“Well first of all, they kept on saying to me ‘tell the world. They must know it happened. Did you know it? Did you know what was happening to us? You won’t be able to save us all, but those who can talk and will survive they must present all of our suffering to the world.’”  - Reverend Leslie Hardman - the first Jewish Chaplain with the British Army to enter Bergen-Belsen.

Seventy-six years ago, on April the 15th 1945, the 8th British Army Corps advanced across the fields of northern Germany, having been informed by their enemy - the SS - that they wished to hand over the supposed prisoner of war camp Bergen-Belsen. They were told that there was an outbreak of Typhus in the camp that the SS was struggling to handle - “the Germans intimated to that there was within their lines a concentration camp containing 1,500 cases of Typhus, but at no time did they give an indication of the appalling conditions we were to find there” - Brigadier H. L Glynn-Hughes.

Although there was some knowledge of the German concentration camps amongst the British, Bergen-Belsen would be the first real experience the British Army would have with the atrocities committed by the SS. In fact, up until that day, the free world had relatively little reliable knowledge on what the Nazis had been doing with their “concentration camps”, as L/Bdr George Leonard of the 63rd anti-tank regiment describes “We’d heard all these silly stories about the Germans and concentration camps and all the other - and we didn’t believe it! We didn’t! Nobody would do things like that! But of course, they did. And we walked into it.”  Upon entering the camp, the British were confronted not by the prisoner of war camp they had been expecting, but with a concentration camp and a humanitarian crisis on their hands. 

At the time of the British arrival, roughly 50,000 prisoners had already died in Bergen-Belsen. Around 10,000 dead lay unburied throughout Belsen and its satellite camps, many of those still alive too weak to move. Seventy-six years later, myself, three other Five Ways students along with our teacher and roughly two hundred students from across Birmingham entered the former site of Bergen-Belsen.

Despite a small number of tourists along with 200 teenagers, the compound was eerily quiet. Surrounded by woodland, it seemed almost hidden, covered up from passers-by, a secluded testament to the horrors of humanity. Very little was left of the original camp - at first glance it appeared only as a barren field, with gravestones and mounds sparsely dotted around the glade, a small dip in the earth marking where a fence once was. Even with coats, hats, and gloves, the wind was bitter cold, biting into any exposed skin. As the wind aggressively whistled around my ears, we began to walk round the camp.

We learnt that the SS were right - when the British entered the camp it was not just the dead and malnourished that posed a problem; a serious Typhoid outbreak swept through the camp due to the cramped and rotten living conditions. After moving everyone out, there was little choice but to burn the whole place to the ground - the whole area was infected and had to be purged. As almost all of Belsen consisted of wooden structures, Belsen as a concentration camp was completely destroyed, leaving nothing but stone foundations and mass graves.

After liberating the camp, the few SS guards that were left were forced to bury the untold number of corpses that filled the camp: “We made the SS shift all the bodies into huge pits or craters which were dug by bulldozers. There were thousands of bodies: poor, innocent ex-people, human beings.” recounts Sergeant Norman Turgel. The people that died there now no more than a number - “approx. 2000” or “approx. 500” Hurriedly packed away, out of sight.

I thought they’d be bigger - the graves. It can be hard to visualise, sometimes, a number like two thousand. How many people is that? A large secondary school, perhaps. All placed under a mound no larger than maybe two classrooms - at most. As I said before, gravestones were scattered sparsely throughout the site, however it is important to note that these do not mark specific graves. For some, such as Anne Frank, they are a clear sign of someone we know was murdered in Belsen - surrounded by flowers and crosses. For others, Belsen is simply the last known location, left with nothing but a single solitary stone resting on top of the gravestone, a sign of remembrance. 

Just outside the grounds, a bleak, grey structure towers over the surroundings, partly overhanging the site, but never touching the scarred ground - a sign of respect to Jewish traditions, that nothing be built atop a burial site. Inside is a small exhibition, with films and displays showing the different people who were victims of Belsen. Along one wall are lines upon lines of photographs - a large group of Polish resistance fighters who were moved to the camp in the waning hours of the war. It feels strange, to me - so many faces, faces of people murdered, neglected and starved, and yet they only made up but a minute fraction of the people affected by Belsen. Sometimes we get so caught up in the sheer scale and size of the pain and suffering caused, we lose sight of the people themselves.

We moved back outside for a final ceremony - some minutes of silence, poetry and speeches - an attempt at remembrance. The dim winter light fading as the wind continued to fiercely tear around us, I closed my eyes. Less than a few generations ago, somebody stood where I now stood. The same, depressing winter light fading behind them, the same bitter wind making their ears numb. Except when they closed their eyes, they may not have known if they’d ever open them again.

Bergen-Belsen did not start out as a concentration camp, and it didn’t end as one, either. Through being an army barracks, to a prisoner of war camp, to the horrific site of disease and genocide it is now known for, Belsen would become something new, a “displaced persons camp”. This is something history tends to gloss over. I know I did. The Holocaust was a terrible, horrible thing - thank God it’s over. And that is that. Millions died, and we must remember them - but what about those who survived? Graves and mounds and memorial monuments often provide a very intangible idea of the legacy a place like Belsen leaves behind.

Although liberated in 1945, it was not until five years later, in 1950, that the last survivor left the camp and found a new home. Even after the gates were torn open, Belsen continued to trap its victims.  At the start the British attempted to simply return everyone back to their country of origin - a logical solution at first glance. Inevitably, this did not work as planned, for the effects of Belsen and the Nazi regime had not ended when the Allies took Berlin. The Jewish Germans were, understandably, weary of “going back to Germany” as Anita Lasker Wallfisch (survivor) explains “But if you happened to be German, like me, the last thing I want to do is go home. There is no such place as home.” Not only had Belsen claimed the lives of those that died there, but it had permanently scarred and “displaced” all those that survived. 

With the world shocked and appalled “I’ve seen many terrible sights in the last five years but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful interior of this hut at Belsen” - Richard Dimbleby (BBC Reporter), we collectively decided “Never Again”. Never again will we allow a Holocaust to happen. We must remember what happened here. And as quickly as the promise was made, it was broken. We acknowledged that something horrible had happened, and then we forgot. The proof can simply be found in what followed - Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica, the Rohingya in Myanmar, even this very moment with the Uyghur people in China. Time and time again, we forgot what happened at Belsen and the other camps, and allowed it to happen again.

In a time of social change, remembrance shouldn’t just mean a minute of silence for those who have passed, to then be forgotten for the rest of the year. Actions speak louder than words, and so to truly remember Belsen and the Holocaust, we should actively work to protect those in danger of becoming victims of the same events.