Liberation Of Bergen-Belsen
In Part 6, Marton was ordered to bury the dead in gigantic pits in Bergen-Belsen. It was obvious that the war was nearing its end, but he wondered if he could hold on long enough to survive.
For several weeks, they were preoccupied with dragging the corpses into the gigantic pit dug by the Ukrainians. But as much work as they accomplished, it still was only a drop in the bucket. The corpses were everywhere, strewn all over the camp. It was March, and the weather still cold, especially at night. March alone saw the deaths of over 18,000 inmates. Truly it had become a “death camp.” The camp commandant, Joseph Kramer, was still in command and killing all who happened in his path.
In the “Ungarnlager” there was a steady influx of Hungarian prisoners. The “Frauenlager” also saw women who had also been pouring in from all over. They came from Gross-Rosen, Flossenburg, Ravensbruck, Buchenwald, Neuengamme, Mauthausen. (Anne Frank died about this time in Belsen.) Prisoners had little or no contact between the camps, so Marton was unaware that his niece Agi was also there. But suddenly Agi was shipped out to Sweden in one of the Himmler-inspired gestures, along with several hundred sick and emaciated young women. Most of these women were just days away from joining their dead camp mates. Aside from being riddled with lice, they were infected with diphtheria, typhoid, and typhus, and they arrived contagious and weak. Marton’s other niece, Katalin, Agi’s sister, died just a few days short of liberation. Agi spent a long time in a Swedish hospital recovering after the war.
After several weeks, even the Nazis realized that conditions were untenable. They had no doubt that only days remained before the British would overrun the camp. They gave up on trying to hide the evidence of the effect of the “German kultur,” as the task was impossible. They were equally afraid of prisoners escaping or being freed and running around the German countryside. What would 60,000 starving prisoners, most infected with typhus and typhoid, do to the German population? So on April 12, they approached elements of the British 11th Armored Division to negotiate a truce and the surrender of Bergen-Belsen. Three days later, on April 15, 1945, the British entered Bergen-Belsen.
This was among the first camps to be liberated, and the British were unprepared for the conditions they encountered. Inside were more than 60,000 emaciated and ill prisoners in desperate need of medical attention. More than 13,000 corpses in various stages of decomposition lay littered all around the camp. Knowing that few would believe any verbal description, the British filmed what they found. The black-and-white film, however, could not depict the stench from dead bodies that surrounded the camp.
The British Army Film and Photographic Unit transmitted their photos all over Britain and the world. Documents from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum contain many of these photos as well as the description of the initial group of soldiers to enter Belsen:
“The bodies were a ghastly sight. Some were green. They looked like skeletons covered with skin—the flesh had all gone. There were bodies of small children among the grown-ups … In other parts of the camp there were hundreds of bodies lying around, in many cases piled five or six high.”
Joseph Kramer remained at the camp even while the British were approaching. He had burned as many documents as possible, and what struck the RAMC brigadier who had entered the camp, Glyn Hughes, was his crass arrogance and seeming lack of any thought for his victims.
Colonel J. A. D. Johnstone, RAMC, described what he saw at the camp when he arrived:
“I saw a great number of dazed, apathetic, human scarecrows, wandering around the camp in an aimless fashion, dressed in rags and some even without rags. There were piles of dead everywhere — right up to the front gate.
“I went across to Hut 216 which was said to be the worst in the camp. George Woodwark was there and showed me round. It certainly was the worst. In many places whole parts of the floor were missing and you squelched down onto the earth and G-d only knows what else. It was hopelessly overcrowded and feces were even more abundant than in the other huts. George said they had pulled several bodies out from under what floorboards were left, and I could well believe it. I was jolly glad to get out into the fresh air again.” (Michael Hargrave)
Shortly after the British took over the camp, they transferred ten SS guards with typhus and put them together with recovering Jews in the hospital wing. None of the SS survived once their identities became known.
