CHILDREN IN THE CAMP
Despite its development towards the detention centre for evacuation transports and the dramatic changes that this meant, Bergen-Belsen retained a function in one aspect: It remained a family camp, not only because the hostage (Geiseln) Jewish families that had been deported, remained in the camp, unless they were exchanged replaced or had been released, but also because, once children arriving with the transports of prisoners since the fall of 1944, who were completely unrelated with the exchange projects that took place from Bergen-Belsen. This was initially the case in the fall of 1944 when transports came from Poland with women who had been arrested in the context of the Warsaw Uprising and were then deported into the camp with their children. in part, since November 1944 came a large number of Sinti and Roma children with their mothers to Bergen-Belsen. The existing data even suggest that the Sinti and Roma were eventually that group of prisoners, with the highest percentage of share of children. Also among the Hungarian Jews, who after the departure of the "Kasztner Group' in December 1944, the Hungarians were sent to Bergen-Belsen camp, as the last part of the group of "exchange prisoners", families that brought their children with them.
|Bergen Belsen, Germany, Children behind a barbed-wire fence, after the liberation, April 1945'.|
Even at the sub-camps, the children until the age of 14 years were living in the barracks with their mothers. Although they were not scheduled or assigned to work details, but had to take part in the dreaded roll-calls from the age of three years and were exposed to the same living conditions as the adults: hunger, cold, fear and diseases, which determined their everyday camp life. They had to accept the same experiences very much as their parents, from which they could not very well protect them.
There were only very few possibilities of distraction or the processing of their experiences and fears for them in Bergen-Belsen. Of great importance in this regard was at first an organized and especially in the residence camp, the children's education, which was of course not allowed and therefore had to be disguised as "child care" during SS inspections. The increasing deterioration of living conditions since the fall of 1944, however, led to a gradual decline to continue with this well intended program, the increasing physical and mental powers of the adults were missing. So, what was left to the children often remained only the possibility to play - such games as mimicking the "SS- Appell, Roll Call Game" - to cope with their traumatic life situation.
|Bergen Belsen, Germany, Children in the DP camp kindergarten, Postwar|
|Arrival at Westerbork|
|New born baby in Bergen-Belsen (22min.5sek.) Some children were born in the camp.'|
In the final months before the liberation, there could be no more talk of special privileges in practice for the Exchange Prisoners. They were to some extent treated no better than the prevailing disastrous living conditions as all other prisoners.
Suddenly, just a few days before the liberation they received their special and important status again. While at the the same time thousands of prisoners, in the context of evacuation transports, were taken into the main and sub-camps, the more transportable prisoners of the Transit Camp (Aufenthaltslager) had to stay, to get ready for their departure from Bergen-Belsen. With three transports, they left between 6 and 10 April 1945 with a total of about 6,700 prisoners. It was probably intended to bring all three transports to Theresienstadt. However, only one of the trains arrived actually on 21 April 1945 at Theresienstadt, where the prisoners were freed only on May 8, 1945 by the Red Army. The other two trains were finally freed after days of wandering, the first on 13 April 1945 at Farsleben near Magdeburg by American troops, and the second on 23 April 1945 near Tröblitz by the Red Army. For the weakened prisoners the transport meant new hardships. In the liberated train at Tröbitz at least 133 prisoners had died during the trip.
The remaining in Bergen-Belsen prisoners were not freed until the 15th of April 1945 on the basis of a localized ceasefire agreement that was negotiated on 12 April, with the consent of Heinrich Himmler between the British and the German military. It provided for a neutral zone around the camp to prevent the spread of epidemics and to hand over the camp without a fight to British troops. The guarding of the camp should be taken over for the time being instead of the SS, by German Wehrmacht and Hungarian soldiers, who were promised a free retreat back to German front lines. What is unclear, were the rules regarding the SS staff: Provided that the Wehrmacht could maintain order, they should remain in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and pass the camp properly over to the British.
Disease was kept under control by routinely disinfecting all new arrivals. But in early February 1945 a large transport of Hungarian Jews was admitted while the disinfection facility was out of order. As a result, typhus broke out and quickly spread beyond control.
Commandant Josef Kramer quarantined the camp in an effort to save lives, but SS camp administration headquarters in Berlin insisted that Belsen be kept open to receive still more Jewish evacuees arriving from the East. The death rate soon rose to 400 a day.
The worst killer was typhus, but typhoid fever and dysentery also claimed many lives. Aggravating the situation was a policy during the final months of transferring already sick inmates from other camps to Belsen, which was then officially designated a sick or convalescence camp (Krankenlager). The sick women of Auschwitz, for example, were transferred to Belsen in three groups in November-December 1944.
