Bergen-Belsen, in north-western Germany, had originally been established as a prisoner of war camp in 1940. It was only in 1943 that Jewish inmates were transferred there and, even then, these were supposedly ‘privileged’ prisoners who either held documents from neutral countries or who were so-called ‘exchange Jews’ who the Nazis hoped to trade with the Allies for money or the release of German POWs. However, the camp was transformed from late 1944 onwards as thousands, and then tens of thousands, of mainly Jewish prisoners were brought there from evacuated camps in the East, in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of the ‘exchange Jews’ was Abel Herzberg from the Netherlands. In a diary entry for 16th March 1945, he reported on the impact of the influx. 

Every day now transports of thousands of people are arriving from the concentration camps. Men and women, including Dutch people, acquaintances, friends. Twenty to twenty-five per cent are dead, sometimes more. On the way to our latrines… there is a field full of corpses. And every day the carts trundle past filled with corpses and more corpses. It is a gruesome sight…The crematorium can no longer cope with the volume…I am worn out and can hardly move. Almost the entire day I lie on the bed (if one can call it such). The filth is increasing. We are sick of it.

As tens of thousands of people were sent to the camp, the catastrophic overcrowding brought spiralling death rates. Lack of food, shelter and sanitation and a consequent typhus epidemic caused the deaths of 18,000 people in March 1945 alone. By the time of liberation in April 1945, there were an estimated 53,000 people held in the camp, most of them seriously ill. Over the next few entries in this project, we will explore the liberation of Bergen-Belsen as it unfolded day-by-day.

Photo: a sign erected by the British at the site of Bergen-Belsen in 1945; Yad Vashem

Diary extract: Abel Herzberg, Between Two Streams: A Diary from Bergen-Belsen (I. B. Tauris)