Bergen Belsen was a concentration camp in what is today known as Lower Saxony. Until 1943 it was a prisoner-of-war camp. The Bergen Belsen network was composed of numerous camps: a PoW camp, a “residence camp,” and a “prisoners’” camp. During its existence, Jews, PoWs, political prisoners, Roma (Gypsies), “asocials” criminals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals were incarcerated there.
In the face of Allied and Soviet/Russian advances into German-occupied territories in late 1944 and early 1945, Bergen Belsen became a vast catchment for thousands of Jewish prisoners forcefully evacuated and marched on foot, from camps closer to the front. The addition of thousands of new prisoners overwhelmed the deplorable and inadequate resources of the camp.
At the end of July 1944, there were approximately 7, 300 prisoners in Bergen Belsen. This number increased to 22,000 by early 1945. As prisoners who had been evacuated from other camps continued to be sent to Bergen Belsen, the number of inmates soared to over 60,000 by April 1945. From 1944, food allotments continued to shrink. By early 1945, the availability of fresh water had been seriously depleted and prisoners were forced to go hungry and thirsty for days.
The sanitary conditions were abysmal, with few latrines and water taps for tens of thousands of prisoners. The massive overcrowding, abominable sanitary conditions, lack of food, water and shelter resulted in widespread diseases (such as, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery), leading to a soaring death rate.
When the British forces liberated Bergen Belsen in April 1945 they were confronted with approximately 60,000 seriously ill prisoners, and thousands of corpses lying unburied in the camp surrounds. Amongst those who had died there were Anne Frank and her sister Margot, both of whom perished in the camp a month before its liberation.
Horrific scenes greeted British troops as they entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945. They were accompanied by the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby who recorded his first impressions for radio.
It is thought that more than 50,000 people died at Bergen Belsen during the war. A further 10,000 former prisoners, too ill to recover, died shortly after liberation.