BERGEN-BELSEN , Nazi concentration camp near Hanover, Germany. It was established in July 1943 as an Aufenthaltslager ("transit camp") in part of a prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag 311, and intended for prisoners whom the German government wished to exchange for Germans in allied territory. The camp was run by the ss, whose commandants were Adolf Haas, Siegfried Seidle, and Josef Kramer. It was built by Jewish prisoners from Buchenwald and Natzweiler. Five satellite camps were created: a prisoner camp for those constructing the camp; a special camp for Jews brought from Poland who possessed passports or citizenship papers of Latin American states, entry visas for Palestine (or the official promise of visas), hostages, prisoners who had paid a ransom, collaborators, and others; a neutral camp for Jewish citizens of neutral countries such as Turkey, Argentina, and Spain; a "star" camp for Jews who would be exchanged; and a Hungarian camp which was established at the conclusion of the deportations from Hungary on July 8, 1944, and held the 1,684 prisoners on the *Kasztner transport. During the war, two prisoner exchanges took place: 301 persons were sent to Switzerland (165 were detained on their way, and only 136 arrived in Switzerland) and 222 to Palestine. In August 1944, 318 Jews from the Kasztner transport reached neutral Switzerland and in December the remaining 1,365 reached freedom. There was room in Bergen-Belsen for 10,000 inmates, and conditions, though difficult, were at first better than in other camps. But during 1944 there was a significant deterioration in conditions. Food rations were reduced to below the minimum nutritional requirement, and the prisoners were forced to do hard labor and were cruelly beaten. In addition, whether from intent, incompetence or simply overwhelming conditions, the camp authorities failed to provide even essential services.
Bergen-Belsen became a destination point for prisoners sent inland away from the advancing Soviet front during what became known as the death marches of the winter of 1944–45. Just when most of the prisoners had reached the point of physical and spiritual collapse, they were joined by prisoners removed from other camps as a result of the German retreat. Twenty thousand women arrived from Auschwitz and Buchenwald and thousands of male prisoners from Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. The camp population swelled rapidly from 15,257 in December 1944 to 41,000 in March 1945; during the last few weeks there was an additional massive influx of prisoners from the East. The new prisoners, who arrived after forced marches sometimes lasting weeks, were starved and disease-ridden. Epidemics broke out, but there was no medical attention. Overwhelmed by the influx of arriving prisoners, the camp simply ceased to function. One survivor contrasted the orderly Auschwitz with the collapsing Bergen-Belsen after the arrival of the death march survivors. She recalls:
At least there [in Auschwitz] we worked. And every once in a blue moon, we … we went into the showers. As much as we were afraid to go to the showers, because we didn't know if the showers would give us water or gas. Over there [in Bergen-Belsen], we had no showers.
As to the dead:
In Auschwitz there were well-planned facilities for cremation. When these did not suffice, bodies were burned in open fields and their ashes scattered.
At Auschwitz they took away the dead people. They gassed them and they burned them; and in the camps we didn't see any dead people. We only saw the people being hit or being dragged away, but we never saw any dead people lying around … Bergen-Belsen was nothing but dead people. Skeletons, skin and bones. They piled them up as they died. They just piled them up, like a mountain.
The death rate was high: in March 1945 just weeks before liberation, nearly 20,000 people died (including Anne *Frank). A total of 37,000 died before the liberation.
Bergen-Belsen was the second major camp in Germany to be liberated by the Allies. The British entered on April 15, 1945. The horrors, which deeply shocked the British soldiers, received widespread publicity in the West. Among the arriving liberating troops were British filmmakers who recorded the scene of bulldozers burying the dead and filmed the burning of the camps. These films were shown widely in movie newsreels throughout the world and are emblematic of the liberation and of the Nazi crimes for those who saw them then and many years later. The British arrested the ss administrators, including the commandant, Josef Kramer, and almost all were put to work clearing and burying the thousands of corpses. Twenty of them died doing this work, probably from infectious diseases. The rest were tried at the end of 1945. Eleven were condemned to death, 19 to imprisonment, and 14 were acquitted.
