THE EVACUATION TRANSPORTS
On December 2, 1944 , the previous commander , Adolf Haas, was replaced by SS -Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Josef Kramer, who had last been commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau , where he was responsible for the extermination of several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews . This change in the command structure also marked the completion and final conversion of Bergen-Belsen into a typical concentration camp. The special conditions for the "Exchange Jews" existed now only on paper. Non-Jewish Kapos from the prison camp were given the control over the Star Camp , which often led to ill-treatment of Jewish Exchange Prisoner by these Kapos , including with their responsibilities and subordinated to them were also the work details(Arbeitskommandos). The former Camp Elder of the prison camp was appointed Camp Elder of the total camp (an ominous sign).
When Joseph Kramer on December 2 , 1944, took command , there lived 15.257 prisoners here . With the increasing number of evacuation transports , which were directed [in part re-directed] to Bergen-Belsen , the number of prisoners increased dramatically, despite the rising death rate: On 1 January 1945, the prison population was 18.465 , on 15 January it stood at 22.286 and on March 1, it had already reached 41.520 . In February 1945 came, in just the three months from December 1944 , in this context 40,000 to 50,000 prisoners to Bergen-Belsen.
To accommodate these prisoners , the SS saw themselves now forced to install new camp parts . The POW hospital located in the northern camp complex was dissolved in January 1945 and instead a second women's camp ( in historiography called " Large Women's Camp ) established on its premises , while in the southern part for the male prisoners, the prison camp II was established. However, even these spatial expansion of the concentration camp could not provide a total occupancy of the camp without dramatic consequences for the prisoners .
Within a short time, Bergen-Belsen became a death camp , the location of a painful mass extinction . 18,168 prisoners died alone in March 1945 from hunger, and quickly a rampant epidemic such Typhus in particular , of which the SS made no serious efforts to combat it took place. The disease is transmitted by the human body louse, which becomes infected by feeding on the blood of patients with acute typhus fever. Infected lice excrete rickettsia onto the skin while feeding on a second host, who becomes infected by rubbing louse faecal matter or crushed lice into the bite wound.
|Typhus-Rash caused by epidemic typhus|
The prevailing conditions since the beginning of 1945 in Bergen-Belsen can be represented reasonably adequate only by the descriptions from prisoner diaries or memoirs of former inmates. In January 1945, Hanna Levy-Haas noted in her diary: "General malnutrition. Only with great difficulty one succeeds to move. No one is able to walk normally upright. Old people waver, trailing the legs behind. Whole families die in a few days. The old Mrs. M. died quickly. The next day it was the turn of her husband, and then came the children, tormented by hunger and lice. One was a short-sighted fellow. He could not cope with the vermin, so his body was infested and crawled over his body and penetrated deeply into the skin, even into his eyelashes, his chest was all black from the lice and their nests. [...] The death has settled permanently among us, which is our most faithful room-mate, always and everywhere present. As a result of the outrageous treatment, the people die en mass, to hunger, humiliation, dysentery, vermin. They fall, they break down, their number ends, and decreases rapidly. Many of my friends have already finished their lives. One, two, three, four, [...] you are finally confused by the living and the dead. Basically the difference is minimal. We are skeletons that move, and others are skeletons that are already immobile. But there is a third category: those who lie still, stretched out, unable to move, and just breathe a little".
|The Hell descendent on Earth at Bergen-Belsen|
Hunger finally reached such extreme proportions that there was cannibalism in Bergen-Belsen. "I still remember well that day in late February 1945, when I first heard of people who had eaten flesh removed from the corpses. Some corpses had missing lungs, heart and liver, and from the thighs and buttocks were pieces cut out", as Rudolf Küstermeier remembers. [During cannibalism, survivors would normally go for the internal organs of the dead, that were the softer tissues and easily to chew in a raw state. I only heard this taking place during 1945 in some of General Eisenhower Death Camps, as German POW's did not receive any food nor water, but have never witness it.HKS]
Since Bergen-Belsen hardly ever planned as a death camp, there was only a small crematorium, which was no longer sufficient to burn the now tremendously large number of corpses as quickly as possible. The attempt by the SS to remove the corpses by burning in an open field, failed because of the opposition of the Forest Service and the Military in the nearby Bergen-Hohne Military Training Area. So there was a lot of the corpses partly in the barracks, partly scattered on the camp grounds just lying to decompose.