When SS chief Heinrich Himmler learned of the typhus outbreak at Bergen-Belsen, he immediately issued an order to all appropriate officials requiring that "all medical means necessary to combat the epidemic should be employed ... There can be no question of skimping either with doctors or medical supplies." However, the general breakdown of order that prevailed on Germany by this time made it impossible to implement the command.
As British forces approached Bergen-Belsen, German authorities sought to turn over the camp to the British so that it would not become a combat zone. After some negotiation, it was peacefully transferred, with an agreement that "both British and German troops will make every effort to avoid fighting in the area."
By negotiations between British and German officers, British troops took over from the SS and the Wehrmacht the task of guarding the vast concentration camp at Belsen, a few miles north-west of Celle, which contains 60,000 prisoners, many of them political. This has been done because typhus is rampant in the camp and it is vital that no prisoners be released until the infection is checked. The advancing British agreed to refrain from bombing or shelling the area of the camp, and the Germans agreed to leave behind an armed guard which would be allowed to return to their own lines a week after the British arrival.
The story of the negotiations is curious. Two German officers presented themselves before the British outposts and explained that there were 9,000 sick in the camp and that all sanitation had failed. They proposed that the British should occupy the camp at once, as the responsibility was international in the interests of health. In return for the delay caused by the truce the Germans offered to surrender intact the bridges over the river Aller. After brief consideration the British senior officer rejected the German proposals, saying it was necessary that the British should occupy an area of ten kilometres round the camp in order to be sure of keeping their troops and lines of communication away from the disease. The British eventually took over the camp.
THE SS PERSONNEL AND THE PROCESSES
In fact, the majority of SS personnel began on the 13th April 1945 to withdraw from Bergen-Belsen, not having destroyed the camp registration, including the inmate personnel file which they left behind. Only about 50 SS men and 20 to 30 guards remained together with the commander Josef Kramer at Bergen-Belsen, apparently on the assumption that they would also after the handover, be able to leave the camp towards the German lines.
But shortly after the liberation they were arrested by the British and initially forced to participate in the disposal of perished prisoners. They had to take the bodies and bring them to the mass graves. Approximately 20 SS-men died in the aftermath of poisoning they attracted through injuries sustained in the process from deceased corpses.
|old MTV gymnasium, Lindenstraße 30, Lüneburg|
|Josef Kramer, photographed in leg irons at Belsen before being removed to the POW cage at Celle, April 17, 1945.|
On 17 September 1945 began in Lüneburg before a British military court the First Bergen-Belsen Trial. Indicted were 20 men and 16 SS-guards, and eleven former detainee functionaries. Since some of the defendants had been previously used in the concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz, they had to stand trial in Lüneburg also for their crimes committed there, so the Lüneburg Belsen Trial was not only the earliest war crimes trial on German soil, but also in fact the first Auschwitz Trial.
On November 17, 1945, the Court handed down its judgments: Eleven defendants, including the former camp commandant Josef Kramer, were sentenced to death, acquitted 19 to prison terms and 14 acquitted. Agaainst four SS-men no verdict was passed, as they were ill shortly before or during the proceedings. The death sentences were carried out in mid-December 1945 in Hameln.
In May 1946, a second "Belsen Trial" took place took place in Celle, it was conducted against ten defendants who either were not at the time of the main proceedings in British custody in the fall of 1945 or due to sickness had not been competent enough to stand trial. Also in this process the court handed down several death sentences and imprisonment: four of the defendants were also executed in October 1946 in Hameln.
|Interior shot of the court room ten days before the start of the trial'|
In Great Britain, the trial was mostly viewed positively, as a triumph of the rule of law, given the fairness and meticulousness with which it had been conducted. However, in some other countries, notably the Soviet Union and France, the verdicts were criticised as too mild. Many of the survivors also felt that way.
COMMANDER JOSEF KRAMER 'THE BEAST' OF BERGEN-BELSEN
[In a March 1, 1945, letter to Gruppenführer (General) Richard Glücks, head of the SS camp administration agency, Commandant Kramer reported in detail on the catastrophic situation in the Bergen-Belsen, and pleaded for help:
If I had sufficient sleeping accommodation at my disposal, then the accommodation of the detainees who have already arrived and of those still to come would appear more possible. In addition to this question a spotted fever and typhus epidemic has now begun, which increases in extent every day. The daily mortality rate, which was still in the region of 60-70 at the beginning of February, has in the meantime attained a daily average of 250-300 and will increase still further in view of the conditions which at present prevail.