When British troops entered the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen they encountered more than 10,000 corpses and around 58,000 surviving inmates – the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews – who suffered from a combination of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, extreme malnutrition, and other virulent diseases.
Brigadier H.L. Glyn Hughes, deputy director of medical services of the British Army of the Rhine appointed Dr. Hadassah (Ada) Bimko, a 32-year-old Jewish dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, to organize and head a team of 28 doctors and 620 female and male volunteers from among the survivors, only a few of whom were trained nurses, to help the military medical personnel care for the camp's thousands of critically ill inmates. Despite their desperate efforts, however – it was not until May 11 that the daily death rate fell below 100 a day – the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims at Bergen-Belsen during the two months after liberation.
To contain the different epidemics rampaging through Bergen-Belsen, the British evacuated the survivors to the military barracks of a Panzer training school located about a mile away which in short order became the *displaced persons (dp) camp of Bergen-Belsen. On completion of the relocation on May 21, 1945, the British set fire to the concentration camp's wooden barracks.
Bergen-Belsen became the largest dp camp in Europe. From 1945 until 1950, it was an autonomous, self-governed, and largely self-contained Jewish community. Within days after the liberation, the camp's Jewish survivors elected their own political leadership headed by Josef *Rosensaft, a Polish Jew who had also survived Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dora-Mittelbau. They focused on four main tasks: the physical rehabilitation of the survivors, the search for relatives, spiritual rehabilitation and – often against the will of the British military authorities – the political fight for rights and immigration to Palestine, or Ereẓ-Israel.
The Jewish population of Bergen-Belsen was in constant flux, numbering approximately 12,000 within a few weeks of liberation, remaining around 10,000 through 1947, and then steadily declining as emigration from Germany became more feasible. While Jewish survivors from Western Europe and Czechoslovakia were repatriated in a matter of weeks after liberation, most Jewish survivors from Poland and many from Hungary chose not to return to their native countries. In 1946, when the British sought to prevent thousands of additional Polish Jewish refugees from entering the British zone, Rosensaft and his colleagues openly defied the Military Government by giving them sanctuary in Bergen-Belsen.
By June 1945, the Jewish Committee of the Bergen-Belsen dp camp was enlarged to represent all Jewish dps throughout the British zone of Germany. In September 1945 the first Congress of Liberated Jews met at Belsen and elected the Central Jewish Committee for the British Zone, representing both the Jewish dps from Eastern Europe and the newly reconstituted German Jewish communities of cities such as Hamburg, Cologne, Bremen, Duesseldorf, and Hanover. Josef Rosensaft served as its chairman and Norbert Wollheim, an Auschwitz survivor originally from Berlin who had organized the Kinder-transport, was vice chairman. Rosensaft headed both the Central Committee and the Bergen-Belsen Jewish Committee until the dp camp was closed in the fall of 1950.
As Rosensaft explained 20 years later, "Our feelings and ideas, unfortunately, were at variance with the political climate in 1945, and the calculations of those who held our fate in their hands. There were political factors in Germany that attempted to deny the Jewish character of the problems, which confronted the world as a result of the Hitler catastrophe. They sought by all means at their command to loosen the strong grip that Jewish pain and suffering and the tragic Jewish situation had on world conscience."
When the British officially renamed the dp camp "Hohne" in an attempt to at least nominally sever its relationship with the notorious concentration camp and thereby dilute the impact of the survivors' struggle for Jewish rights in international public opinion, Jewish leadership simply ignored the new designation. They understood full well the dramatic news value of the Bergen-Belsen name and were not about to surrender it. Official communications sent by the British military authorities to Rosensaft at "Hohne" were responded to on stationery that gave "Bergen-Belsen" as the Central Committee's address.
