This was a very sad and sometimes painful book to read. I picked it up a few years ago in Germany, at the “gift shop” at Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Visiting the camp (or what’s left of it) was a moving experience, as was reading this book—which describes the liberation of the camp by British soldiers and medical personnel in the spring of 1945. The conditions just before that liberation were grim, to say the least.
The camp became yet more overcrowded, the population growing from 15,257 at the end of 1944 to 44,000 by the end of March 1945, even though some 18,000 people had died there in that month alone. ‘We are engulfed in our own stinking sea of germs, lice and fleas, and everything around us is putrid and slimy,’ [Hanna] Levy-Hass [a Yugoslav Communist imprisoned at Belsen] wrote. ‘We are literally lying on top of each other, we provide a perfect breeding-ground for the lice.’ In February 1945, an epidemic of typhus broke out. There began to be reports of cannibalism among the inmates: of corpses being cut open and organs such as the liver extracted and eaten.
Indeed, just reading these descriptions, to say nothing of transcribing them here, makes me uncomfortable. I hesitate, not wanting to slide into objectification and voyeurism as a self-defense mechanism. I wonder if I experience something akin to the war photographers who visited the camp, witnessing things through their camera lens that would be intolerable without the interposition of some recording device between themselves and that awful reality.
For the army cameraman, it helped to concentrate on the technical problems of filming. ‘It was OK as long as you were looking through the lens,’ one said later—though this technique didn’t work with the great photographer George Rodger who was overcome by shame while taking a picture of a man dying at Belsen (for Life magazine). Rodger put his camera away and tried to help. He never photographed war again.
The camera was not enough to shield Rodger, but some were able to make the technique work—and it is important that they were, because there should be some record of these events.
The British were sickened and revolted. ‘The things I saw completely defy description,’ Colonel Taylor’s deputy, Major Ben Barnett wrote. ‘There are no words in the English language which can give a true impression of the ghastly horror of this camp.’ Countless others would say the same thing over the next weeks—that Belsen defied language. But it wasn’t just a matter of finding words: for Major Barnett the thing itself was beyond comprehension. ‘I find it hard even now to get into focus all these horrors, my mind is really quite incapable of taking in everything I saw because it was all so completely foreign to everything I had previously believed or thought possible,’ he added.
That really underscores why the photographers had to take those pictures, why the authors have had to write the books, and, in my own small way, why I have to transcribe here the things that shocked and sickened me. These things happened. They’re not just horror stories. They are a record of just how callous and malevolent we can be to each other, and it’s something that should never be forgotten.
The tales of the medical personnel who faced the impossible task of helping so many thousands of people so close to death are some of the most heartbreaking. There was a cruel but necessary logic that had to be applied.
Military triage divides battlefield casualties into three categories—those who will inevitably die, those who can be returned to the front and those who will live but will not fight again—and concentrates resources on the lightly wounded while ignoring the dying. Similarly, at Belsen, ‘One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count,’ [Lt. Colonel Mervin] Gonin [the officer commanding the 11th Light Field Ambulance and a general practitioner] recalled. ‘One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew that a tracheotomy and nursing would save it.’
Belsen was not initially a death camp. It was a place where the Third Reich wanted to gather all the inmates from across the German camp system who might have some financial or political value as hostages and keep them caged but alive. As such, there were no gas chambers or incinerators at Belsen. But as the resources of the Reich became stretched thinner and thinner by the Allied war effort, the prisoners at Belsen were left alone in their huts to slowly starve to death. Thousands had already died by the time the camp was liberated, the prisoners themselves piling up the dead bodies in the corners of their compound. The medical students who were sent into these huts to separate the nearly dead from the nearly living had a harrowing time of it.
No one forgot the moment of first entering ‘their’ hut. ‘We walked in, held our nose, walked round, walked out again, looked at each other and said “Where do we start?”’ Ian Proctor remembered, ‘It was full of the most emaciated people I have ever seen in my life. There was supposed to be a loo at the far end but they couldn’t get up to go to it. It was almost up to the top of one’s boots in excreta. One just stumped about in it. People by now were too weak to use the lavatory and were just lying there in their own faeces and urine which dripped down from one bunk to the next—quite appalling.’ Writing in 1945, Alan MacAuslan caught more precise details:
‘We took a look round—there was faeces all over the floor—the majority of people having diarrhoea. I was standing aghast in the midst of all this filth trying to get used to the smell which was a mixture of post-mortem room, a sewer, sweat, and foul pus, when I heard a scrabbling on the floor. I looked down in the half light and saw a woman crouching at my feet. She had black matted hair, well populated and her ribs stood out as though there were nothing between them, her arms were so thin that they were horrible. She was defecating, but she was so weak that she could not life her buttocks from the floor and, as she had diarrhoea, the liquid yellow stools bubbled over her thighs.’
