Liberation for Bergen-Belsen arrived on 15 April 1945. Major Dick Williams, one of the first British soldiers to enter and liberate the camp said, “It was an evil, filthy place; a hell on Earth.”
The British comedian Michael Bentine, who took part in the liberation of the camp, wrote this on his encounter with Bergen-Belsen:
“Millions of words have been written about these horror camps, many of them by inmates of those unbelievable places. I’ve tried, without success, to describe it from my own point of view, but the words won’t come. To me, Belsen was the ultimate blasphemy.”
The camp was rife with deadly diseases, such as typhus, dysentery, and tuberculosis, caused by poor hygiene and malnutrition. As the thousands of dead bodies were contagious, they had to be buried in a hurry. At first, the British forced the arrested SS officers and other guards to dig the graves; later, they also used bulldozers. The mayors of the towns near the camp were forced to stand at the edge of the graves and watch.
It surprises me that they look shocked, they were mayors. So they would have been part of the Nazi regime that was responsible for the genocide on their doorsteps.
What the British troops encountered was described by the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them:
“…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
Military photographers and cameramen of the No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit documented the conditions of the camp and the measures of the British Army to ameliorate them. Many of the photos they took and the films they made from 15 April–9 June 1945, were published and/or shown abroad. Today, the originals are in the Imperial War Museum.
Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp was then burned to the ground by flame-throwing Bren Gun Carriers and Churchill Crocodile Tanks because of the typhus epidemic and louse infestation. As the concentration camp ceased to exist at this point, the name Belsen after this time refers to events at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.
Finishing with a quote from the camp’s most famous victim, Anne Frank, “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”