The Approaching End
“WE ALL FEEL the end approaching,” Hanna Lévy-Hass wrote in her diary on 30 August 1944. “We are gripped . . . by a mad delusion that all will soon be over.” A schoolteacher from Sarajevo, she had been rounded up by the Gestapo six weeks earlier and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; but now, with Allied armies victorious in Normandy and the Red Army advancing through Poland, she was hopeful that she would soon be liberated.
Belsen was an unusual camp. Its origins went back to a meeting held in an ugly concrete bunker in East Prussia on 10 December 1942. On that day, Heinrich Himmler, the mild-mannered, bespectacled man in charge of organising the systematic murder of millions of people all over Europe, drove over from his own luxurious field headquarters nearby for one of his frequent conferences with the Führer, Adolf Hitler, at the Wolfsschanze.
They met at a pivotal moment in the war. On the Russian front, the 200,000 men of General Paulus’s Sixth Army had just been cut off by a Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad and, although Hitler was choosing to believe Göring’s assurances that they could be supplied from the air by the Luftwaffe, most of his entourage knew better and were bracing themselves for a disaster. The news from the Mediterranean Front was equally grim: in early November 1942, only a week after Field Marshal Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein in Egypt, Anglo-American troops had landed in Algeria and Morocco; now they were heading towards Tunis. To those in the know, it was apparent that Hitler’s bid to achieve a decisive victory before the military might of the United States could be deployed in the European theatre had failed. A shudder passed through. Axis morale; the Italians buckled and needed stiffening.
The Führerhauptquartier had so many military concerns that day—organising von Manstein’s counterattack at Stalingrad, sending reinforcements to Rommel, shoring up Italian morale—that it might seem surprising Hitler could find time to see Himmler at all. But he always had time for the Reichsführer, and the recent reverses had only strengthened his resolve to “proceed ruthlessly against the Jews.”
Himmler, moreover, could offer better news. The “Final Solution” of the Jewish problem was proceeding very well; so well, in fact, that just over a year since the policy of systematic genocide had begun, over two million European Jews had already been exterminated. For all the vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler’s early memoir, Mein Kampf, and all the barbarous threats uttered in his speeches, the Nazis’ road to genocide had been long and tortuous and the Führer had been careful to distance himself from most of it. Before the war, the emphasis had been on deporting the Jews from German territory and as late as 1940 there were still vague plans to send them to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar—plans which had to be abandoned when the invasion of Britain was postponed and mastery of the seas could not be achieved. When Hitler turned against his Soviet ally in June 1941, the plan was to send the Jews eastwards, into the vast empty Russian steppe, there to die of starvation and overwork. When, however, Operation Barbarossa began to falter in the late autumn of 1941, the Germans confronted once more the question of what to do with the large Jewish population in Eastern Europe. All this time, murderous Einsatzgruppen had been working behind the Wehrmacht as it advanced into the Soviet Union, shooting Jews and Communists in their thousands, while all over occupied Eastern Europe local commanders had taken “initiatives” against the Jews, knowing they would meet with approval in Berlin. But now, in the later months of 1941, the line between mass murder and organised genocide was crossed.
On 15 August 1941, in Minsk in the Ukraine, Himmler witnessed a mass execution for himself and saw at first hand what a messy business it was. That gruesome experience may have provided the catalyst which led him to look for more efficient methods of killing; but even before then he had decided to apply to a new purpose the expertise in the lethal use of poison gas developed in the “mercy killing” of some 70,000 German mental hospital patients.
This programme was executed with breathtaking speed. Initially gassing vans were used, but in late November 1941 teams arrived at Belzec in Poland to advise on the building of gas chambers and, in the spring of 1942, two other extermination factories were created, at Sobibor and Treblinka; in July the enormous camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau began to function. By the end of that year, “the overwhelming majority of Jews in the Central Government [of Poland] had been murdered, and the rest of Europe’s Jews were set to follow them into the gas chambers.”