Those who were selected for care were removed the filthy huts—sometimes forcibly over the cries of those who did not wish to be separated from relatives or friends who were too sick to be saved—and taken to a mobile bath unit constructed to efficiently wash hundreds of inmates every day.
In this ‘human laundry,’ each patient was carried by a German medical orderly to one of the tables and then washed, shaved and dusted with DDT [standard treatment for typhus at the time] by two nurses from the German Military Hospital, supervised by two German doctors under a British officer. Hair that was long and thick or heavily infested with lice was clipped off, although the British relented somewhat when they saw ‘the deleterious psychological effect this had on women who were well enough to realise what was going on.’ [Lt. Colonel James] Johnston admitted that most of the inmates were ‘not really in a fit state to withstand such treatment’—it was ‘not funny having soap rubbed into a painful ulcer’ and ‘very painful to those with severe conditions such as bed-sores.’ But there was no alternative. Of the 14,000 people who eventually passed through the ‘laundry,’ only two died. Some of the fitter female inmates objected to the immodesty of the procedure but most were too apathetic to care.
‘Going into that place, who could forget it?’ wrote Molly Sylva Jones of the Red Cross. ‘Living corpses, skeletons covered with parchment like skin, discoloured by filth and neglected sores lay on the bath tables. Mostly they lay inert, occasionally they moaned as they were touched by the nurses. They lay with open eyes sunk deep into hollow sockets, eyes which registered little, save fear and apprehension, mainly they were expressionless.’
After the laundry they were taken to a makeshift hospital, where many of them “woke up” for the first time in years.
Anka Fischer was lying stark naked on ‘a large 2-storey mountain of dead bodies’ when the British entered Belsen. ‘I was unconscious at the time,’ she wrote in November 1945, ‘and cannot remember the event.’ Soldiers tried to resuscitate people from the pile—or simply tried to move it—and, when she showed signs of life, she was taken to hospital, and eventually emerged from the coma, still weak and sick with typhus, weighing only 32 kg. She was kept in hospital for nine weeks. Rena Salt remembered coming into the hospital in a bed ‘with white linen. That was just heaven. You could stretch out for the first time in months.’ Her first meal ‘consisted of a quarter slice of white bread, topped with a teaspoonful of stewed apples. And the taste is still in my mouth today.’
There were, of course, reasons why the inmates acted this way—why they were practically comatose. For many if not most, the humanity had been beaten and starved out of them, and they had retreated into themselves in order to survive. Those who were temporarily left behind in the huts still acted as if civilization had abandoned them. As food began to be distributed, the British appointed leaders within each hut, believing they would make sure that everything was shared fairly and that the weakest inmates would get their portion. It didn’t work.
The British had expected to find grateful victims, not ‘beings come from another world’; when they had to intervene in wild brawls between the inmates, and discovered that no one could be relied on to distribute food and everyone was purely interested in their own personal profit, they had completely lost faith in the prisoners:
‘They understood nothing about it; it seemed to them that they were looking after a zoo inhabited by savage beasts, with dominant species and the mass of the dying, an antediluvian zoo where it was as natural to dominate as to die.’
Indeed, the psychological destruction the Nazis had wrought was in some ways more devastating than the physical.
Saving the lives of the Belsen inmates was only part of the story; their minds too had to be rescued. By the end of May 1945, the British, ‘aided by the fine summer weather and the ready-made facilities of the Panzer Training School’ [a nearby institution where they had set-up their hospital], had, in Derrick Sington’s words, ‘carried out the immediate task of feeding, re-clothing and re-housing the inmates of Belsen.’ But there still remained ‘the tasks of psychological restoration, of rebuilding confidence, of making up for years of education lost, of re-accustoming 15,000 people to enjoyment in work, of teaching many of them to trust and respect authority rather than defy and outwit it, of persuading them to regard regulations and rules as benevolent and not diabolical. Obviously nothing more than a beginning could be made with this difficult work.’
It was work that would continue for years, in some cases, for the rest of the survivors’ lives. What may be equally sad is the way so many survivors seem to drop out of history after just a few years. Some stayed in Germany, some were accepted by Sweden, some emigrated to the new Israel or to America, but most seem to drift into the undocumented population of the world like ghosts, doing little to help us remember what had happened to them.