Supply. When I took over the camp, winter supplies for 1500 internees had been indented for; some had been received, but the greater part had not been delivered. This failure was due not only to difficulties of transport, but also to the fact that practically nothing is available in this area and all must be brought from outside the area ...
For the last four days there has been no delivery [of food] from Hannover owing to interrupted communications, and I shall be compelled, if this state of affairs prevails till the end of the week, to fetch bread also by means of truck from Hannover. The trucks allotted to the local unit are in no way adequate for this work, and I am compelled to ask for at least three to four trucks and five to six trailers. When I once have here a means of towing then I can send out the trailers into the surrounding area ... The supply question must, without fail, be cleared up in the next few days. I ask you, Gruppenführer, for an allocation of transport ...
State of Health. The incidence of disease is very high here in proportion to the number of detainees. When you interviewed me on Dec. 1, 1944, at Oranienburg, you told me that Bergen-Belsen was to serve as a sick camp for all concentration camps in north Germany. The number of sick has greatly increased, particularly on account of the transports of detainees that have arrived from the East in recent times -- these transports have sometimes spent eight or fourteen days in open trucks ...
The fight against spotted fever is made extremely difficult by the lack of means of disinfection. Due to constant use, the hot-air delousing machine is now in bad working order and sometimes fails for several days
A catastrophe is taking place for which no one wishes to assume responsibility ... Gruppenführer, I can assure you that from this end everything will be done to overcome the present crisis ...
I am now asking you for your assistance as it lies in your power. In addition to the above-mentioned points I need here, before everything, accommodation facilities, beds, blankets, eating utensils -- all for about 20,000 internees ... I implore your help in overcoming this situation.
Mass grave at Belsen camp, shortly after its liberation by British troops. Photographs such as this are widely reproduced as proof of a German policy of extermination. Contrary to Allied propaganda claims of the time, and Holocaust allegations in recent decades, though, these unfortunate prisoners were victims of typhus and starvation that were indirect consequences of the war – not of any deliberate policy. At least 14,000 Jews died in the camp following the British takeover.
Under such terrible conditions, Kramer did everything in his power to reduce suffering and prevent death among the inmates, even appealing to the hard-pressed German army. "I don't know what else to do," he told high-ranking army officers. "I have reached the limit. Masses of people are dying. The drinking water supply has broken down. A trainload of food was destroyed by low-flying [Allied] war planes. Something must be done immediately."
Working together with both Commandant Kramer and chief inmate representative Küstermeier, Colonel Hanns Schmidt responded by arranging for the local volunteer fire department to provide water. He also saw to it that food supplies were brought to the camp from abandoned rail cars. Schmidt later recalled that Kramer "did not at all impress one as a criminal type. He acted like an upright and rather honourable man. Neither did he strike me as someone with a guilty conscience. He worked with great dedication to improve conditions in the camp. For example, he rounded up horse drawn vehicles to bring food to the camp from rail cars that had been shot up."
"I was swamped," Kramer later explained to incredulous British military interrogators:
The camp was not really inefficient before you [British and American forces] crossed the Rhine. There was running water, regular meals of a kind -- I had to accept what food I was given for the camp and distribute it the best way I could. But then they suddenly began to send me train-loads of new prisoners from all over Germany. It was impossible to cope with them. I appealed for more staff, more food. I was told that this was impossible. I had to carry on with what I had.
Then as a last straw the Allies bombed the electric plant that pumped our water. Loads of food were unable to reach the camp because of the Allied fighters. Then things really got out of hand. During the last six weeks I have been helpless. I did not even have sufficient staff to bury the dead, let alone segregate the sick ... I tried to get medicines and food for the prisoners and I failed. I was swamped. I may have been hated, but I was doing my duty.
Kramer's clear conscience is also suggested by the fact that he made no effort to save his life by fleeing, but instead calmly awaited the approaching British forces, naively confident of decent treatment. "When Belsen Camp was eventually taken over by the Allies," he later stated, "I was quite satisfied that I had done all I possibly could under the circumstances to remedy the conditions in the camp".sic] He calmly accepted and anticipated his fate, that he would be hanged.
Der Ort des Terrors Vol.7
Researcher-Author: Thomas Rahe
C.H.Beck oHG, München 2008.
Institute for Research on Anti-Semitism-Berlin.
Translated from German by:
Herbert Stolpmann, June 2014
HKS: Own initials, when expression
[sic] transcribed exactly as found