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.
On arrival at Belsen with his kommondo on the night of what he believes was April 5, he was placed in a hut which was in a state of filth and overcrowding which nobody in the outside world ever dreamed could exist before Belsen was discovered. The next morning, after a roll-call lasting from 3.30 to 9, he inspected the next hut, a long, low building. Looking through a hole where a window had been, he saw one or two bodies lying about in the water on the floor of what had been the wash-place. Looking through other windows he saw piles of bodies systematically stacked, each one’s head resting on the chest of the man or woman below. The whole building was full of corpses.
On April 17, 1945, two days after the first British soldiers arrived, British Medical units were at the scene. The first thing they did was to set up a hospital area in the barracks of the German Army training camp nearby. Also on that date, the British arrested the entire personnel of the SS Commandant's office, the 50 men and 30 women who had voluntarily stayed behind to help the British manage the catastrophe. A Jewish Camp Committee was organized by the survivors, under the leadership of Josef Rosensaft.
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.
By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.
Overall, the Dachau concentration camp system included 123 sub-camps and Kommandos which were set up in 1943 when factories were built near the main camp to make use of forced labor of the Dachau prisoners. Out of the 123 sub-camps, eleven of them were called Kaufering, distinguished by a number at the end of each. All Kaufering sub-camps were set up to specifically build three underground factories (Allied bombing raids made it necessary for them to be underground) for a project called Ringeltaube (wood pigeon), which planned to be the location in which the German jet fighter plane, Messerschmitt Me 262, was to be built. In the last days of war, in April 1945, the Kaufering camps were evacuated and around 15,000 prisoners were sent up to the main Dachau camp. Typhus alone was estimated to have caused 15,000 deaths between December 1944 and April 1945. "Within the first month after the arrival of the American troops, 10,000 prisoners were treated for malnutrition and kindred diseases. In spite of this one hundred prisoners died each day during the first month from typhus, dysentery or general weakness".
In spite of the Jewish "holy war" against the Nazis, there were no Jews sent to a concentration camp solely because they were Jewish during the first five and a half years that the Nazi concentration camps were in existence. Jews were sent to Dachau from day one, but it was because they were Communists or trade union leaders, not because they were Jewish. The first Jews to be taken into "protective custody," simply because they were Jews, were arrested during the pogrom on the night of November 9th & 10th in 1938, which the Nazis named Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass).
State of Health. The incidence of disease is very high here in proportion to the number of detainees. When you interviewed me on Dec. 1, 1944, at Oranienburg, you told me that Bergen-Belsen was to serve as a sick camp for all concentration camps in north Germany. The number of sick has greatly increased, particularly on account of the transports of detainees that have arrived from the East in recent times -- these transports have sometimes spent eight or fourteen days in open trucks ...
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.