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After Liberation

Post 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

On this page we attempt to inform readers of the ongoing situation at the Belsen concentration camp and being converted to a memorial site.  Plus the future use of Bergen-Hohne, the home of the British forces in Germany.

For public opinion in Western countries, in the immediate post-1945 period, the name “Belsen” became characteristic of Nazi horrors in general.  The even greater horrors of Auschwitz, a camp which was liberated by the Soviets and of which Western soldiers and journalists had no direct experience, became widely known only later.

It is said that there were no gas chambers in Bergen-Belsen, since the mass executions took place in the camps further east, mainly in Poland.  However, there are several reports, written by prisoners who survived, that there were gas chambers.  What is for certain is that there was a crematorium oven for disposing of bodies but this could only cope with one body at a time and with the situation of prisoners dying at the high daily rate, it was ceased to be used.  Nevertheless, an estimated 50,000 Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) died in the camp.  Among them were Czech painter and writer Josef Capek (died April 1945), as well as the famous Amsterdam residents Anne Frank (who died of typhus) and her sister Margot, who died there in March 1945.  The average life expectancy of an inmate was nine months.

In the weeks following the liberation on 15th April 1945, the camp was evacuated, the survivors either allowed to return home or housed in a Displaced Persons Camp established by the British in the German Bergen-Belsen Barracks (a camp built for the German armoured vehicle training area, known later as Bergen-Hohne Barracks).  All of the former prison blocks were burnt by 21st May 1945, leaving only the SS portion of the KZ (concentration camp) remaining which was used to house refugees until 1953.

Aftermath

Many of the former SS staff that survived the typhus epidemic were tried by the British at the Belsen Trial.  At the trial, the world got its first view of Irma Grese, Elisabeth Volkenrath, Juana Bormann, Fritz Klein, Josef Kramer, and the rest of the SS men and women who before served at Mittelbau Dora, Ravensbrück, Auschwitz I, II, III, and Neuengamme.  Many of the female guards had served at small Gross-Rosen subcamps at Neusalz, Langenleuba, and the Mittelbau-Dora subcamp at Gross Werther.  Dozens of the personnel of Bergen-Belsen were found guilty of murder and of crimes against humanity, and most of those were hanged.

 Bergen-Belsen fell into neglect after the burning of the buildings and the closure of the nearby displaced persons’ camp.  The area reverted to heath, with few traces of the camp remaining.  Ronald Reagan’s visit to West Germany in 1985 included a hastily arranged stop at Bergen-Belsen, which prompted the West Germans to put together a small documentation centre.  It soon became inadequate for the accumulating archives, for the general liberalizing process of German identity building after the Berlin Wall fell, and for the growing public appetite abroad for Holocaust museums, along with the tourist economy they generated.

On April 15, 2005 there was a commemorative ceremony, and many ex-prisoners and ex-liberating troops attended.

In October 2007, the redesigned memorial site was opened, including a large new Documentation Centre and permanent exhibition on the edge of the newly redefined camp, whose structure and layout can now be traced.  The site is open to the public and includes a monument to the dead, some individual memorial stones and a “House of Silence” for reflection.

Mass Graves – Bergen-Belsen.

Within the boundary of the memorial site, Bergen-Belsen has 14 mass graves containing at least 23,200 former prisoners.  Two of these graves, containing unknown totals, were established by the camp administration in early 1945 when the number of dead increased to such an extent that the small crematorium could no longer cope.

After liberation, the British Army immediately set to work clearing the estimated 10,000 corpses that lay strewn across the site.  Former SS staff, prisoners and Hungarian soldiers were used to dig the graves and bury the dead.  

On two occasions a bulldozer was needed to push the bodies into the graves as they could not be handled due to their advanced state of decomposition.

The British Army gave each of these graves an identity number, the amount of bodies they contained and the date they were completed.

Soviet Mass Graves – Hörsten.

In 1941, Stalag XI C/311 was extended to include a camp and Lazarett (field hospital) for the influx of Soviet POW’s caught during Operation Barbarossa.

Between 1941 and 1944, an estimated 30-50,000 Soviet soldiers died in Bergen-Belsen due to the totally inadequate living conditions.  They died of starvation, froze to death or succumbed to disease.  Most of the dozens of mass graves were dug in the winter of 1941/42 when 18,000 POW’s died.

Immediately after the end of World War 2, the first measures were taken to lay out the Cemetery.  In the summer of 1946, the Soviet Military Mission had a memorial erected with the inscription in both Russian and English “Here are buried 50,000 Soviet prisoners of war tortured to death in German-Fascist captivity”.  On the other side of the memorial, in Russian, is “Rest in peace, dear comrades – the memory of you will live on forever in the hearts of the peoples of the Soviet Union”.  A commemorative stone was erected by the Germans in 1968.

Mass Graves – Bergen-Hohne.

