ...` Russian prisoners were kept in an open-air camp and were given no food or water. `Some people went mad with hunger and turned to cannibalism.`
In her book Five Chimneys the Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel later recalled the SS troops in fits of destructive insanity, blindly beating the sick women, kicking the pregnant: 'Kramer himself had lost his calm. A strange gleam lurked in his small eyes, and he worked like a madman. I saw hin throw himself at one unfortunate woman and with a single stroke of his truncheon shatter her skull ..'
Hundreds of prisoners suffered and died, or were executed in medical experiments conducted at KZ Dachau, for which Sigmund Rascher was in charge. Hypothermia experiments involved exposure to vats of icy water or being strapped down naked outdoors in freezing temperatures. Attempts at reviving the subjects included scalding baths, and forcing naked women to copulate with the unconscious victim. Nearly 100 prisoners died during these experiments. The original records of the experiments were destroyed "in an attempt to conceal the atrocities".[a]
A final and complete deterioration of the prisoners living conditions set in when tens of thousands of prisoners poured in – survivors of the death marches who had been evacuated from the camps in the east. These included 20,000 women prisoners from the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camps who had passed through the Gross- Rosen concentration camp on the death march to Bergen-Belsen.
The mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories were assigned to four SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), which were under Heydrich's overall command. Similar formations had been used to a limited extent in Poland in 1939, but the ones operating in the Soviet territories were much larger. The Einsatzgruppen's commanders were ordinary citizens: the great majority were professionals and most were intellectuals. By the winter of 1941–1942, the four Einsatzgruppen and their helpers had killed almost 500,000 people. The largest massacre of Jews by the mobile killing squads in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941.[n] A mixture of SS and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not actively participate in the killings, men of the German 6th Army helped round up the Jews of Kiev and transport them to be shot. By the end of the war, around two million are thought to have been victims of the Einsatzgruppen and their helpers in the local population and the German Army. Of those, about 1.3 million were Jews and up to a quarter of a million Roma.
Conditions in the camp were good by concentration camp standards, and most prisoners were not subjected to forced labor. However, beginning in the spring of 1944 the situation deteriorated rapidly. In March, Belsen was redesignated an Ehrholungslager [Recovery Camp], where prisoners of other camps too sick to work were brought, though none received medical treatment. As the German Army retreated in the face of the advancing Allies, the concentration camps were evacuated and their prisoners sent to Belsen. The facilites in the camp were unable to accommodate the sudden influx of thousands of prisoners and all basic services - food, water and sanitation - collapsed, leading to the outbreak of disease. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died of typhus in March 1945, along with other prisoners in a typhus epidemic.
Jewish prisoners were concentrated at Bergen-Belsen, hitherto not known as one of the worst camps; but in the chaotic final months of the war conditions were allowed to deteriorate catastrophically. When British troops came across the camp on 15 April 1945, they encountered 10,000 unburied corpses, a raging typhus epidemic and 60,000 sick and dying prisoners crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.
Tens of thousands of Jews held in the eastern territories were marched towards the heart of Germany so they could not bear witness to the Allies. Aware that the world had been alerted to the horrors of the camps, the Nazis sought to destroy evidence. In June, Soviet forces liberated the first major camp, known as Majdanek, in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis had burned down the crematorium chimney but had failed to destroy the gas chambers and barracks. Only a few hundred inmates were still alive.
In April, 1943, the camp was converted to a concentration camp, primarily for Jews with foreign passports who could be exchanged for German nationals imprisoned abroad. The camp was renamed Bergen-Belsen. Few Jewish prisoners were ever exchanged for imprisoned Germans, although 200 Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine in exchange for German citizens, and more than 1,500 Hungarian Jews were able to purchase emigration to Switzerland.
Estimates of the number of people who died in Bergen-Belsen have ranged widely over the years. Many have been irresponsible exaggerations. Typical is a 1985 York Daily News report, which told readers that "probably 100,000 died at Bergen-Belsen." /39 An official German government publication issued in 1990 declared that "more than 50,000 people had been murdered" in the Belsen camp under German control, and "an additional 13,000 died in the first weeks after liberation." /40
Following the invasion of Poland, German occupation policy especially targeted the Jews but also brutalized non-Jewish Poles. In pursuit of lebensraum, Germany sought systematically to destroy Polish society and nationhood. The Nazis killed Polish priests and politicians, decimated the Polish leadership, and kidnapped the children of the Polish elite, who were raised as “voluntary Aryans” by their new German “parents.” Many Poles were also forced to perform hard labour on survival diets, were deprived of property and uprooted, and were interned in concentration camps.
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.