The Holocaust in Bergen-Belsen did not end on 15th April 1945, it merely ceased to be perpetrated. The British made an agreement with the Wehrmacht an April 11th to designate the area around the camps as a neutral zone. A reconnaissance mission discovered Bergen-Belsen two days later. The British and Canadian troops that followed found what one liberator called ‘the gates of hell’. On the days either side of liberation hundreds were dying every day, and it is also true to say that British forces were entirely unprepared for what they found. Because of that, and a shortage of manpower (the war was still raging), whilst the SS commandant Kramer was arrested, the Hungarian and SS guards were left in charge on that first day. They shot camp inmates who, having not had food for days, tried to get their hands on the food stores; on the same day some of the fitter inmates, recently arrived, turned on the Hungarians, killing over 150 of them. The British had to take charge, and they began to ship in food, and medical supplies.
The medical team also created a nursing staff of ex-inmates, as well as bringing in a specialist research team to try and deal with the typhus epidemic, and the problem of trying to feed people who had been on the verge of starvation safely. As part of that process, over the next few days the ex-inmates were moved to the Bergen-Hohne base, which now became the Displaced Persons Camp. However, 13,994 people still died in the aftermath of liberation, some 9,000 people died in the April. Those heroic efforts, led by Brigadier Glyn Hughes, saw the army save thousands of lives. And new lives were made.
What those medics, soldiers and those ex-inmates did was genuinely heroic: for that reason alone, the aftermath of liberation mattered. Another matter was, inevitably, retribution. At least, the war criminals of Belsen had something that their victims had been denied: legal process, and human decency. They were tried for war crimes under military law. Eleven, including Kramer, were hanged in the December. Others were imprisoned, some for life; many would receive clemency in the years to come.
Belsen mattered especially for another reason: it became widely known. That is not to say that nobody knew of the Nazis war crimes, or of the Holocaust. The British had known of it, though it was little reported, during the war, especially on the BBC, which has been accused of latent anti-Semitism. It’s certainly true that Richard Dimbleby had to threaten to resign before his famous report was broadcast. The death camps in the east had been destroyed, and the Russians made little of Auschwitz, and nothing of the Holocaust per se: for the Soviets, the victims were not Jews, the ‘victims of fascism’.
By contrast, because it was the British who liberated Belsen, the liberation and the subsequent trial were widely reported. Richard Dimbleby’s report, 70 years on, has lost none of its power.
Another was by the future Labour MP and minister Patrick Gordon Walker, who also kept a diary of his experience.
In this report we also hear the voice of the Rev Leslie Hardman. He was a Jewish army chaplain. In the days that followed he tried to bring some dignity to the dying, and hope to those who lived. Hardman sat in on the interrogation of the unrepentant Kramer. All this, understandably, left him troubled and questioning God.
Perhaps the most famous victim of the Holocaust, Anne Frank’s diaries were first published in 1957; in English in 1952. They are by far the best known primary source of the Jewish experience of war. Anne Frank died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.
For all those reasons, Belsen has acquired a symbolic importance, especially in Britain. Britain was certainly not immune from anti-Semitism. However, there was a parallel attachment to Britain’s Jews, to the Jewish tradition and to Israel. I grew up in world of Jewish jokes; but I also grew up in a world where respect for Britain’s Jewish traditions was also strong.
Anti-Semitism has made a comeback since then. If it was only confined to the likes of the BNP, or the wilder shores of radical Islam, I might feel more comfortable. The Palestinian issue has, I am afraid, turned elements of what one might think of as Liberal or left wing opinion anti-Semitic. The likes of the poisonous George Galloway might be thought to have crossed the line from opposition to Israeli policy to outright racism.
Leslie Hardman died in 2008. In his later years he was a strong supporter of the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was with that organisation that I was went to Bergen-Belsen, and Bergen-Hohne on Sunday. There, I had the privilege of being in the company of some remarkable people, including survivors of the camp such as Rudi Oppenheimer, and a liberator, Bernard Levy.
Once the displaced of Belsen made their new homes, Bergen-Hohne became the home of the British army. With West German statehood, rearmament and membership of NATO, Britain committed itself to maintaining a permanent military presence in West Germany. That presence will cease this October.
The Displaced Persons Camp had to bury all the Jews who died. They are buried in a cemetery in what is, for now, the British military base. Every year, the British army have commemorated the fallen. On Sunday, for the last time, they did so again.
Leslie Hardman was a British army chaplain. On Sunday, another chaplain led the memorial. It was, in the British way, deeply moving. What connects Anglicanism and Judaism more eloquently than the psalms. But to hear them, the kaddish, the Last Post and the piper’s lament, as birds sang in rain and sun. I felt proud to be British.
They always say the birds don’t sing on the sites of the concentration camps. They do. Bergen-Belsen rang with birdsong; at Bergen-Hohne, I watched a small bird flit from branch to branch. The Nazis tried to defy life. There are named tombs in that cemetery, the dead were buried with the honour Leslie Hardman had tried to give them. The Nazis did not win. Jews, and Judaism lived on, and live now. Even though that British army ceremony will not be repeated, the Holocaust is not forgotten. In the end, humanity triumphed: the British army did a moral good, those who survived Bergen-Belsen made lives, and lived, and Britain remembers. The story of the Holocaust is also one of hope: and the birds will still be singing.