ON 15 April 1945, the 11th British Armoured Division walked through the gates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, located 60 km north east of the city of Hannover in western Germany. On 11 April the head of the German SS, Heinrich Himmler, agreed that because of the spread of the deadly contagious decease Typhus within the camp, the camp would be handed over to the British without a fight. On 13 April the British signed an agreement with the German Army declaring an area of approximately 48 square kilometres around the camp a neutral zone. The British wanted an orderly handover of the camp, for those still held captive, their nightmare ended on 15 April 1945 when the British army entered the gates of Bergen-Belsen.
Every British soldier that walked through those gates, was met by horrendous sights that would become ingrained in their brains, lasting a lifetime. The lifeless bodies of 10,000 men, women and children were scattered around this death camp. Nearly all of the 50,000 prisoners still alive and aimlessly wandering around the camp were infected with typhus and and starving. None of them including 500 children had received any food since January.
It is understood that between 1941 and 1945 there were 3-4000 children prisoners in Bergen-Belsen, of whom 3000 were murdered.
Bergen-Belsen was established, in 1940, as a prisoner of-war camp, to accommodate about 600 French and Belgian soldiers, 22,000 Russian POW’s arrived in 1941. The original plan for Bergen-Belsen was to hold 10,000 prisoners, by December 1944 there were roughly 15,000 prisoners. By March 1945 this had grown to over 42,000 and by early April just before liberation and at its peak, 60,000 prisoners filled the camp.
My parents were Jewish, my ancestors had lived in Holland for more than 200 years.
I was born on 26 January 1940 in the Hague, the Netherlands (Holland); less than two months later, on 15 May 1940, Nazi Germany occupied Holland.
The odds of me surviving were 6,000,000/1
On the evening of 28 September 1943 my father, mother, brother (8 yrs) and myself (3yrs) were at gun point ordered out of our second floor flat by a Dutch Nazi and a German soldier.
We were forcibly taken to the local train station and pushed onto a train to Westerbork Transit Kamp, located in north east Holland.
Four months later on 1 February 1944 my family of four were again pushed onto a train, carrying 906 Dutch Jews, destination Bergen-Belsen, about a four – five hour insufferable train ride.
In total 93 Dutch railway trains left Westerbork between 15 July 1942 and 15 September 1944, carrying about 107,000 Dutch Jews to camps such as Auschwitz (58,380 deported – 854 survived), Sobibor (34,313 – 18 survived) and Theresienstadt (4,894- 1,980 survived).
And Bergen-Belsen which had the smallest transport of Dutch Jews, 3,751 of whom 2,020 survived, which included my family.
Of the 107,000 Dutch Jews deported to concentration camps 102,000 were murdered, only 5000 survived. Per head of population more Dutch Jews were murdered than from any other western European country.
My family had been held prisoners in Bergen Belsen for 434 days.
ON 15 April 1945 when the British troops entered, we were on a dangerous train journey which, at its end destination, was meant to have murdered all four of us.
The Nazis were concerned that they would be accused of genocide if the British found 6000 Jewish men, women and children in the section called Star camp. It was decided to empty Star camp of as many Jewish prisoners as they could and rail them to as far east as possible.
The only concentration camp in the east not liberated at that time was Theresienstadt in what was then called Czechoslovakia. The Nazis loaded three trains of cattle wagons with over 6000 Jewish prisoners, without food or drinking water.
First train with 2,500 left on 6 April, this train was liberated on 13 April by the American army, the second train with 1,200 prisoners mostly Hungarian Jews left on either 7 or 8 April and reached Theresienstadt.
My family and I were on the third train which departed on evening of 9 April with 2,400 mainly Dutch Jews. This train became known as the Lost Train and on 23rd of April we were liberated by the Russian army near a small town in Eastern Germany called Trobitz. During the 14 day train ride, 400 hundred had died of starvation and Typhus.
Bergen-Belsen’s consisted of a POW camp and a Concentration camp each had their own administration. The Wehrmacht ran the POW camp, the SS were in charge of what became the concentration camp, known as Exchange camp, which they divided into four main parts, each with separate sub-sections:
- POW Camp (established 1940):
Housed prisoners of war, mainly from Belgium, France and Russia.
2 Exchange Camp (established 1943):
- a) Special Camp: for Polish Jews (established July 1943): this camp was specially set up to accommodate Polish Jews with visas for South America. They never went and, by mid-1944, most were sent to their death in Auschwitz.
- b) Star Camp (established August 1943): this camp was set up specifically for exchange Jews, and everyone had to wear a yellow Star of David. In 1944, this camp also held the largest number of prisoners.
- c) Neutral Camp (established August 1943): this camp was for Jews from countries not at war with Germany.
- d) Hungarian Camp (established July 1944): about 4,000 Hungarian Jews were kept here.