CANNIBALISM AT BERGEN-BELSEN
During the last few months of the camp’s existence the shortage of food was so acute that the prisoners (the camp staff were still well fed) resorted to cannibalism, and one former British internee gave evidence at the trial of the Commandant and some of his staff that when engaged in clearing away dead bodies as many as one in ten had a piece cut from the thigh or other part of the body which had been taken and eaten, and that he had seen people in the act of doing it. To such lengths had they been brought by the pangs of hunger.
This witness said:
I noticed on many occasions a very strange wound at the back of the thigh of many of the dead. First of all I dismissed it as a gunshot wound at close quarters, but after seeing a few more I asked a friend and he told me that many of the prisoners were cutting chunks out of the bodies to eat. On my very next visit to the mortuary I actually saw a prisoner whip out a knife, cut a portion out of the leg of a dead body and put it quickly into his mouth, naturally frightened of being seen in the act of doing so. I leave it to your imagination to realize to what state the prisoners were reduced, for men to risk eating bits of flesh cut from black corpses.”
Source:— Lord Russell of Liverpool 2008, p. 178
The practice of humans eating flesh from other humans is neither a strange nor rare practice around the world. This practice is thought to be most justified as a method of survival. Thus, the act of cannibalism taking place in the mortuary of Bergen-Belsen due to acute starvation and hunger is understandable. For prisoners to have to resort to such ‘inhuman’ measures, however, can often lead to much embarrassment and a devaluing of self-worth. Still, it would be erroneous to assume that the prisoner mentioned in the witness testimony speedily ate the chunk of human flesh because he was “naturally frightened of being seen in the act.” If this act referred to the prisoner being caught by Nazi officers for not following orders, that would be true. However, to assume that anyone would be appalled or would retaliate to see a prisoner commit “the act” of cannibalism is unlikely and unknown.
|Dr. Fritz Klein, a former camp doctor who conducted medical experiments on prisoners, stands among corpses in a mass grave. Bergen-Belsen|
|Bodies in a deserted corner of the camp at Bergen-Belsen|
At the same time thousands of prisoners in the course of these evacuation transports were still brought to Bergen-Belsen. Their accommodation was only possible by the establishment of an additional camp complex at the barely two kilometres distance away from the Wehrmacht Training Ground (Truppenübungsplatz) Belsen-Hohne. Termed as Camp II, also referred to as a sub-camp or barracks camp, part of the Training Complex (Truppenübungsplatrz) was vacated by the Wehrmacht and handed over to the SS. At the earliest on 8 April 1945 arrived here the first transport of prisoners. Overall, there were probably six shipments that arrived in this sub-camp, where they were no longer registered, given the initial chaotic circumstances.
For them, it was almost without exception inmates of the camp Mittelbau-Dora and its satellite camps. The Jewish prisoners were here in the minority, the vast majority were political prisoners of Eastern European origin. The two largest groups of prisoners interned, were Poles and Russians, which together accounted for more than 60 percent of the inmates housed in this sub-camp. A total of 15,133 prisoners were finally freed upon arrival of British troops. This sub-camp, had no work-details (Arbeitskommandos), and was purely a Transit or Holding Camp, without having further specific functions. It housed up to the liberation male inmates only.
Overall, the survival chances of this particular sub-camp, was an improvement and better than in the main camp, also because here, no typhus epidemic had broken out. Unlike in the main camp, the British liberators were not met by thousands of unburied corpses. [Would this indicate that there were no deaths during the time of its existence? HKS]
Bergen-Hohne Training Area as it is now
[German: NATO-Truppenübungsplatz Bergen or Schießplatz Bergen-Hohne) is a NATO military training area in the southern part of the Lüneburg Heath, in the state of Lower Saxony in northern Germany. It covers an area of 284 square kilometres (70,000 acres), which makes it the largest military training area in Germany.
