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Before Liberation

Belsen before Liberation

As mentioned on the first page about Belsen Camp’s Liberation, there are many stories, recollections, etc covering this event.  What is below is a collection from many websites, the main two are :- http://www.bergenbelsen.co.uk/index.html and http://www.scrapbookpages.com/BergenBelsen/ConcentrationCamp.html

In its 10-year existence under the National Socialist German Workers’ Party control (commonly known as the Nazi Party), the Bergen-Belsen camp was used to house construction workers, Prisoners of War, exchange prisoners, and finally evacuees from Concentration Camps across Europe. Approximately 70,000 of the prisoners interned there, died, mainly through neglect by the administration, their graphic images unleashed upon the world when the British Army liberated the camp on 15th April 1945.

Bergen-Belsen (or Belsen as it was commonly known) is situated in Lower Saxony in north-western Germany, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle.

In March 1935, a Baulager (Construction Workers Camp) was established on the Belsen site. This Camp of 30 Barracks constructed to house 3,000 German and Polish workers building the Bergen military training area and the Bergen-Belsen (now Bergen-Hohne) barracks. The camp is referred to as the ‘Waldlager’ (Forest Camp) as it was built in a heavily wooded area.  In November 1938, the Waldlager (Forest Camp) was used as a material store and armoury until 1940.


May 1940 sees the German Wehrmacht establish a prisoner of war camp in the former Waldlager (Forest Camp) to accommodate the “Arbeitskommando (Working squad) 601” (600 captured French and Belgian soldiers).  This camp was named Stalag XI-C/311.  Conditions in the camp were very basic, with inadequate food and little shelter. 

 In March 1941,Stalag XI-C/311 was moved south within the camp area and identified as a future location for Soviet PoW’s.  200 Serbian PoW’s continue with the development on the north side of the camp.  They build around 30 barrack blocks to act as a PoW field hospital with 700 beds.  Around 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war were sent to the camp between July 1941 and the spring of 1942, of whom about 18,000 died of hunger, cold and disease.  In January 1942 the Soviet PoW’s were dying at the rate of around 300 a day, and at this time Stalag XI C/311 had the highest death rate out of all the camps in the Reich.

In 1942, Belsen became a concentration camp, and part of it was placed under the command of the SS.  SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Adolf Haas is appointed Kommandant of a new special camp, designed to hold prominent European Jews or Jews from neutral countries, which could be exchanged for German citizens interned abroad.  He has approx 90 SS men transferred from Niederhagen (concentration camp near Paderborn) under his command.   In April 1943 2,400 Polish Jews who hold papers from Central and South America arrive.  April/May 43 – 600 prisoners arrive from Buchenwald to help build the Internierunglager (Internment camp).   May 43 – a section of Stalag XI-C/311 is handed over to the SS by the Wehrmacht.  This established the Internierunglager (Internment camp)  for Jews who were intended for exchange for Germans held in internment abroad.  Having initially been designated Zivilinterniertenlager (civilian internment camp), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager (Detention camp), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees.  This was the “Star Camp” (so called because the inmates were made to wear the yellow star badge that designated them Jews).  The Star Camp held several thousand Jews, mainly Dutch Jews, who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries.  Star Camp inmates were made to work, many of them in the “shoe commando” which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and Occupied Europe.  Families were permitted to meet during the day, and in general the Star Camp prisoners were treated less harshly than some other classes of Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value.  July 1943 – the Aufenthaltslager (Detention Camp) is divided into sections:

  • Neutralenlager (Neutral’s Camp): Jewish citizens of neutral countries.
  • Sonderlager (Special Camp): Contains 2,400 Jews who, although of Polish origin from Warsaw, Lemberg and Krakow, are citizens of neutral countries in Latin America and hold Palestine emigration papers.
  • Sternlager (Star Camp) or Vorzugslager (Privileged Camp): Named after the Star of David worn by the prisoners. Contains exchange prisoners.
  • Häftlingslager (Prisoner’s Camp): Contains the prisoners previously held at Buchenwald and Natzweiler that were used to construct the Internierunglager (Internment camp).

