A lot has been written and documented about the horrors at the Auschwitz concentration camp that for many, that camp in Poland symbolizes all the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Nazi Final Solution. Far less has been written about the Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany, which is probably best known as the camp where Anne Frank died of typhus.
There are a lot of different ways to record the horrors of Belsen, a camp where an estimated 50,000 people died. Leonard Berney, a former lieutenant colonel in the British Army, did something unique: he kept the diary that he recorded in April 1945, when the British Army entered Germany and liberated the Bergen-Belsen camp. His letters and diary have now been published in the book Liberating Belsen Concentration Camp, a riveting novel that seems sure to bring out a range of emotions from the reader: a mix of exhilaration at reading how the camp’s victims finally got their freedom, to shock and dismay as Berney matter-of-factly describes the unspeakable suffering and misery he found there.
What Was The Bergen-Belsen Camp?
The Germans established the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1940, about 11 miles north of Celle, Germany, as a prisoner-of-war camp. In April 1943 part of it was converted into a concentration camp that would house prisoners that included Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners and so-called “asocials.” By the end of July 1944, more than 7,300 prisoners were interned in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex, and the numbers more than doubled to 15,000 in December 1944. By the time the camp was being liberated, the population had soared to more than 60,000.
Often described as “Hell on Earth,” it’s been well documented that food supplies started to shrink by late 1944, along with fresh water, and there were just a few latrines and water faucets for tens of thousands of prisoners. All of this led to an outbreak of diseases that included typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Literally tens of thousands of prisoners died in the first few months of 1945 from either disease or starvation.
In fact, conditions there were so bad by April 1945 that there were concerns that the diseases at Belsen would spread to the nearby civilian population. That was the situation facing the British Army as they entered Germany and crossed the river Rhine, heading for Berlin. At this point, the British were about 12 miles from Bergen-Belsen, and knowing that typhus had broken out there, the British officers feared that the prisoners might escape and spread the disease.
Instead, they proposed to the Germans that a ‘No Fire Zone’ be established around the camp, and the British would take control of it in an orderly manner. The Germans agreed, and as the British approached the camp, their biggest apprehension was that this might be a trap set by the Germans. But the Germans did hold fire, and the British soldiers, including Lt. Colonel Berney, began the rescue operation at Belsen — a place they found atrocious, grisly, nightmarish and tragic beyond belief.
What Does The Book Document?
The soldiers’ entrance into Belsen, Berney noted, was gruesome and appalling. “Outside and at the back of the huts, corpses in various stages of decomposition were everywhere,” he writes. “The excreta-laden dust blowing round the camp was a serious medical threat. I was nauseated and horrified. The whole scene was a veritable Dante’s Inferno.”
And that’s the very beginning of the book.
He would go on to record how the soldiers went looking for sources of water to bring to the camp, delivering food to the starving inmates (“Many who were emaciated and starving bolted down this rich food and that sadly caused their deaths,” he notes), the burials of the dead, the evacuation of the camp, and then the establishment of Displaced Persons Camps for all the inmates.
Some of it is recorded in a very dispassionate, cool and collected and unsentimental voice; at other times, the sheer torment of coping with such abysmal conditions comes through. Liberating Belsen is a short book, about 38 pages of written text, although that’s supplemented by many photos of the camp as it was being liberated. It’s an unspeakably grim chapter in history, but the book does a great service in recording and documenting these horrors at a time when the phase “Never Forget” seems more relevant than ever.
As Berney notes in the book, “In the last few years I have become aware that there were people in the UK and elsewhere who deny that the Holocaust ever happened; they assert that it is all a lie. It was not a lie. I know what Nazism did: I was there!”
Berney, who was born in London in 1920 and took part in countering the Blitz and the V1 flying bomb attacks, was later appointed Military Governor of Schleswig-Holstein. He pursued a business career after he left the army at the end of 1946, and has often been asked to deliver lectures on the Liberation of Belsen. This book, which follows the liberation of that inhuman camp through his eyes, would make an excellent addition to middle and high school history courses for students to read. It’s a fascinating book.
The book is available from Amazon.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.