Bergen-Belsen: Where sorrow never sleeps
It is not as famous — or rather, infamous — as some Nazi concentration camps, such as Auschwitz or Dachau, but somewhere here at Bergen-Belsen rests the best-known victim of their atrocities, Anne Frank.
Who has not heard of the Jewish girl who hid with her family in an Amsterdam attic, only to be betrayed by a neighbor? Shipped off first to Auschwitz, then to Bergen-Belsen, she died only weeks before the camp was liberated.
But Bergen-Belsen is not just the story of Anne Frank. It is also the story of thousands of others sent here as political prisoners, as prisoners of war or as victims of Nazi Germany’s “final solution.”
The original camp was built for laborers building a military training area in this part of Germany in 1935. In 1940, it became a prisoner of war camp, before being turned over to the SS as a camp for Jews who were to be exchanged for Germans interned in other countries.
In 1945, with the Nazis retreating from the eastern front, thousands of prisoners were transferred to Bergen-Belsen. More than 18,000 died from disease, cold and hunger before the camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by British troops.
After the war it was used as a displaced persons camp until it was closed in 1950.
Today the former prison camp is the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, a place to honor and remember its victims.
The entrance is a rather modern visitors center with informational displays and a movie about the camp’s history. Nearby, a much larger center with interactive displays is being built.
After viewing the movie and checking out the displays, walk outside and follow the paths through the former camp.
At first glance, it looks like a sprawling park, dotted with shallow hills and a stone obelisk rising up at one end. It is not until you notice stone signs on the mounds that read Hier Ruhen 2500 Tote, German for “Here rest 2,500 dead,” that you realize they are mass graves.
With disease spreading through the camp at liberation, the dead were quickly buried. But that did not save many who were already stricken: an additional 13,000 died after the camp was liberated.
It is not known in which mass grave the camp’s most famous prisoner is buried. But one of the many symbolic tombstones on the grounds bears her name and that of her sister. On a simple black slab, under the Star of David it reads “Margot Frank 1926-1945” and “Anne Frank 1929-1945.” Flowers, remembrance stones and photos of Anne, left by visitors, are a moving, sobering sight.
Nearby is the Jewish memorial, unveiled a year after liberation, and a little farther on is the modern House of Silence, a light-flooded, chapel-like structure with benches. Here also are messages, photos and remembrance stones for Anne Frank.
The stones are omnipresent: on the mass graves, on the tombstones and on the Wall of Inscriptions at the foot of the obelisk. The wall, as the name implies, has writing in many languages. In English, it reads “To the memory of all those who died in this place.”
Near the wall and obelisk, built between 1947 and 1952, is a timber cross. Former Polish inmates erected a cross on the spot where a service was held the day after liberation. Although the cross has been replaced many times throughout the years, it still has the size and shape of the original.
A path near here leads into the forest and through military training grounds to a Russian prisoner of war cemetery. The other paths lead through the remains of the concentration camp.
Unlike other former camps, nothing has been rebuilt or preserved here. In the last couple of years, excavations, often done by students, have uncovered foundations of many of the camp buildings.
Stones topped with metal maps of the camp mark places of interest, such as where the crematorium stood, or the square for roll calls at the Star Camp. It got its name from the yellow Stars of David that the Jewish prisoners had to wear. These were the prisoners who were to be exchanged for Germans. While they received better treatment and had to do less work to keep them fit for an exchange, they were forced to stand many hours a day in the square for “roll call.”
Dedicated to these, and the rest of the camp’s victims, the Bergen- Belsen Memorial is a reminder that they must never be forgotten.
Know and go ...• Getting there: Bergen-Belsen is north of Hanover, between Celle and Soltau, Germany. Because of the military training area that separates it from the autobahn, the easiest way to get there is to exit A-7 at Solau-Süd, take highway B3 to Bergen and follow the signs to Gedenkstäte Bergen-Belsen.
• Hours: The memorial is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Entrance and parking is free.
• Web site:www.bergenbelsen.de
• Dining: There is no place to eat at the memorial, but there are restaurants in Bergen.
• Of interest: Nearby in Soltau, is the Heidepark, one of northern Germany’s largest amusement parks.
— Michael Abrams