In this context, it might seem odd that Hitler and Himmler talked about sparing Jewish lives at their meeting. “I have asked the Führer with regard to letting Jews go abroad for ransom,” Himmler’s aide-mémoire records. “He gave me full powers to approve cases like that, if they really bring in foreign currency in appreciable quantities from abroad.” But the impulse which led to the creation of Bergen-Belsen was not merciful; it fitted, rather, into a wider pattern of combining the extermination of the Jews with the extraction of their full economic potential. Just as some of the younger and fitter would be temporarily saved from the gas chambers, to work in labour camps for the German war effort, so it made sense to squeeze all the juice out of the richer and more prominent. Also, the German Foreign Office was interested in exchanging some Jews for German citizens interned by the Allies (there had already been one such exchange before December 1942), while the SS thought they might be useful as hostages. It may also be true that Himmler had another purpose in mind: that, even while supervising the death factories in Eastern Europe and devotedly serving his Führer, he could see the way the war was going and felt it might be useful to have counters with which to bargain with the Allies.
Later the same month, the bureaucracy was mobilised. Himmler ordered the Head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, to “segregate Jews who had important connections abroad” and to establish a special transit camp where they would be held—they would work but, Himmler stated, “be kept healthy and alive.” In the spring of 1943 further steps followed. The SS persuaded the army to hand over part of a prisoner-of-war camp near Celle, in northern Germany, Sturmbannführer Adolf Haas was appointed camp commandant and gangs of prisoners were sent from nearby concentration camps to bring the place up to the standard felt necessary for its new role. Then, on 10 May 1943, the establishment of “Bergen-Belsen civilian internment camp” was officially announced, only for its title to be speedily changed to “Bergen-Belsen detention camp” when it was realised that “according to the Geneva convention, civil internment camps must be accessible for visits by international committees.” In the middle of July the first inmates arrived.
The Germans variously estimated the number of potential “exchange Jews” at between 10,000 and 30,000, but only about 7,000 of them were ever sent to Belsen. This elite group was made up of those who held dual nationality, those thought worth exchanging and those who had been granted exemption by acquiring or being given a place on one of the “lists,” those rolls of names of people who had won exemption from bureaucratic genocide. Much the most valuable of these was thought to be the “Palestine list,” containing the names of those with certificates enabling them to emigrate to Palestine.
Over the next year, groups of survivors from the Jewish communities in Poland, Greece, Holland and Hungary were sent to Belsen. Most of the Poles were eventually transported to Auschwitz and many of the Hungarians were moved on; after protracted negotiations, some 250 Jews were eventually exchanged for German nationals, in July 1944. But, although Belsen continued to be a camp for “exchange Jews,” the SS also began to use the site to accommodate other populations as well. By the middle of 1944, Belsen consisted of five different camps containing “exchange Jews,” neutrals, “criminals” and political prisoners, all kept separate. The character of the place was changing, as it was increasingly used by the SS as just another part of the vast concentration camp empire. One area became a “recuperation camp” to which sickly prisoners could be sent from other camps, but the medical care was primitive and most of the prisoners were in the last stages of tuberculosis and died quickly. In addition, a large camp for women was established at Belsen in the summer of 1944.
With their usual thoroughness, the Germans kept the different groups at Belsen entirely segregated from each other, behind barbed wire, and enforced strict hierarchies of privilege. The Hungarian Jews were the most fortunate, not having to work or attend endless roll calls and being permitted to wear civilian clothing, eat kosher food and give their dead decent funerals. The “politicals” were treated worst.
Because of the camp’s “special” status, certain groups at Belsen were even allowed to run their own affairs and to keep diaries; most of what we now know comes from inmates of the “Star Camp” for “exchange Jews,” where nearly all the Dutch were sent. The prevailing note in these journals is of hunger and despair, a daily struggle for survival as starvation, overwork and brutality take their toll, and the conditions of existence gradually remove the decencies of civilised life—“a wild uncontrollable jealousy can overcome a person for a spoonful of soup.” But there are also striking individual differences. For Hanna Lévy-Hass, an Yugoslav Communist, the destruction of the bonds of solidarity and comradeship, the ease with which the Germans set the prisoners against each other, was the worst thing. “Our hut is like a madhouse,” she wrote in September 1944. “It is exactly what the Nazis intended—to humiliate us and reduce us to animals, to drive us out of our minds, to extinguish even the faintest memory we might still have that we were once human beings.” She clung to her faith that after the war the restructuring of society would transform human nature.
