REMEMBERING BELSEN: “HIDEOUS AND INCREDIBLE SCENES”

Rudolf Küstermeier was a German socialist politician who had spent more than a decade in Nazi concentration camps by the time he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945. He later described the atmosphere in the camp on the eve of liberation – 14th April 1945, 70 years ago today.  


It had become known shortly beforehand that an agreement had been made between British and German officers declaring the camp neutral territory. This was not announced officially, but the changes which occurred seemed to corroborate the rumours. Most of the SS men disappeared, and in their stead Hungarian troops and soldiers of the German Wehrmacht appeared. The remaining SS had the special task of repairing the camp and especially of taking the dead to the mass graves. But how could they manage this? The SS, vigorous and brutal as never before, found a way. And thus we saw and staged the last one of those hideous and incredible scenes which will never vanish from our memories… There were not only hundreds but thousands of bodies, and everyone in the camp who could walk had to help...

One of the strangest features of those days was the fact that the most extreme oppression and the most extreme misery were mixed with a kind of wild joy. In the midst of the deepest suffering new hope was born. Two bands played dancing music the whole day while two thousand men dragged bodies to mass graves…

The majority of the prisoners – guarded mainly by Hungarian sentries such as the one shown in the photograph – were too sick to participate in the gruesome task of disposing of the bodies of the camp’s victims. They awaited an uncertain fate.


Photo: a Hungarian sentry at Bergen-Belsen; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Arnold Bauer Barach

Testimony: Eberhard Kolb, Bergen-Belsen: From "Detention Camp" to Concentration Camp, 1943-1945 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht)

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