On 8 April 1945, when Bergen-Belsen could no longer cope with the massive influx of evacuated prisoners, part of the Panzer Training School at Bergen-Belsen Barracks (now Bergen-Hohne) were taken over and used to house 15,133 prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora.  After liberation, between 21 April and 19 May 1945 the British Army evacuated Bergen-Belsen and housed the former prisoners in the same camp, or in the Wehrmacht hospital just to the North East.  Many of these prisoners died and are buried within the confines of two cemeteries within Bergen-Hohne Camp.

A Place of Remembrance

As early as 1945, survivors erected the first memorial stones and monuments in the grounds of the former Bergen-Belsen POW and concentration camp.  The Bergen-Belsen Memorial was inaugurated in 1952 after the obelisk and inscription wall were dedicated, and the first Document Building with a permanent exhibition opened in 1966.

For decades, phases of neglect alternated with times of increased attention.  Active remembrance was carried out first and foremost by the survivors, who regularly travelled to Bergen-Belsen and organised memorial ceremonies there.

Research and educational work at the Memorial did not start until the late 1980s.  New exhibitions opened in 1990 and 2007, and the historical site of the camp was redesigned.  Changes to the Memorial have always reflected the changing political and social climate.

Commemorative signs

The first commemorative signs at the site of the former camp were put there by survivors themselves, who placed personal plaques and memorial stones near the mass graves.  These were supplemented by large panels with explanatory text in German and English which the British Army installed at the former entrance to the camp shortly after the liberation.

In September 1945, Jewish DPs erected a provisional wooden monument in the grounds of the former camp during the First Congress of Liberated Jews in the British Zone.  For most of the Jewish survivors, Bergen-Belsen was not only a place in which to mourn the dead, it was symbolically associated with their political goals at the time: emigration to Palestine and the foundation of the State of Israel.  Representatives of the Jewish Central Committee also voiced these demands at the dedication of the stone monument on the first anniversary of the liberation in April 1946.

Not long after the liberation, a Polish camp committee was established in the DP camp with the aim of keeping alive the memory of the Poles who had been murdered.  On 2 November 1945, a large wooden cross was dedicated in the former camp in the presence of several thousand survivors as well as representatives of the Vatican and the British military government.

By the end of 1945, the Soviet military mission had erected a monument at the entrance to the Bergen-Belsen POW cemetery dedicated to the nearly 20,000 Soviet victims of the Bergen-Belsen POW camp.  A stone monument with name plaques was placed in a separate section of the cemetery for Italian military internees in 1950.  This monument was taken down in 1958 when the bodies of the Italian military internees were reinterred in the Hamburg-Öjendorf cemetery.

The Memorial

In late September 1945, the British military government ordered the creation of an appropriate memorial at Bergen-Belsen.  The resulting plans for a cemetery-like complex only encompassed the area around the mass graves, however.  In the summer of 1946, an international commission which included survivor representatives recommended that an obelisk and an inscription wall be erected in the grounds.  The Bergen-Belsen Memorial was finally inaugurated in November 1952 with a state ceremony which attracted international attention.  Responsibility for the Memorial was then handed over to the state of Lower Saxony, thus making Bergen-Belsen the oldest state-supported memorial in Germany. 

During the 1950s, Bergen-Belsen was increasingly forgotten as a place of remembrance.  But a wave of anti-Semitic vandalism and a series of high-profile trials of former SS members in the 1960s prompted the Federal Republic of Germany to address its Nazi past.  It was within this new social climate that the first academic research into the history of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was published, the Document Building and permanent exhibition were opened and the grounds of the Memorial were redesigned.

Even after the Document Building opened in 1966, the Bergen-Belsen Memorial had no permanent academic or educational staff.  Two decades later, this state of affairs was no longer commensurate with the extensive research, education and commemoration that was expected to be carried out at sites of Nazi crimes.  In 1985, the parliament of Lower Saxony unanimously voted to expand the Document Building and introduce permanent visitor services at the Memorial.  A much larger Document Building opened in April 1990, and it included a new permanent exhibition which also covered the history of the POW camp for the first time.  From 1987, the Memorial began to hire researchers and educators, build seminar rooms and offer regular tours.  This laid the foundation for the ongoing commemorative work at Bergen-Belsen.

The Redesign of the Memorial

Since 2000, the overall redesign project for the Bergen-Belsen Memorial has been funded by both the state of Lower Saxony and the German federal government.  This has made it possible for the Memorial’s staff to carry out research in archives around the world and expand the Memorial’s collection of documents and objects relating to the history of the site.  Through several interview projects, the Memorial has amassed an important collection of nearly 400 biographical video interviews with survivors of the POW and concentration camps as well as former inhabitants of the DP camp.  The goal of the redesign project at Bergen-Belsen was to establish a Documentation Centre with a new permanent exhibition and to incorporate the entire site of the former camp into the Memorial.  The Documentation Centre opened on 28 October 2007 in the presence of many survivors and their relatives.  The redesign of the Memorial grounds should have been completed by the end of 2011.

The Bergen-Belsen Memorial has received regular funding from the German government since 2009.  This annual grant allows it to continue developing its educational programme, among other things.