Yiddish was the official language of the Bergen-Belsen dp camp and Zionist politics were the order of the day. The first handwritten and mimeographed issue of the Bergen-Belsen newspaper, Undzer Shtimme (Our Voice), appeared on July 12, 1945. At first declared illegal by the British military authorities, it soon received official sanction and then appeared regularly. The first book published in Bergen-Belsen (on September 7, 1945) was a listing, in English and German, of the camp's Jewish survivors to facilitate the reunification of family members and friends, and some 60 other publications followed.
Several hundred children were liberated at Bergen-Belsen, and many more came there from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe during 1945 and 1946. As early as June 1945, the first school was opened in Bergen-Belsen with separate classes in Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian. Jewish children from different parts of Eastern Europe soon joined them. In due course Bergen-Belsen had a kindergarten; an elementary, high, and vocational training school; and a full complement of Jewish religious educational institutions. In addition, the camp had a rabbinate, a hospital, its own Jewish police force, a library, two theater companies, an orchestra, and a host of youth and sports clubs.
Determined to create new lives for themselves, the Jewish dps of Bergen-Belsen began to marry soon after liberation. More then 2,000 children – a vertitable population explosion – were born in the dp camp between 1946 and 1950.
Bergen-Belsen was at the heart of the Zionist struggle to establish a Jewish state, resulting in frequent confrontations with the British authorities. At the September 1945 Congress of Liberated Jews, the Jewish dps formally adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and expressing their "sorrow and indignation that almost six months after liberation we still find ourselves in guarded camps on British soil soaked with the blood of our people. We proclaim that we will not be driven back into the lands which have become the graveyards of our people."
Both the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine and the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (unscop) paid official visits to Bergen-Belsen. Following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, many of the Bergen-Belsen dps immigrated there. Others immigrated to the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, and the Bergen-Belsen dp Camp was officially closed in September 1950.
The World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations, based in New York and led by Josef Rosensaft, Norbert Wollheim, Sam E. Bloch, and Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, was one of the first and most active organizations of Holocaust survivors, organizing commemorative events in the U.S., Israel, and Canada as well as frequent pilgrimages to the mass-graves of Bergen-Belsen, and publishing numerous memorial volumes about Bergen-Belsen and the Holocaust generally. In Israel, the survivors of Bergen-Belsen are represented by the Irgun She'erit ha-Pletah me-ha-Ezor ha-Briti (Organization of Survivors from the British Zone).
The Gedenkstätte (Memorial Site) of Bergen-Belsen includes the mass graves, the Jewish and International monuments erected there, a museum, and a major research center and archive. In May 1985, U.S. President Ronald Reagan visited the site in an attempt to alleviate the opposition to his decision to pay tribute to fallen German soldiers, including members of the Waffen-SS, at the *Bitburg military cemetery.
Irgun She'erit ha-Pletah me-ha-Ezor ha-Briti, Belsen (Eng., 1957). add. bibliography: S.J. Goldsmith, "Yossl Rosensaft: The Art of Survival," in: Twenty 20th Century Jews (1962); H. Lavsky, New Beginnings: Holocaust Survivors in Bergen-Belsen and the British Zone of Germany, 1945–1950 (2002); S.E. Bloch (ed.), Holocaust and Rebirth: Bergen-Belsen 1945–1965 (1965); A. Königseder and J. Wetzel, Waiting for Hope: Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War ii Germany (2001); J. Reilly, Belsen: The Liberation of a Concentration Camp (1998); H. Rosensaft, Yesterday: My Story (2004); M.Z. Rosensaft, "Bergen-Belsen: The End and the Beginning," in: Children and the Holocaust: Symposium Presentations (2004); B. Shephard, After Daybreak, The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 (2005).
[Jozeph Michman (Melkman) and
Yehuda Bauer /
Menachem Rosensaft (2nd ed.)]