Prisoner of war camp
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.
The workers who constructed the original buildings were housed in camps near Fallingbostel and Bergen, the latter being the so-called Bergen-Belsen Army Construction Camp. Once the military complex was completed in 1938/39, the workers' camp fell into disuse. However, after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Wehrmacht began using the huts as a prisoner of war (POW) camp.
The camp of huts near Fallingbostel became known as Stalag XI-B and was to become one of the Wehrmacht's largest POW camps, holding up to 95,000 prisoners from various countries. In June 1940, Belgian and French POWs were housed in the former Bergen-Belsen construction workers' camp. This installation was significantly expanded from June 1941, once Germany prepared to invade the Soviet Union, becoming an independent camp known as Stalag XI-C (311). It was intended to hold up to 20,000 Soviet POWs and was one of three such camps in the area. The others were at Oerbke (Stalag XI-D (321)) and Wietzendorf (Stalag X-D (310)). By the end of March 1942, some 41,000 Soviet POWs had died in these three camps of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. By the end of the war, the total number of dead had increased to 50,000. When the POW camp in Bergen ceased operation in early 1945, as the Wehrmacht handed it over to the SS, the cemetery contained over 19,500 dead Soviet prisoners.
In the summer of 1943, Stalag XI-C (311) was dissolved and Bergen-Belsen became a branch camp of Stalag XI-B. It served as the hospital for all Soviet POWs in the region until January 1945. Other inmates/patients were Italian military internees from August 1944 and, following the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, around 1,000 members of the Polish Home Army were imprisoned in a separate section of the POW camp.
Memorial stone at the entrance to the historical camp area
In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt; WVHA). It thus became part of the concentration camp system, run by the SS Schutzstaffel but it was a special case. Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ("civilian internment camp"), in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ("holding camp"), since the Geneva Conventions stipulated that the former type of facility must be open to inspection by international committees. This "holding camp" or "exchange camp" was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries, or for hard currency. The SS divided this camp into subsections for individual groups (the "Hungarian camp", the "special camp" for Polish Jews, the "neutrals camp" for citizens of neutral countries and the "Star camp" for Dutch Jews). Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors were transported to the Bergen-Belsen "holding" or exchange camp.:160 Inmates were made to work, many of them in the "shoe commando" which salvaged usable pieces of leather from shoes collected and brought to the camp from all over Germany and occupied Europe. In general the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner until fairly late in the war, due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.
In August 1944, a new section was created and this became the so-called "women's camp". By November 1944 this camp received around 9,000 women and young girls. Most of those who were able to work stayed only for a short while and were then sent on to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. The first women interned there were Poles, arrested after the failed Warsaw Uprising. Others were Jewish women from Poland or Hungary, transferred from Auschwitz. Margot and Anne Frank died there in February or March 1945.
In December 1944 SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, previously at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the new camp commandant, replacing SS-Hauptsturmführer
Adolf Haas , who had been in post since the spring of 1943. In January 1945, the SS took over the POW hospital and increased the size of Bergen-Belsen. As eastern concentration camps were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army, at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. Before that the number of prisoners at Belsen had been much smaller. In July 1944 there were 7,300; by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000; and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. Numbers then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945. This overcrowding led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates. At this point also, the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied. All inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.
Außenlager (satellite camps)
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp had three satellite camps. These were at regional armament works. Around 2,000 female concentration camp prisoners were forced to work there. Those who were too weak or sick to continue with their work were brought to Bergen-Belsen.:204–205
Außenlager Bomlitz-Benefeld at Bomlitz near Fallingbostel was in use from September 3 to October 15, 1944. It was located at the facility of Eibia GmbH, a gunpowder works. Around 600 female Polish Jews were used for construction and production work.:204
Außenlager Hambühren-Ovelgönne (Lager III, Waldeslust) at Hambühren south of Winsen was in use from August 23, 1944 to February 4, 1945. It was an abandoned potash mine, now intended as an underground production site for Bremen plane manufacturer Focke-Wulf. Around 400 prisoners, mostly female Polish or Hungarian Jews, were forced to prepare the facility and to help lay train tracks to it. This was done for the company Hochtief.:204
Außenlager Unterlüß-Altensothrieth (Tannenberglager) east of Bergen was in use from late August 1944 to April 13, 1945. It was located at Unterlüß, where the Rheinmetall-Borsig AG had a large test site. Up to 900 female Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, Yugoslavian and Czech Jews had to clear forest, do construction work or work in munitions production.:204
Prisoners were guarded by SS staff and received no wages for their work. The companies instead reimbursed the SS for the labour supplied. Wage taxes were also levied by local authorities.:204–205
Treatment of prisoners and deaths in the camp
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187
In the Männerlager (the male section of the "recovery camp"), inmates suffered even more from lack of care, malnourishment, disease and mistreatment by the guards. Thousands of them died. In the summer of 1944, at least 200 men were killed by orders of the SS by being injected with phenol.:196
There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, since the mass killings took place in the camps further east. Nevertheless, current estimates put the number of deaths at Belsen at more than 50,000 Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). Among them was Czech painter and writer Josef Čapek (estimated to be in April 1945). He had coined the word robot, popularised by his brother Karel Čapek.
The rate at which inmates died at Belsen accelerated notably after the mass transport of prisoners from other camps began in December 1944. From 1943 to the end of 1944 around 3,100 died. From January to mid-April 1945 this rose to around 35,000. Another 14,000 died after liberation between April 15 and the end of June 1945 (see below).:233
|Deaths at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp|
December 1944 to April 15, 1945:232–233
||at least 360
||at least 18,168
After the war, there were allegations that the camp (or possibly a section of it), was "of a privileged nature", compared to others. A lawsuit filed by the Jewish community in Thessaloniki against 55 alleged collaborators claims that 53 of them were sent to Bergen-Belsen "as a special favor" granted by the Germans.