The first units of the Royal Army Medical Corps entered Bergen-Belsen on 17th April 1945, in an attempt to stem the disastrous situation. One of their officers was Captain J. Gant, who described the conditions in a letter written on 18th April, 70 years ago today.
There are no latrines – there never have been any. You come out of your hut and squat down by the side of the wall – no one pays any attention to you – man or woman… If you are ‘fit’, you sleep in one of the ordinary bunks. There is no room to lie down. You sit with your knees apart, the person in front sits between them, and leans back on you, you do the same to the person behind; and the one at the back, leans on the wall…
If only for this camp alone (to free it) – the war has been just and worthwhile; but there must be others like it and worse.
Sorry this has been such a fearful letter, but you can’t smell the place, if it’s any consolation – I still can. You do realise that the people at home must know of this and what they’ve missed. I heard the average life of any person over 40 in the camp was one month.
Shall be much more cheerful after a night’s sleep, but to-day has been like a mad house.
Captain Gant’s belief that the discovery of Bergen-Belsen was a vindication of the morality of Britain’s cause was a common one. This feeling was increasingly shared back home as newsreels, radio broadcasts and letters like Captain Gant’s brought home the reality. At the same time, his letter indicated that outrage was not enough and that it would be no easy task for the British to restore the survivors’ health.
Photo: a barrack in Bergen-Belsen after liberation; public domain (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)
Letter: Ben Flanagan & Donald Bloxham (eds.), Remembering Belsen: Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation (Holocaust Educational Trust/Vallentine Mitchell)