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After Daybreak - The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945
by Ben Shephard
Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis' Final Gamble
By Roger Cohen
Alfred A. Knopf
In April and May of 1945, when the British newsreels showing thousands of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Bergen-Belsen reached western movie houses, the world was suddenly introduced to the horrors of the Third Reich. "This is what we were fighting against," trumpeted the British, who had earlier refused to take in adult Jewish refugees.
The ghastly newsreels had a special effect on this writer - it was then that I resolved to resign from the Gentile world and live in Palestine.
When the first three British soldiers reached the wire at Belsen and saw the state of the walking skeletons inside, they vomited. This so embarrassed the women who had come to greet their liberators that they retreated into their fetid huts, where nearly everyone lay dying.
In 1945, women, most of them Jewish, were the majority of prisoners in Belsen. Thousands of them had been transferred and marched into the camp in the terrible winter of 1944/45, after being evacuated from camps about to be overrun by the Russians. Their German guards used the Jews to flee westward themselves and to avoid being sent to the front. A few starving Jewish escapees also entered the camp, hoping to find a scrap to eat.
Belsen could not deal with the influx; the Third Reich was falling apart and the camp had neither food nor accommodation, much less medical supplies. Anne Frank and her sister, shipped in from Auschwitz, both died of typhus shortly before the British arrived. Hundreds, then thousands of prisoners starved to death. Their bodies were stacked like cordwood.
Belsen had been a "model camp" divided into clearly defined sub-camps. Initially, there were sections for Dutch and Hungarian Jews who were hostages intended to be exchanged for German prisoners and supplies; some of them, including the Hungarian Jews on the Kastner train, were actually sent on to Switzerland by a worried Himmler in the autumn of 1944, after surviving more than half a year in Belsen. Furious, Hitler put a stop to Himmler's transfers.
Also in Belsen were large numbers of captured Resistance fighters and slave laborers who were not Jewish, as well as German "politicals" and criminals. And there were also Jewish children.
In 1945, most of the guards were Hungarian troops, many of them savagely anti-Semitic. After being disarmed, the Hungarians were invaluable in helping clean up the camp.
The British came cold to an unknown planet. It took them weeks to organize medical units that could be taken out of the firing line. Their first food issue consisted of British army tinned rations of meat and milk, which soon resulted in the deaths of thousands of the emaciated prisoners. All in all, some 14,000 died at Belsen after its liberation.
Mastermind of the British relief effort was the immensely kind and efficient RAMC Brigadier Glyn Hughes, aided by Lt. Col. James Johnson, another British doctor, who in turn depended on the help of two formidable Jewish inmate medics, Hadassah Bimko and Ruth Gutman. Two British Jewish chaplains pitched in, especially Rabbi Captain Leslie Hardman. And then 100 British medical students, a few of them Jewish, were flown in to help. Inoculated against typhus but with enormous courage, they went into the nightmare huts and brought out the living and the dead. The living were sent to a human laundry, washed at first by German nurses, the only nurses available; and given fresh clothing.
Author Ben Shephard's gripping and even uplifting book After Daybreak is essentially about the way the camp was reorganized by Hughes and the inmates brought back to life. The Brigadier approved a controversial distribution of lipstick; this single act electrified the women of Belsen and in one day launched them on their return to femininity and life.
In the copious notes to this remarkable book is a reference to an appeal made to American Jewish doctors to come to Belsen, noting that not one arrived. But then thousands of young Jewish doctors were still serving in the US forces and girding up for the expected attack on the Japanese mainland; and post-war civilian airlines were not yet in existence.
EARLY IN 1945, American Jewish prisoners of war recently captured in the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere were ordered by a German officer to step forward and be separated from their Gentile comrades. Nearly all of the Jewish NCO's and privates refused to hide their Jewish heritage and found themselves included in a draft of 350 prisoners to be sent to work as slave laborers building an underground synthetic fuel plant near the East German town of Berga. Many of the draft were not Jews, but unlucky Gentiles needed to make up the number. Some 20 percent of the draft did not survive the brutal conditions, starvation rations and their eventual death march westward.
Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, tells their known but long forgotten story in Soldiers and Slaves, recently the subject of a documentary film (Berga: Soldiers of Another War, by Charles Guggenheim). Cohen also intersperses his account with the remarkable survival story of a hardy young Hungarian Jewish concentration camp inmate, one of many emaciated European Jews working alongside the Americans at Berga, though it rather breaks up the flow of his story.
The American troops who liberated the Berga survivors in a German town were astonished at their skeletal condition. Incredibly, their story was at first disbelieved, then suppressed. The survivors were ordered to sign clearances that ensured they would remain silent about their treatment, the worst endured by American prisoners in Europe.
Two of the senior and most brutal guards at Berga, both anti-Semitic sadists, were eventually tried and sentenced to death, but their sentences were commuted by General Lucius Clay, who refused to "embarrass" the German government, by then an ally in the Cold War. Clay thought sentencing them to 12 years was "enough." They were soon released and disappeared.
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