Marton was astounded at his liberation. He had no expectation of survival. But now he was among the 60,000 emaciated and ill prisoners who were so grateful to the liberating British. The Brits immediately began to assess the needs of the survivors and set up kitchens and hospitals. They also began the process of burying the 13,000 or so corpses they found.
Captured SS soldiers, both male and female guards, were initially pressed into the burial units. Some other Germans from nearby hospitals were brought to care for the sick as well as to witness what their fellow Germans had done. They were burying the dead and cooking and caring for the liberated Jews. In addition to the kitchens, cans of food and chocolate along with cigarettes were distributed. Stabilizing the conditions in the camp proved to be elusive. They quickly realized that feeding the emaciated prisoners who had not eaten regularly or properly had to be done carefully. From the 60,000 who were liberated, over 20,000 died after liberation, many from stomach-related issues brought about by the sudden ingestion of heavy and rich foods. Some were simply too ill to survive.
Units of Hungarian soldiers who were sent to fight in Germany along with Nazi forces were also detailed to Bergen-Belsen to aid in the recovery efforts. Marton encountered a neighbor of his from Pápa who was in one such unit, now carrying corpses. Marton observed the Nazi officers, men and women who just yesterday were the invincible “supermen,” now working in the burial detail. When one of the women refused to unload the corpses from the wagon into the pit, a British soldier approached her and kicked her in disgust. After yelling at her, she began to dutifully unload the corpses without any further delay.
They set up a camp structure, including a field hospital with British medical officers and a kitchen, and began to feed and care for Marton and the others. Among the women who volunteered to work in the kitchen was a girl from Pápa. She told Marton to come to the kitchen window and she would give him food. Marton showed up and she gave him a mug filled with some dark, coffee-like liquid that was very sweet. Marton had difficulty digesting it. He apologized but refused her kindness as it didn’t sit well in his stomach.
The British gave them cans of veal stew. However, those who ate them mostly died of stomach-related issues. Their weak and emaciated digestive tracks were in no shape to digest such heavy foods. Naturally, the British had no idea that their “kindness” would contribute to thousands of additional Jewish dead.
Marton volunteered to help in the organization of camp life. He found a toaster and started toasting bread for others. Bergen-Belsen became a central displaced-person camp and Marton joined the committee to register the Jews. During the next several weeks, the former prisoners were being sent by train back toward their country of origin. Marton registered the Hungarians and aided in the repatriation effort. One train was leaving for Sweden and it was suggested to him to go with the train. But Marton was set on going back to Pápa, Hungary, to try to find his wife and other family members.
One day, several weeks later, as he was registering people, a Czechoslovakian woman who was also part of the registration effort told him that the following day a train would be coming to take the Czech prisoners back home. She suggested that Marton go with them.
“But how can I go with them?” Marton protested. “I am not from Czechoslovakia.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she told him. “Think of a Czechoslovakian city that has a large Hungarian population and say you are from there.”
It made sense to Marton, and he identified himself as Jew from Kassa. Kassa or Kisice, as it was also known, was the second-largest city in Slovakia that one time belonged to Hungary. As a result of the border shifting, most city inhabitants were ethnically and culturally Hungarians.
So the next day, Marton boarded the train bound for Kassa but ended up going to Prague. Along the way, the train stopped in Pilsen on the Czech-German border. In Pilsen, many of the Jews got off the train and raided the vegetable garden of an ethnic German farmer near the train tracks. Although she protested and begged them not to destroy her garden, the hungry men yanked out everything they could get their hands on.
Marton walked into town and found a bakery. He walked inside and told the German owner that he had no money as he had recently been liberated from a German concentration camp. He asked for food, explaining that he had some cigarettes he would be willing to trade for it.
The baker, seeing the situation, quietly gave him a large plate of bakery goods.
Marton then boarded the train again and set off toward Prague. It took several more days of stop-and-go to reach the Czech capital.
After a few days in Prague, he walked to the train station and asked if there was a train bound for Budapest.
Finally, he found the train to Budapest and set off for home.
*Quotes are from Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp: The History Learning Site
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He teaches graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.