It was established by the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, in 1935. At the end of the Second World War it was taken over by British occupying forces and some of its facilities used as a liberation camp for survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was located on the edge of the training area near the town of Bergen. Under British control, the training area was steadily expanded and, since the 1960s, and has also been used by the German Armed Forces (Bundeswehr) and other NATO troops.sic]
BERGEN-HOHNE TRAINING AREA
Scenes of the area in the 1930's. It currently covers am area of 284 square kilometres (70,000 acres), making it the largest military training area in Germany
|Under British control, the training area was steadily expanded and, since the 1960's, has also been used by the German Armed Forces (the Bundeswehr) and other NATO troops.|
RETURN TO NORMAL LIFE
The weeks after liberation saw a tremendous transformation in the inhabitants of the Bergen-Belsen (Hohne) camp. The relief operation was well in hand and all former concentration camp inmates were now accommodated in one of the many hospital or accommodation blocks. Having survived the horrors of incarceration, it was time for them to take the first steps on the road to restoring their shattered lives. (KZ Inmates were now called Displaced Persons -DPs.)
The camp would provide an ideal infrastructure for the DPs (Displaced Persons) to create a new community. The vast area of the Bergen-Belsen (Hohne) barracks was now divided into smaller camps. Camp no. 2 comprised the barracks and squares located at the south end of the complex, and those DPs requiring hospitalisation were accommodated here. DPs who were able to look after themselves were accommodated in Camp no. 3 which comprised the blocks and squares found near the eastern entrance of the camp (now the camp main entrance). Camp no. 4 was made up of the former Wehrmacht Officers married quarters found at the western end of the camp near the Roundhouse, and it became home to those DPs with surviving family members. The area that was to become known as Caen Barracks was camp no.1, which was bounded by the north gate (what was the main entrance in 1945), RB1 (Revier Barracke) and the Bergen-Belsen road. This area was fenced-off and would house units of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).
|Children outside one of the blocks in Neu Hohne now housing refugees.|
The seeds of organisation of the Jewish community where sown in the first days of liberation. Between the 15th and 18th April 1945 over 70, mainly Jewish, concentration camp inmates were shot by Hungarian troops used by the British to help control the camp population. This event signalled to the newly liberated prisoners that they would need to organise and protect themselves in order to rebuild their lives. Thus, in those first days a group of the more able prisoners in the overflow camp in the barracks (camp no.2) organised an election for the first temporary camp committee. All prisoners who could walk participated in the election and cast their votes. So on the 18th April 1945 in MB88 (Mannschafts Barracke) the first camp committee was formed under the Chairmanship of one extraordinary man, Josef Rosensaft.
|One of the blocks in Neu Hohne now housing refugees (Probably block H).|
Ber Laufer, Itzchak Eisenberg, Dr Tibor Hirsch, Dr Halina Grzesz, Dr A Klein, Dr Hadassa Bimko, Dr Zvi Helfgott-Azaria, Paul Treppman, and Rafael Gershon Olewski made up the committee. Once formed it began to oversee the rehabilitation of the survivors, by ensuring everything possible was done to improve the former prisoners' physical condition, assisting in the search for surviving relatives, fighting for their political rights and looking after their spiritual rehabilitation.
|Josef Rosensaft carrying out committee work'|
From 1945 until 1950, when it was finally shut down, the British maintained Belsen as a camp for displaced European Jews. During this period it achieved new notoriety as a major European black market center. The "uncrowned king" of Belsen's 10,000 Jews was Yossl (Josef) Rosensaft, who amassed tremendous profits from the illegal trading. Rosensaft had been interned in various camps, including Auschwitz, before arriving in Belsen in early April 1945.
British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, chief of "displaced persons" operations in postwar Germany for the United Nations relief organization UNRRA recalled in his memoir that under Zionist auspices there had been organized at Belsen a vast illegitimate trading organization with worldwide ramifications and dealing in a wide range of goods, principally precious metals and stones. A money market dealt with a wide range of currencies. Goods were being imported in cryptically marked containers consigned in UNRRA shipments to Jewish voluntary agencies.
