Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp, Germany

The prisoner of war camp initially set up by the Wehrmacht, which used the facilities to house around 3,000 German construction workers employed for the building of the nearby Belsen Wehrmacht barracks, was meant for Belgian and French prisoners of war. This was significantly expanded in the spring of 1941, ahead of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In the following months, over 21,000 Soviet POWs were deported here (now called Stalag XIC), of which 18,000 died of starvation, disease and exposure in the following months. Then in April 1943, when the SS took over the southern section and turned it into an “exchange camp” for Jewish prisoners (with foreign passports and papers), meant to be traded for Germans interned abroad. The infrastructure reached its most extensive development in the following year. By September 1944, Bergen Belsen comprised an enlarged exchange camp, a women’s and a men’s camp, and a separate facility in the POWs hospital. In the last months of functioning, Bergen Belsen was plagued by diseases, starvation and improper living conditions, aggravated by the transfer here of prisoners from camps across Germany ahead of the advancement of the Allies. On the 15th of April 1945 British soldiers found thousands of unburied bodies and tens of thousands of severely ill prisoners, and the documentation of the first days by the army became an iconic visual reference of both “liberation”. Later on, this was incorporated in the memorial references of the Shoah. Although numbers and identities are still disputed, around 52,000 prisoners were killed in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp or died immediately after its liberation as a result of their internment regime. In the following months, the British Army set up an emergency hospital at the nearby Wehrmacht barracks which developed into a camp for Polish and Jewish displaced persons, the largest Jewish DP camp in Germany, at times holding up to 12,000 survivors across Euroope. Until it was closed down in 1950, the Jewish DP camp was prominent center of political activity.