What began as a German prisoner of war camp quickly grew into one of the most gruesome and notorious landmarks of Hitler's genocidal Nazi regime, which found its stride in the chaos of WWII. Perhaps best known for being the place where Anne Frank died, Bergen-Belson has gone down in history as being among the most deplorable of all the German concentration camps; there, thousands of people died due to a lack of food and severely unsanitary living conditions. It's little wonder, then, that Bergen-Belson's liberation was a day like few others – especially for those Holocaust survivors who were finally free.
Even after Bergen-Belson was liberated on April 15, 1945, those who had once been prisoners continued to die at alarming rates due to the legacy of disease they had inherited during their internment. For many at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp, liberation meant finally receiving a place in a shallow mass grave. For others, those who were lucky, it meant being treated for the desperately contagious diseases from which they were suffering. But that didn't mean there were no celebrations or joy to mark the end of the concentration camps.
The world watched alongside the survivors of Bergen-Belson as every last hut on the compound was burned to the ground as a way to honor the lives that had been destroyed within their walls.
By early 1945, the population of Bergen-Belson – which had originally been designed to house no more than 10,000 people – had flooded to over 60,000 prisoners, the majority of whom were left without food or shelter. By the time the British army arrived to liberate the camp in the middle of April – a mere four months after the influx of prisoners had arrived – over 35,000 people had already died of starvation and disease, including Anne Frank.
Because the dead had been left to pile up instead of being placed underground in graves, diseases such as typhus were able to spread throughout the camp. Even after the British arrived to provide aid to the newly liberated prisoners, people continued to die at a rate of nearly 500 people a day due to the suffering they had endured and the diseases they had contracted.
In an attempt to cull the spread of typhus and other diseases, British soldiers evacuated and burned down every last hut that had been used to house the prisoners. In many cases, crowds gathered to watch their and their family's sufferings burn in effigy.
This photo captures that cathartic burn.
Located in northern Germany, Bergen-Belson originally served as a German army training base until its boarding huts were partially decommissioned and converted into a prisoner of war (POW) camp, housing upwards of 95,000 prisoners at a time. However, with WWII in full swing by 1943, part of this POW camp was seized by German SS officials and converted into a "holding" or "exchange" camp where prisoners – the majority of them Jewish – were held, waiting to be exchanged for German POWs who were being held in other countries. Tragically, for many prisoners, this wait would be too long, and only 2,560 of the 15,000 Jews who were imprisoned there by 1944 would be released.
At the beginning of 1945, the fate of Bergen-Belson would again shift at the hands of SS officials, with its size being dramatically increased to house an influx of prisoners who were being relocated from neighboring concentration camps. The result was extreme over crowding, lack of food, and the rapid spread of disease.
By the end of WWII, the conditions at Bergen-Belson had led to the deaths of over 60,000 people who had been held prisoner by the Nazi regime, with nearly 28,000 of those deaths occurring after liberation had been achieved. With the liberation of the camp also came the imprisonment of 48 Nazi soldiers, many of whom were tried and hung.
Bergen-Belson was then officially converted into a displaced-persons camp, controlled by the British until it was finally shut down completely by 1950 and turned into a war memorial.