top of page

The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp

On the 15th of April, 1945, the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army, under the command of Major General Roberts, arrived at the gates of Bergen-Belsen, located in Lower Saxony, Germany. The scene that met their eyes defied comprehension and description. Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of the Second Army, described his first impressions in stark terms:

"It was a scene of such horror as I never believed could be possible. The dead and the dying lay close together, and others sprawled over them. It was an image of hell."

British doctor using DDT while delousing newly freed female prisoners at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

The soldiers, seasoned by years of combat, were unprepared for the sight of thousands of emaciated prisoners, many of whom were barely clinging to life. The camp, originally established as a prisoner of war facility, had devolved into a cesspit of disease, starvation, and death as the Nazi regime crumbled. Overcrowding had led to the rampant spread of typhus and other illnesses, exacerbated by the lack of food and sanitation.

As the British troops advanced into the camp, they encountered a vision of horror that would be seared into their memories forever. Lieutenant Colonel M.W. Gonin, who commanded the medical efforts at Belsen, later recounted:

"We discovered, about 60,000 men, women, and children in varying stages of starvation and disease... No one who saw it will ever forget it."
Pin on Pinterest German guard being forced to put bodies of prisoners into a mass grave at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

The liberators found over 10,000 unburied corpses strewn across the camp. The living conditions were scarcely better for the survivors, who were skeletal shadows of their former selves, their bodies ravaged by starvation and disease. The smell of death hung heavy in the air, mingling with the acrid scent of burning pyres as the British set about the grim task of disposing of the bodies to prevent further spread of disease.

Survivors of Bergen-Belsen have provided harrowing testimonies of their experiences, ensuring that the horrors they endured are never forgotten. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a cellist who survived the camp, recalled the dire state of existence within its fences:

"You were just waiting for the end to come. You didn’t know if you would be alive the next day."
Weak and dying prisoners stretch out on dirt bank behind Bergen Belsen barracks after the concentration camp was liberated by Allied troops.

For the British soldiers, the liberation of Belsen left an indelible mark. Captain Derek Sington described the scene in his diary:

"In the midst of this hell, there were occasional patches of humanity. We found people who had somehow managed to maintain their dignity, their sense of decency, and even a faint hope."

In the spring of 1945, photographs and witness accounts from the liberation of camps like Bergen-Belsen afforded the disbelieving world outside of Europe its first glimpse into the abyss of Nazi depravity. Among the most powerful documentation were the photographs taken by LIFE photographer George Rodger, who accompanied the British 11th Armoured Division, the fabled “Black Bull,” into the camp just days after its liberation. These stark, haunting images captured the horrific conditions and the sheer scale of human suffering, bringing the brutal reality of the Holocaust into stark relief for the global community.

Female SS soldiers filling mass grave w. corpses while under guard by British soldiers at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.

Rodger’s photographs, now iconic, served as a critical visual testimony of the atrocities. They portrayed the emaciated survivors, the piles of corpses, and the skeletal remains of humanity. These images transcended the limitations of words, providing an incontrovertible record of the horrors that had been inflicted upon countless innocent lives.

The liberation of Bergen-Belsen is a sobering reminder of the capacity for cruelty that exists within humanity and the profound impact of bearing witness to such atrocities. It also underscores the enduring importance of remembering and educating future generations about the Holocaust. As Anita Lasker-Wallfisch poignantly stated,

"We survivors do not want our past to be our children’s future."



bottom of page