 July 1943 – 350 Sephardi Jews (a Jew descended from Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula) mainly from Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece who were citizens of neutral countries (such as Argentina, Portugal, Spain and Turkey) arrive and are held in the Neutralenlager (Neutral’s Camp).  During July, approx 2,500 prisoners from other camps arrive and housed in the Sonderlager (Special Camp).

August 1943 – Schuhkommando (Working party used to recycle shoes) established.  3,300 reported prisoners in camp.  Death rate is 4 per month.  Aug 13th – 74 Greek prisoners arrive from Salonika and are housed in the Neutralenlager (Neutral’s camp).  367 Spanish prisoners arrive from Salonika and are housed in the Neutralenlager (Neutral’s camp).  These prisoners were eventually transported, in February 1944, to an internment camp in North Africa then onto Palestine.  August 30th, 1943 – RSHA (Reich Security Head Office) at Belsen requests no further prisoners as it could only cope with 3,000.

October 1943 – Approx 1,800 Polish prisoners holding ‘promesas’ (promises – Latin American papers, which however were not passports in most cases but so-called “promesas.”  These were letters by consuls of the respective countries saying that citizenship of the state represented by the consul was granted and that a passport would follow soon) from the Sonderlager (Special Camp) are transported to Auschwitz after being told they were being transported to Bergau.  When the prisoners arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau they realised they were in an extermination camp, one woman snatched a pistol from a member of the SS and shot him, and severely wounded another.  Other women attacked the SS with bare hands.  Reinforcements were called, and after they arrived some of the prisoners were shot, others killed with grenades and the remainder gassed in Crematorium III.  There were no survivors from this transport.

 In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager (recovery camp), where prisoners, too sick or ill to work, were brought from other camps.

July 1944 – Frauenlager (Women’s Camp) is established to contain women and girls moved from camps near the eastern front.  Most of these women had to live in large tents during the construction of further huts.  250 exchange Jews exchanged for German nationals.  Start of the arrival of female prisoners especially from Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Approx 250 prisoners live in the Neutralenlager (Neutral’s camp).  This figure increases to 366 by early March 1945 and includes 155 Spanish, 19 Portuguese, 35 Argentineans and 105 Turks.  Approx 200 invalid prisoners suffering from Tuberculosis arrive from Sachsenhausen (camp north of Berlin) and are housed in the Häftlingslager (Prisoners Camp).

July 8th – Ungarnlager (Hungarians’ Camp) established for 1,684 Hungarian Jews due to be sent to Switzerland on what was to become known as the ‘Kastner Train’.  These prisoners did not have to work or attend roll calls.  They were permitted to wear their own civilian clothing.  There were 972 female and 712 male passengers, including 252 children.

August 1944 – Approx 5,000 Polish women arrive from Warsaw and are housed in the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp).  September – 1,750 women arrive from Auschwitz and are housed in the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp).  October – Approx 2,000 women arrive from Auschwitz and are housed in the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp).  In October 1944, captured Polish Home Army soldiers also began arriving at the camp.  November – Approx 3,200 women arrive from Auschwitz and are housed in the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp).  In all there were eight separate sections to the camp with different groups, treated differently according to their status.

2 December 1944 saw the completion of the change-over of Belsen into a concentration camp when SS-Hauptsturmführer (Nazi Party paramilitary rank equivalent to a Captain) Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commander.  Other ‘notable’ persons of this rank were Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie.  Camp SS staff increases to 277 men and 12 women.  The number of inmates in the camp on December 1st, 1944, was approximately 15,250.

December 44 – Approx 4,200 Hungarian prisoners arrive from Strasshof (near Vienna) and Budapest and are housed in the Ungarnlager (Hungarians’ Camp).  Dec 21st  – 1,400 women arrive from Dachau, and are housed in the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp).  Dec 31st – 15,257 prisoners in the camp.  Death rate 40 – 60 per week.

