Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Sound Portraits: Bergen Belsen
Recorded in Near Celle, Germany.
Premiered April 20, 2002, on Weekend Edition Saturday.
On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. Sixty-thousand prisoners were living in the camp when the troops arrived, most of them seriously ill. Thousands more lay dead and unburied on the camp grounds.
BBC reporter Patrick Gordon Walker was among the press corps that entered Bergen-Belsen with the British troops that day. Over the next few weeks, he documented what he saw, recording the first Sabbath ceremony openly conducted on German soil since the beginning of the war, interviewing survivors, and speaking to British Tommies about what they had witnessed at liberation.
One of the people who heard Walker's radio dispatches was soon-to-be-legendary folk-music producer Moe Asch. An engineer at the time at New York radio station WEVD, Asch recorded the shortwave broadcast onto an acetate disc. Decades later, the record was re-discovered at the Smithsonian Institution by historian Henry Sapoznik.
Bergen-Belsen was the name of an infamous Nazi camp which has become a symbol of the Holocaust that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews more than sixty years ago. In 1943, Bergen-Belsen was initially set up as a detention camp (Aufenthaltslager) for prisoners who held foreign passports and were thus eligible to be traded for German citizens being held in Allied internment camps. In December 1944, Bergen-Belsen became a concentration camp under the command of Josef Kramer, the former Commandant of the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau.
A section for sick prisoners, who could no longer work in the Nazi forced labor camps, was set aside in March 1944. In 1945, when World War II was drawing to a close, civilian prisoners were evacuated from other concentration camps as Russian troops advanced westward; thousands of these prisoners had been brought to the Bergen-Belsen camp which was not equipped to handle such a large number of people. Finally, Bergen-Belsen itself was right in the middle of the war zone where bombs were falling and Allied planes were strafing the Autobahn and the railroads. British and Germans troops were doing battle on the Lüneberg heath right outside the camp. In February 1945, the situation at Bergen-Belsen became catastrophic when a typhus epidemic broke out in the crowded camp where a typhoid epidemic was already claiming thousands of lives.
Emaciated corpses were thrown into mass graves at Bergen-Belsen
Hitler's second in command, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, had been plotting behind Hitler's back in an attempt to negotiate a peace with America and Great Britain, with the aim of forming an alliance to fight against the Communists. He knew that half of Germany and all of Eastern Europe, with a population of 120 million people, had been promised to the Communists by American president Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. As the leader who was in charge of all the concentration camps (his rank in the SS was equivalent to a 5-star General in the US Army), he planned to use the Jewish prisoners as bargaining chips in his negotiations with the non-Communist Allies.
Himmler was determined to do all he could to hamper the inevitable take-over of Europe by the Communists. To this end, beginning on April 5, 1945, he ordered the execution of Communist leaders being held at the three main concentration camps in Germany: Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald.
Before surrendering Bergen-Belsen to the British on April 15, 1945, Himmler ordered about 7,000 people to be evacuated from the camp. The three train loads of prisoners, which left the camp between April 6 and April 11, were made up of prominent Dutch Jews, Hungarian Jews, Jewish prisoners from neutral countries and Jewish prisoners who held foreign passports. Himmler was hoping to use these prisoners to negotiate with the Allies. The rest of the prisoners at Bergen-Belsen were to be voluntarily turned over to the enemy.
On April 4, 1945, American soldiers had seen their first Nazi horror camp in Germany, the abandoned forced labor camp at Ohrdruf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. On April 11, American troops had discovered Buchenwald, which had already been taken over by the Communist political prisoners there. The next day, on April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt died and Himmler had renewed hopes of negotiating a surrender to the Americans and the British, but not to the Communist Soviet Union. It was within this context that Himmler began negotiations to voluntarily turn the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp over to the British in early April 1945.
Two German officers were sent to a British outpost to explain that there were 9,000 sick prisoners in the camp and that there was no water after the electric pump had been hit in an Allied bombing attack. The Germans proposed that the British Army should occupy the camp immediately to keep the epidemics in the camp from spreading to the troops on both sides. In return, the Germans offered to surrender the bridges over the river Aller. At first, the British rejected the German proposals, saying it was necessary that the British should occupy an area of ten kilometers around the camp in order to be sure of keeping their troops away from the epidemic, but eventually a compromise was reached and the British agreed. On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was surrendered to British Officer Derrick Sington, who wrote about it in a small book called "Belsen Uncovered" which was published by Duckworth, London in 1946.
As a result of the British Army taking control, Bergen-Belsen became the first Nazi horror camp to become widely known to the American public. After the British revealed the Nazi atrocities to the world, this camp came to epitomize the brutality and depravity of the Nazis who called the German people the Master Race (Herrenvolk) and who were carrying out a systematic plan to kill the Jews and others whom they considered undesirable (Untermenschen). Thanks to the British Army, which filmed the unbelievable sights that greeted them when they entered the camp, a grim record of the atrocities exists to this day.
Anne Frank, the most famous victim of the Holocaust, lies in an unmarked mass grave at Bergen-Belsen, the date of her death unknown. Both Anne and her sister Margot died in the camp during one of the world's largest epidemics of typhus, a disease which is spread by body lice.