It was called Provisional Camp Bergen-Belsen because, unlike other concentration camps, it was originally designed as a "holding pen" for Jews who were to be exchanged for German prisoners of war. Established in 1943, near Hanover in northwestern Germany, Bergen-Belsen was built to contain 10,000 prisoners and was run, like all the camps, by the SS. In 1944 the commandant, SS Major Josef Kramer, later known as the Beast of Belsen, began accepting inmates from other camps who were too frail to continue their slave labor. The population of 15,000 Jews was swollen by thousands of new prisoners, most of them starved and diseased after weeks of forced marches. By early 1945 Bergen-Belsen held 41,000 inmates. Rations were less than meager. Inmates were beaten and abused. There was virtually no medical attention, and epidemics broke out. In March 1945 nearly 20,000 people died either from starvation, typhus or maltreatment. One of the victims was a 15-year-old Dutch girl, Anne Frank.
Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945. Those soldiers included Brian Urquhart, now Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. "At first I saw what appeared to be a wall of logs, stacked like cordwood," Urquhart recalls. "But as I got closer, I saw it was actually unburied corpses." British soldiers discovered nearly 10,000 such corpses, as well as mass graves containing hundreds of bodies plowed under by bulldozers. But it was difficult to distinguish the living from the dead. According to an English reporter on the scene, "dead bodies, black-and-blue and bloated, and skeletons had been used as pillows by sick people," who were themselves living skeletons. It was, said Georg Diederichs, a postwar governor of the region, "a gigantic death camp of apocalyptic proportions." Despite attempts to save the living, 9,000 inmates died during the first two weeks after the British rescue, and 4,000 more succumbed thereafter. All told, about 50,000 perished at Bergen-Belsen.
Bergen-Belsen was one of some 100 camps created to effect Hitler's Final Solution, the extermination of the Jewish people. The terrible roster of major concentration camps includes Auschwitz in Poland, where 4 million people were murdered; Treblinka, also in Poland, which had the capacity to kill 25,000 people a day; Buchenwald, near Weimar in eastern Germany. The assembly-line exterminations of the Jews began by the summer of 1942; by the end of the war in May of 1945, 6 million Jews had died, nearly two-thirds of the entire European Jewish population. At least 4.5 million Gypsies, Poles, Czechs, Russians and others had also perished in the death factories.
Not much of Bergen-Belsen remains today. A 25-meter-high gray stone obelisk marks the site, rising above it like a baleful warning. Inscribed on its side is a singular commandment: EARTH CONCEAL NOT THE BLOOD SHED ON THEE! Fourteen long, low mounds of mass graves are marked simply, starkly: HERE LIE BURIED 1,000 BODIES; HERE LIE 2,500 BODIES. In 1975, then Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin walked among the neatly tended graves of Bergen-Belsen and remarked bitterly, "It is so green that it is making me angry."