The Bergen-Belsen Memorial encompasses the entire grounds of the former Bergen-Belsen POW and concentration camp.  Numerous monuments between the mass graves commemorate the tens of thousands of people who suffered and died here.  Only the foundations of the buildings from the former camp still remain.  The redesign concept for the Bergen-Belsen Memorial calls for exterior landscaping as well.  Careful landscape modifications will reveal the camp’s historical topography, preserve the remaining structural elements and make it easier for visitors to find their way around the site.

Visitors reach the Memorial by crossing a central square which lies outside the grounds of the former camp.  A path leads to the long, two-storey Documentation Centre that houses the new permanent exhibition on the history of Bergen-Belsen.  Buildings on the other side of the square are used for administration, education, special exhibitions and events.

The Memorial is surrounded by other sites with a direct connection to the historical events that took place here: Tens of thousands of POWs and concentration camp prisoners arrived at a military loading platform north of the village of Belsen, and countless transports to other camps left from there as well.  Nearly 20,000 prisoners who died in the Bergen-Belsen POW camp and hospital are buried in the Hörsten cemetery, and sites commemorating the Bergen-Belsen DP camp can be found in the grounds of the former Wehrmacht barracks nearby.

The Former DP Camp

The Theatre Tent Cemetery – In the four weeks following the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the British Army evacuated around 29,000 survivors to the nearby barracks complex and set up an emergency hospital in several of the barracks buildings with the help of civilian relief organisations.  Thousands of liberated prisoners died there of the effects of their imprisonment.  A special cemetery was established for these victims at the edge of the barracks complex.  Because it was located near a large tent used for theatre performances, it was referred to as the “theatre tent cemetery”.  By the end of 1945, around 4,500 Jews and gentiles from many different countries were buried in this cemetery.  The dead from the Jewish DP camp were also buried there until 1950.

The Glyn-Hughes Hospital – From the summer of 1945, only the former Wehrmacht hospital located around one kilometre from the barracks continued to be used as a hospital.  In January 1948, the British military government declared this to be the central Jewish hospital for the British Zone.  It was run by the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone with the support of various aid organisations.  The survivors named the hospital after Brigadier General Hugh Llewellyn Glyn Hughes, a British medical officer who had organised the first rescue operations after the liberation of the concentration camp.  The state-of-the-art hospital even had a maternity ward which celebrated the birth of its 1,000th child in 1948.  This building is an important place of remembrance for many survivors, and particularly for many of the people who were born there.  It has been standing empty for several years and has fallen into disrepair. 

The Roundhouse – The former Wehrmacht officers’ mess – known as the Roundhouse by British soldiers because of its distinctive architecture – was used as a ward of the emergency hospital between April and the summer of 1945.  From the late summer of 1945 to the closing of the DP camp in 1950, the building housed the offices of the Jewish Central Committee.  The first and second Congress of Liberated Jews in the British Zone convened there in 1945 and 1947, and the Jewish and Polish camp administrations met there as well.  Additionally, the Roundhouse was used for cultural events like concerts, lectures and exhibitions, and many weddings were celebrated in the banquet hall.  This well-preserved building is significant to the commemoration of Jewish life after the Shoah (a word used by Jewish people for the Holocaust).

These sites are located in the grounds of the British Hohne Camp and are not open to the public.

On liberating Belsen, British forces also took over the Bergen-Hohne Training Area.  Covering 284 square kilometres (70,000 acres), it remains to this day the largest military training area in Germany.  It’s also still controlled from within Hohne Camp, which is situated inside the training area.  Under British control, the training area was gradually expanded until it reached its present limits.

It was a key base during the perceived threat from the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, and was on the frontline, forming part of 1st Armoured Division and the home for the 7th Armoured Brigade (Desert Rats) from 1947.  Up to 50,000 British, American and German soldiers were stationed there and it became the largest military training area in Europe.

In 1957 the German Army was given authority to start using it again, having become a NATO member two years prior, and it’s since been used by the country’s soldiers as well as troops from other alliance states.

As the Army reformed to meet the changes required after the reunification of Germany in 1990, Hohne Camp remained a key base and numerous operations were mounted from it around the globe.

Personnel from Germany, Netherlands, Britain and Belgium use it regularly to this day, putting equipment including Challenger 2 and Leopard 2 tanks, Apache helicopters and artillery to the test on the numerous ranges.  Troops can also practice urban warfare and deep wading skills there, while the area has been used increasingly in recent years by unmanned aerial vehicles.

The camp, with an approximate population of 5,000, has been a key location for the British Army and over the years formed into a thriving community of its own, and more importantly one that had a strong and everlasting affiliation with the local communities, namely Bergen.  Together with civilians and military families the garrison population varied between about 10,000 and 12,000.

Looking forward, it will continue to be the HQ for the training area, and will still be used by NATO forces.

It has also become the home for the newly formed 414 Panzer Battalion since 2016.  This is a Leopard 2 tank battalion and unique in that one of the tank squadrons are from the Dutch Army.

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