During 1944 there was 8,600 prisoners arriving and housed in the Sternlager (Star Camp).  A further 4,420 prisoners arrived and sent to the Häftlingslager (Prisoners’ Camp).  In the later part of the year a vast number (16,500) of prisoners were transported out of Bergen-Belsen to other camps to be used in factories (chemicals, aircraft and armaments), with a great number finishing up at Auschwitz.  A reported number (2,100) died within the camp.

January 1945 – 2,000 women arrive from Auschwitz and are housed in the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp).  January 15th – 22,286 (5,811 men, 16,475 women) prisoners in Belsen.

January 15th – Stalag XI-C (311) officially closes.  During its existence it claimed the lives of the following numbers of PoW’s – 14,000 Soviet PoWs (at least).  142 Italian military internees.  2 Polish doctors.  1 female Polish soldier.  1 French PoW.  1 Serbian PoW.  January 17th – Himmler orders evacuation of all prisoners in Auschwitz.  Auschwitz abandoned on 18th Jan.

January 20th – Stalag XI-C/311’s hospital dissolved and the Großes Frauenlager (large women’s camp) takes its place.  The old Frauenlager becomes a second prisoner’s camp known as Häftlingslager II (Prisoner’s camp),  January 22nd – 30th – 7,600 prisoners (mainly from Auschwitz and Buchenwald) arrive in the camp.  January – 600 prisoners die.

February 1945 – All SS men born between 1905 and 1911 (34-40 yr old – 30 men) are ordered to leave Belsen and join 32 ’30th January’ SS Grenadier Division at the Oder Front (east of Berlin).  Many died at Oderbruch or became Soviet PoW’s.  SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer reports death rate at 60 -70 per day.  A large transport of Hungarian Jews was admitted while the disinfection facility was out of order.  As a result, Typhus broke out and quickly spread beyond control.  7,000 prisoners die.  14,500 prisoners are sent to the Häftlingslager (Prisoners’ Camp) and 7,000 to the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp), arriving from various camps in the east.  February 1st – The camp contains approx 22,000 prisoners.  Mid-February – Incineration of the dead becomes a serious problem for the administration as the Crematorium can handle only three bodies at a time.  February 20th – Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer quarantined the camp, but SS camp administration headquarters in Berlin insisted that Belsen be kept open to receive more evacuees arriving from the East.  The death rate rose to 400 a day.  February 28th – Camp contains 41,520 prisoners.

March 1945 – 11,950 prisoners are sent to the Häftlingslager (Prisoners’ Camp) and 5,500 to the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp) and 4,000 to the Großes Frauenlager (large women’s camp), arriving from various camps in the east.

The Prisoner’s camp was filled with sick inmates from other concentration camps.  Belsen renamed a Rest Camp.  Food supply begins to fail completely.  Allied bombing nearby disrupts the water supply.  Bodies heaped in piles, layered with wood and diesel, are burnt in the open.  This method of corpse disposal was discontinued at the end of March because the Officers of the training area (2-3 km distance) were annoyed by the disgusting stench that filled the air.  Josef Kramer is ordered to destroy all documents, records and personal papers.  Attempts to bury the dead abandoned.  Between 1st and 31st of March 18,168 prisoners die. 

March 1st – Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer writes to Gruppenführer (Major-General) Richard Glücks about the conditions at Bergen-Belsen.  Total number of prisoners in Belsen is 41,520 (14,797 men, 26,723 women).

March 4th – 105 Turkish prisoners from the Neutralenlager (Neutral’s Camp) board a ship at Stockholm bound for Istanbul, via Liverpool.

March 7th – Allies cross the Rhein during Operation Lumberjack.

March 10th, 1945 – Heinrich Himmler orders the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) not to spare medicine to combat the Typhus outbreak in Belsen.

March 15th – Total number of prisoners in Belson 45,117 (14730 men, 30,387 women)

March 20th – Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer urges visiting Gruppenführer (Major-General) Oswald Pöhl (as a result of his letter of 1st March), to prevent further transports arriving at Belsen and to exchange the remaining Jews in the camp immediately.  Pöhl agrees that all exchange prisoners and their families should be transferred elsewhere to make room for new arrivals.  March 25th – Exchange prisoners deloused in preparation for transport.

