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the 15th of April 1945, allied soldiers combined from Russian, British and American forces have uncovered the most horrific scene within World War II at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Until that time many concentration camps have been liberated, including Auschwitz, but out of them, all Bergen-Belsen had left a deep mark on the soldiers who have discovered the camp. Some of the veterans still have dreams of the horrific scenes from 80 years ago.
At every camp, there was always a photographer that was issued by the U.S. army to record what was seen in order to give a more detailed report to higher commanding officers overseas. Originally, Bergen-Belsen was established as a prisoner of war camp in 1940 where most of the allied soldiers who surrendered were brought. In 1943 the SS decided to turn it into a death camp.
Most of the prisoners brought here were from other concentration camps that didn’t have enough space at a given time. Some of the prisoners who were transferred to Bergen-Belsen came via “death marches” which had the aim to slowly and painfully kill people. In 1945 when the allied forces were pushing the German’s back, the SS troops have been ordered to kill as many of the prisoners as possible before the allies would discover the camp.
The first into Terror
Lieutenant John Randall was the first soldier to interact with the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen and to see the atrocities. In his book published entitled “The Last Gentleman of the SAS: A Moving Testimony from the First Allied Officer to Enter Belsen at the End of the Second World War” Randall explained in very specific detail the horrors, he had lived that day.
Randall was a very experienced soldier by 1945, being part of the SAS which was the first group of elite soldiers in the world had him see it all through the war. However, even with all of his specialized training and all those years of experience, nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to see once he had entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, as he mentions in his book.
The young SAS officer commanded a small recognizance squad which was the tip of the sword. They were literally the first soldiers of the western front line. When he saw the metal gates of the camp he thought they were the entrance to a grand country house. It was by pure luck they have stumbled upon that location. Bergen- Belsen was located in the northern part of Germany, but they wanted to ensure that there weren’t any enemy armies waiting to flank them.
Beyond them led a track that curved into a dark wood of pines and silver birch. Intrigued, Randall ordered his corporal to turn the Jeep to the left. Randall saw two SS guards that seemed unbothered by their presence, they were not even armed. They knew English quite well and told Randall that they have been left behind and that even so, they had no more hope nor energy to fight this war so they were kind of waiting for the Allies, awaiting their fate whatever it may be. The SS soldiers offered the allied troops a tour of the camp.
What they started seeing beyond the SS soldiers was the day Randall regretted he was born. As they went deeper into the camp they started to see more and more dead bodies.
Soon enough they were approached by some survivors that were extremely malnourished from their skeletal bodies, pale skin color, and emotionless expression. The survivors begged them for the help they could not offer as they had no supplies. Randall tried to get a few words out and told the survivors to wait as soon a column of reinforcements would follow.
Randal was accompanied by corporal Ian Forsyth who described that the discovery of Bergen-Belsen was by pure luck:
“We weren’t expecting to see anything — we didn’t know there was such a place. We had been going ahead without any idea there was anything there. I think that was the worst part,” (Quote by Ian Forsyth)
Hell on Earth
Within the camp, there were around 80,000 dead bodies and another 13,000 prisoners died during the liberation due to their poor health conditions. Most of the survivors were found in huts, clustered together and checking from now and then on each other to see if they are still breathing. The smell and the atmosphere around were out of this world. It is only the rare photos that have been recently declassified that can give a better prospect.
“The dead and the dying lay close together. I picked my way over corpse after corpse, until I heard one voice above the gentle moaning. I found a girl. She was a living skeleton. Impossible to gauge her age, for she had practically no hair left on her head, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet, with two holes in it for eyes.”(Quote by Ian Forsyth)
Despite the thousands of words beheld by an image, there is nothing that can compare to the experience that the soldiers that had been there at that moment. Just seeing bodies being pushed by a bulldozer due to how many they were is sickening just to think.
Based on some entries from the book, some of the survivors were so weak that others would die on top of them and they would not be able to move the bodies burning them, nor did they have the power to shout for help. Some of the survivors may have been buried alive with the others. Despite the large number of people murdered at Auschwitz, the holocaust was felt the most at this camp, simply because it was the largest mass of dead bodies gathered in one place through the whole war.
Most of the pictures that have been taken at Bergen-Belsan of dead bodies upon arrival were done by Charles Martin King Parsons, part of the same SAS squad. The pictures were never shown before until 2015 when his great-grandson named Tom Marshall decided to publish the pictures after he found them inside an old box where Parsons kept his possessions from the war.
Based on the horrors that have been lived by those who died and those who were lucky enough to survive, there was only one thing left to do. This was one of the very few concentration camps that the allies had burned down, but it was the only way to make some of the terrible memories go away. Shortly after all the dead had been buried and all the survivors had been liberated, the British troops burned all the huts to the ground.
Bergen-Belsan may be one of the last concentration camps discovered, but it surely left the deepest mark. This was the time that the world truly understood the meaning of the holocaust and the evilness brought by Hitler’s antisemitic ideology. Despite how gruesome previous wars in human history have been, nothing may compare to the hell created at Bergen-Belsan.