What was Bergen-Belsen? A Brief Overview

Background to Bergen-Belsen

A camp was first established at Bergen-Belsen in north-western Germany in 1940 to hold French and Belgian prisoners of war and in 1941 it was extended to accommodate Soviet prisoners of war. In the spring of 1943, the nature of Bergen-Belsen changed significantly when most POWs were sent elsewhere and its first Jewish prisoners arrived. It was also at this time that the camp became part of the concentration camp system, although it was only formally designated as a concentration camp in December 1944.

The camp was transformed by two developments in 1944. The first was its designation in the spring of that year as a ‘rest camp’ for sick prisoners from other camps, who were in effect brought to Belsen to die. The more significant development came in the autumn with the beginning of transports from camps in the East, especially Auschwitz-Birkenau, as the SS responded to the advance of the Red Army by evacuating prisoners. The first major arrival was a transport of 8,000 women from Auschwitz, which included Anne Frank and her sister Margot. There were insufficient barracks, so the women were accommodated in specially erected tents which blew down in heavy storms in November. In the same month, the brutal Josef Kramer, who had been commandant of Birkenau, was transferred to Belsen. From January 1945 onwards, tens of thousands of mostly Jewish prisoners were brought to Belsen which was totally incapable of accommodating the influx. Lack of food, shelter and sanitation and a consequent typhus epidemic caused the deaths of 18,000 people in March alone. By the time of liberation in April 1945, there were an estimated 53,000 people held in the camp.

Approximately 120,000 people were held in Bergen-Belsen at some point during the war. At least 52,000 of them died, most of them in 1945, including after liberation, as a result of the catastrophic overcrowding which led to starvation and epidemics such as typhus. Most of these victims were Jews who had already endured months or years of captivity in camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The victims in 1945 also included several thousand Poles who had either been evacuated from Auschwitz or who had been sent directly to Belsen following the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

Belsen camp sign


Liberation of Bergen-Belsen

On April 15th 1945, British troops of the 11th Armoured Division liberated the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. By this time, thousands of starving and extremely ill people had been left in the camp by the Nazis. They were surrounded by the bodies of 13,000 people who had recently died. The British troops were completely unprepared for such conditions and were extremely shocked by what they found. Despite the efforts of British medical personnel and relief agencies, more than 10,000 people died in the weeks after liberation.

Unidentified woman after liberation


Displaced Persons Camp

After liberation, the survivors were taken to the former army barracks for medical treatment. After this, most survivors returned to their country of origin, but more than 20,000 Jewish and Polish survivors did not wish to return. These people were given the status of "displaced persons" and a Displaced Persons (DP) camp was therefore established at Bergen-Belsen in the former army barracks; in June 1945 this was divided into two separate camps. The Polish camp held up to 10,000 people before it was disbanded in September 1946. The Jewish camp, which held up to 12,000 people, closed only in September 1950. The Jewish DP camp was home to former Belsen prisoners as well as thousands of survivors of the Holocaust from across Europe.

Belsen 75

The Trust has recently delivered the Belsen 75 Programme in partnership with UCL Centre for Holocaust Education and with support from the National Holocaust Centre and Museum. This programme was funded by the Department for Education and was designed to educate students across England about the history of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and its liberation by British forces. Teachers have been sent bespoke educational resources and through the Belsen 75 microsite can access brand new innovative digital and interactive recorded survivor testimony. Additionally, near to 1,000 students and teachers travelled to the Bergen-Belsen Memorial to see the place where so many were murdered during the Holocaust.

To find out more about the Belsen 75 Programme, including further detail on the history of the camp, and to hear testimony from Belsen survivor, Renee Salt BEM, click here.