- Men’s Camp (also called Prison Camp) (established March 1944): a) Main section – Men’s Camp
- b) Subsection – Barracks Camp, only established April 1945 in the nearby army barracks of the German Wehrmacht. Male prisoners arriving on transports from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp and its satellite camps, located near Nordhausen in eastern Germany, were kept here.
- Women’s Camp (established August 1944)
- a) Main section – Women’s Camp
- b) Tent Camp (established August 1944 as the first section of the Women’s Camp): in August 1944, many women arrived from camps in Eastern Europe. In October/November about 3000 more women arrived on train transports from Auschwitz, this included Anne Frank and her sister Margot.
Star camp was established as an Exchange camp with the idea that Jews would be exchanged for German diplomats and citizens held in Allied countries. This project was a total failure. The Germans had planned to exchange at least 30,000 Jews, of whom 6000 were held in Star camp. Only about 200 to 400 Jews were actually exchanged.
When the Germans found out that my father had been in the Dutch army and served in the cavalry and he could handle horses, he was given a horse and cart to collect dead bodies from throughout the camp. This was one of the reasons we were able to survive Bergen-Belsen as a family. My family was located in Star camp, my mother, my brother and I were housed in Barrack 22 and my father was in Barrack 11.
Each day prisoners were given some stale bread and a bowl of watery soup made from turnips. Horses had carrots and potatoes. My father was able to steal food from the horses. He would discreetly drop some of the food on the ground, my brother (9 years old) would be standing there and pick them up and run to my mother. She would use a potato or carrot to trade for some clothing for my brother and myself, we were growing boys who needed shoes or pants/tops changes regularly, especially in the severe 1944/45 winter.
The Germans fed horses better than their Jewish prisoners.
In late 1944 when the war started to turn against the Germans and Allied troops were approaching concentration camps in Eastern Europe, such as Auschwitz , those camps were emptied of Jewish prisoners, who were put on trains to Bergen-Belsen in the West. This included Anne Frank and her sister Margot who both arrived in October/November 1944 Bergen-Belsen became overcrowded a camp that was build, to hold 10-15,000 prisoners was now holding up to 60,000. Food became scarce and in January 1945 no food or water was distributed to inmates at all. Between January and April 1945, 300-500 prisoners a day died from starvation and typhus. Both Margot (February) and Anne (March) died of typhus.The British did their best to help the surviving prisoners of Bergen-Belsen, despite all their efforts, people in the camp were still dying and in their kindness to supply the starving with food and water unfortunately this brought more death as the starving survivors could not cope with the food given to them.
To clear the camp of the dead the British forced the remaining SS to carry the bodies of the dead to specially made mass graves. The British also rounded up local civil servants from nearby villages and brought them to the camp to show them the atrocities that had been committed right on their doorsteps and which they had ignored for years. The first British medical unit arrived on 17 April and, from then on, the death rate started to decline. Evacuation of the camp began on April 24 and by May 21 the whole camp was evacuated. All surviving former prisoners were processed in the nearby displaced persons camp, formerly occupied by the German army.
After the evacuation was completed the British, because of the spread of typhus, decided to burn Bergen-Belsen camp down; barrack by barrack.
The last commandant in charge of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was Josef Kramer who arrived in December 1944, he was promoted, after having been in charge of the gas chambers in Auschwitz, He became known as the ‘Beast of Belsen’. Under his command 300 prisoners a day died of typhus and when in January 1945, he stopped feeding the prisoners thousands perished from starvation.In the chaos that occurred after the Germans realised the British army were close to liberating Bergen-Belsen, a majority of the SS fled the camp. Kramer and 80 SS staff did not and were arrested by the British. Of the 80 SS captured 50 were men and 30 were women; 20 died within weeks ,mainly from typhus. Three SS were shot while trying to escape and one committed suicide. Forty five were accused of some form of crime, of which 11 were sentenced to death and 19 were imprisoned. Amazingly, 14 were acquitted and one was to sick to be tried. By mid 1955, all 19 who were sentenced to prison had been released. None of the SS guards who fled prior to the arrival of the British were ever capture – they just went back home and led a normal live.
The Bergen-Belsen trial began 17 September 1945 and lasted 54 days. Kramer was found guilty and sentenced to death, he was executed by hanging on 13 December 1945.The most infamous Warden of the Women’s camp at Bergen-Belsen was Irma Grese born in 1923, she joined the SS at 16 arriving in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945. She was accused of beating prisoners with a whip and using her dog to savage prisoners as well as randomly shooting prisoners. Grese was sentenced to death and was executed on 13 December 1945 at 22 years old the youngest female Nazi war criminal to be executed.
On 13 June 1945, after 624 days of hell, my parents, brother and I now five years old, returned to Holland. Since being liberated by the Russians at Trobitz we had been roaming and begging through eastern Europe until one day a British soldier, Captain Douglas, found us begging in the streets of Leipzig. Captain Douglas took us to a British field hospital where I was treated for Typhus and recovered.
Eddy Boas is one of the youngest Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and author of I’m Not A Victim, I Am A Survivor.