REMEMBERING BELSEN: “WE HAD HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO US”

British troops reached Bergen-Belsen concentration camp 70 years ago today, in the afternoon of 15th April 1945. Renate Lasker (later Renate Lasker-Harpprecht), a Jewish woman from Breslau in Germany who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau before being sent to Belsen, recalled the mood amongst the inmates of the camp.  


It must have been midday. For days we had heard the rumbling noises of heavy artillery, but we hadn’t known who was firing. We had had no idea what was happening to us. The noise came closer… and then… a voice through a loud-hailer… first in English and then in German. At the beginning we were too confused and excited to take anything in. But the announcements kept being repeated, again and again. At last we understood: BRITISH TROOPS ARE STANDING BY THE CAMP GATES… PLEASE KEEP CALM… YOU ARE LIBERATED…We were also told – and this was not news to us – that there was typhus in the camp, and that we should wait for the troops to come. We should be patient… medical help was on its way. It took a while for the significance of the announcements to sink in.

When the first tank finally rolled into the camp, we looked at our liberators in silence. We were deeply suspicious. We simply could not believe that we had not been blown up before the Allies could get to us.

Although some prisoners greeted the British with displays of joy, the bewilderment and uncertainty described by Renate were perhaps the more common reactions. This was hardly surprising given the catastrophic conditions in the camp. Renate’s main concern was caring for her sister Anita, who was seriously ill. Although the two sisters survived, thousands of other prisoners experienced freedom for only a few days or even hours before they succumbed to disease or malnutrition.


Photo: Female survivors at Bergen-Belsen; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lev Sviridov

Testimony: Ben Flanagan & Donald Bloxham (eds.), Remembering Belsen: Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation (Holocaust Educational Trust/Vallentine Mitchell)