March 31st – 44,060 (13,338 men, 30,722 women) prisoners in Belsen.  During March an estimated 23,000 prisoners arrive at Belsen from numerous camps in the east Germany, also an estimated 28,500 die (that’s an average of just over 900 per day dying).

April 1945 – 10,600 prisoners are sent to the Häftlingslager (Prisoners’ Camp) and 3,000 to the Frauenlager (Women’s Camp), arriving from various camps in the east. 

April 5th – British 11th Armoured Division established bridgehead across the river Aller.

April 6th – Heinrich Himmler appoints SS Standartenführer (Colonel) Kurt Becher as Reich Special Commissar for the affairs of all Jewish and Political Prisoners.  SS Obersturmbannführer (Lt Colonel) Adolf Eichmann orders the evacuation of all the ‘exchange Jews’.  2,500 ‘exchange’ prisoners from the Sternlager, Neutralenlager, Sonderlager and Ungarnlager camps are transported towards Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia).  This train was liberated by the Allies at Farsleben near Magdeburg on 13th April 1945.  April 7th – 2,500 ‘exchange’ prisoners from the Sternlager camp are transported towards Theresienstadt to connect with the train that left the previous day.  This train suffered a severe Allied air attack and was never heard of again.

April 8th – Celle’s railway infrastructure bombed by the Allies.  There are now over 60,000 prisoners at Belsen.  Water supply fails…

April 9th – 2,400 – 2,500 ‘exchange’ prisoners are transported out of Belsen on what was to become known as ‘The lost transport’.  After a 14-day journey across Germany it was eventually liberated on 22/23 April 1945 by the Russians near Tröbitz, Brandenburg, East Germany.  198 prisoners did not survive the journey and a further 325 die soon afterwards.  NOTE: According to the memoirs of Charles Hess an estimated 675 prisoners died from this transport after it was liberated.  Their bodies are interned in a cemetery in Tröbitz.

April 10th – Allies occupy Hannover.

April 10th – SS Standartenführer Kurt Becher and Rudolf Kasztner visit on an inspection tour and are briefed by SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer on the conditions in the camp.  Both Becher and Kramer agree that there is no alternative but to hand Bergen-Belsen over to the advancing British troops.

April 11th – British Second Army occupies Celle.  Heinrich Himmler authorises immediate handover of Belsen to the British Army.

April 11th – 4 transports containing the 7,000 exchange prisoners from the Neutralenlager, Sonderlager and Sternlager camps leave the railhead on the road to Bergen.  One reaches Theresienstadt, one is bombed by RAF (the train was also carrying ammunition) the other two are liberated by Allied troops (one near Magdeburg).

April 12/14th – All prisoners capable of walking (approx 2,000) are put to work at corpse disposal.  Behind the Crematorium, three mass graves were dug and prisoners were formed into a long procession, four prisoners per corpse with strips of cloth or leather tied to wrists or ankles, dragging the dead to the mass graves.

April 12th – Two German officers approach the British 11th Armoured Division under a white flag offering a local truce to prevent fighting breaking out around Belsen and prisoners then roaming the area spreading disease.  In return, the Germans offered them the intact bridge over the Aller at Winsen.

April 12/13th – To prevent a battle in the area, a truce is established by the local German Army Commander, Oberst (Colonel) Harries, which details a neutral zone covering 6 x 8 kilometres around Belsen.

April 13th – Wehrmacht takes over the camp.  Hungarian army takes over the role of guarding the prisoners in Camp 2 (Bergen-Belsen Barracks).  Members of the British Army inspect this camp.

April 14th – Majority of SS (approx 220) and Kapo’s (approx 350) leave.  Hungarian troops replace SS Guards in the watchtowers.

April 15th – 249 Battery of the British 63rd (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery, 11th Armoured Division liberate the camp at 1430 hrs.

April 1st to 15th – An estimated 9310 prisoners die.  An estimated 60,000 prisoners arrived since April 1st.

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