Another diarist, the Amsterdam lawyer and Zionist Abel J. Herzberg, was mainly preoccupied with the need to maintain in the camp the forms and structure of Jewish law and self-government. He proudly described the workings of “the investigation branch, the judiciary, the youth care service” and the “magistrate and chief investigator” within the “Star Camp,” only then to deplore their gradual collapse.
By the end of 1944 such concerns had become irrelevant. As the Allied armies paused, Belsen took on its third and final role—as the terminus, the last station, of the Holocaust, to which prisoners from the death camps in the East in the path of the Soviet Army were evacuated. Among the thousands brought by trains from Auschwitz to Belsen in the late autumn were a young Dutch Jewish girl, Anne Frank; a French musician who played in the camp orchestra, Fania Fénelon; and a housewife from Cracow, Bertha Ferderber. “They fear nobody will believe them and will put their stories down as the tales of lunatics,” Hanna Lévy-Hass wrote after talking to some of the new arrivals. She was surprised, however, that they all looked “healthy and comparatively well.”
By now Belsen was seriously overcrowded, and, at first, the newcomers had to sleep in makeshift tents erected on the windswept heath. Then new barracks were erected, only for those to fill up instantly. Three-tiered bunks were installed in the huts and prisoners made to sleep two to a bunk.
In December 1944, SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer was sent from Auschwitz to be the new commandant of Belsen. A tough but limited man who had joined the SS as an unemployed electrician in 1932, Kramer was used to following orders; he imposed a strict but vicious regime, putting Aryan “Kapos” in charge of each hut and terrorising the prisoners with endless roll calls. At the same time, more and more transports were sent to Belsen. The camp became yet more overcrowded, the population growing from 15,257 at the end of 1944 to 44,000 by the end of March 1945, even though some 18,000 people had died there in that month alone. “We are engulfed in our own stinking sea of germs, lice and fleas, and everything around us is putrid and slimy,” Lévy-Hass wrote. “We are literally lying on top of each other, we provide a perfect breeding-ground for the lice.” In February 1945, an epidemic of typhus broke out. There began to be reports of cannibalism among the inmates: of corpses being cut open and organs such as the liver extracted and eaten.
By early March 1945, Belsen was subsiding into chaos. The food supply began to fail completely; Allied bombing nearby disrupted the water supply. All attempts to bury the dead were abandoned. According to a later account:
Until about March the dead had been cremated but during this month the mortality rate rose sharply and the crematorium could no longer cope. The dead were then gathered into piles and burned in the open but this was discontinued when military personnel in [the nearby] barracks objected to the smell. Large pits were then bulldozed out and the dead were dragged to them for burial. . . . But as the death rate and the physical incapacity of the internees increased, and this was most marked in the women’s laager, the dead were simply dragged as far away from the huts as possible and dumped. As exhaustion increased, the distance the corpses were dragged diminished and the piles around the huts grew.
Not everyone starved at Belsen; there were ways of surviving. For example, valuables could be traded for food, if you still had anything worth selling. Here “exchange Jews,” who had not passed through the death camps and lost all their possessions, had a great advantage over the new arrivals from the East. A young Dutch Jewish girl later recalled that for her seventh birthday, in January 1945, her father traded his wedding ring for “a sandwich with chocolate sprinkles on top,” which she and her brother ate for about six months.
Sex was another commodity that could be traded. “Many of the women have sold themselves,” Hanna Lévy-Hass wrote in February 1945. “Without a moment’s thought quite young girls, who know nothing of life and its principles, have seized the opportunity that the tragic situation offered them.” Lucien Duckstein, a young French boy, later recalled how two Parisian prostitutes in his hut slept with Germans and brought back food and cigarettes. Everyone was grateful but that did not stop the prostitutes receiving abuse from some of the women.
Excerpted from After Daybreak by Ben Shephard. Copyright © 2005 by Ben Shephard. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.