In the first year they managed to force the authorities to climb down over the transfer of several thousand Jewish DPs to camps at Lingen and Diepholz. On arrival, these camps were found to be in such terrible condition, that the DPs refused to enter and demanded, successfully, to be sent back to Bergen-Belsen. Also, when the British authorities wanted to change the name of the camp from Bergen-Belsen to Hohne, the committee refused as they recognised the moral and political power of the name, feeling that this would assist them in the fight for emigration rights for the Jewish DPs to Palestine.
Another achievement for the committee was that they managed, after some months, to persuade the military authorities to recognise the status of the Jews. After liberation, the military authorities would only segregate the former concentration camp inmates by nationality. This caused problems for the Jewish contingent of each nationality as anti-Semitism could still be found within the non-Jewish contingent. More importantly though, it had meant the Jews could not negotiate as forcefully with the authorities as they could if they were seen as a separate entity away from their different nationalities. This was an important victory for the committee.
Soon many different military, relief and political organisations established themselves within the camp. The newly formed Jewish Committee, along with the HQ of the AJDC (American Joint Distribution Committee) took over part of the block L5 (Leutnantsblock), located near the Roundhouse in one of the former Wehrmacht Officer's married quarters. The Military Government Offices could be found in GB2 (Geschäfts Barracke) and the CCG (Control Commission Germany) moved into GB3. The Red Cross would also establish themselves with a presence in all three of camps, no.2, no.3, and no.4. The Jewish Agency for Palestine was set up in the Roundhouse.
The camp became an important political centre, a fact illustrated by the number of important visitors it received, none more so than Earl G. Harrison, an emissary of President Truman. Harrison's mission was to find out about the problems of the DPs in Germany and to find ways to help them. Although he could not order migration to Palestine, his high profile brought global attention to the plight of the DPs.
|The former Entlausung (De-lousing Block), as part of the Wohnlager (Living Quarters)|
There became established among the Jewish DPs many different political parties from all spectrums of the political rainbow. There were General Zionists, Revisionists, Hashomer Hatzair, Mapai, Mizrachi, and Poale Zion. However, whether they were left wing, right wing or centre parties they all had the same political goal, the emigration to Palestine. The members of these parties would train the younger DPs for that life in Palestine, by forming collectives.
Not only was there a political awakening amongst the Jewish population but also a spiritual one. The committee under Dr Zvi Helfgott-Azaria as Head of the Camp Rabbinate organised the religious aspects of camp life. Polish and Hungarian rabbis, religious writers and teachers would serve the whole camp. Religion would also become an important influence in Bergen-Belsen amongst all Jews not only those of the orthodox persuasion. During religious days the streets of the camp would be totally deserted as people attended prayers. Weddings took place and were carried out in accordance with Jewish law, as were other religious ceremonies. Bergen-Belsen also became a centre of spiritual guidance for those remaining German Jews in the towns and cities of the British Occupied Zone, where there were no rabbis to carry out religious ceremonies or synagogues in which to worship.
|Rabbis in Bergen-Belsen'|
The education of the young became of prime importance and soon after liberation schools were being established in Bergen-Belsen. There were a variety of educational establishments such as the Jacob Edelstein primary school, the Jewish Brigade secondary school, the Trade School, the People's University, a library and evening classes for languages.
The first Jewish newspaper was published at Bergen-Belsen in extreme difficulties. With no printing materials to begin with, the content was handwritten, until paper and printing equipment could be found. Finally a duplicator was obtained and the very first Jewish newspaper titled Unzer Sztyme (Our Voice) of the British Occupied Zone was printed and distributed in Bergen-Belsen. Following on from this success, the Jewish DPs press went on to print newspapers and magazines in Yiddish, Hebrew, German and English.
|Unzer Sztyme - first camp newspaper|
|A performance in a DP camp, Postwar'|
Life in that first year was extremely difficult for the DPs, but as we have seen they very quickly organised themselves into a self-governing community that was able to take the first steps back to some kind of rehabilitation. Under the able leadership of the Belsen Committee they were able to police themselves, educate themselves, and entertain themselves. These activities however, were all within the confines of the Bergen-Belsen camp from which they were not allowed to move, liberation had not produced the freedom it once promised.
|Haifa, Mandatory Palestine, A British destroyer escorting the illegal immigrant ship "Wingate" to port, March 1946|
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