April 15, 1945
The British 11th Armored Division liberates the Nazis’ Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, discovering 60,000 starving prisoners, most of them seriously ill, and 13,000 unburied corpses. They are the remnants of an estimated 120,000 prisoners who were held at the complex at some point since the SS took over operations in April 1943, although only 55,000 are identified because of the SS destruction of the camp’s administrative files.
Under an agreement reached early April 13, the Germans hand over Bergen-Belsen without a fight. According to that deal, the camp is the heart of a 19-square-mile exclusion zone formed to stop the spread of typhus, and most of the SS troops at the camp are allowed to leave. When the British reach the camp, no food or water has been available to the prisoners for days, and people are dying at the rate of 500 a day.
BBC correspondent Richard Dimbleby, accompanying the British liberators, reports that “the living lay with their heads against the corpses, and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them. … This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
On April 20, the BBC records Jewish survivors singing “Hatikvah” at the camp. A displaced persons camp soon is established near the site of the concentration camp, and almost 29,000 survivors are moved there.
Although Bergen-Belsen does not have gas chambers, more than 50,000 Jews, Roma, gay men, Poles, Czechs and others are believed to have died there from disease, malnutrition, medical experimentation and execution. The victims include Anne Frank, who was among thousands transported westward from Auschwitz and other camps in Poland as the Soviet army advanced in 1945. In addition, almost 14,000 more prisoners die between April 15 and the end of June, when the camp is razed.
The post-liberation deaths at Bergen-Belsen include about 170 Jews who served as kapos at Mittelbau, killed as revenge by fellow prisoners. Three British medical orderlies are killed in attack by German fighter planes April 20, a strike that also damages the camp’s water supply.