In a familiar film picturing the liberation of the Nazi camps, a British soldier pushing a mass of emaciated corpses to a pit with his bulldozer wipes the tears away from his eyes. That scene was Bergen-Belsen, a monstrous typhus graveyard.
Belsen is located in a sparsely populated area near Hannover, Germany. Fertile farmlands surround the area; and brightly colored flowers and neat farmhouses fill the landscape. The Belsen site is simply a graveyard. Nothing remains of the original camp. Belsen has blended into the peaceful rural countryside.
Though Belsen ended the war in an explosion of mass death, it played a comparatively modest role in Hitler's extermination plan. If it had not been for a typhus epidemic and overcrowding, the word Belsen might never have entered our vocabulary of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, near the end of the war prisoners from every part of Europe were trucked, marched, or taken by cattle car to Belsen to escape the advancing Allies. Thus the camp doubled its size in the last months. Food became scarce or nonexistent. Because of the influx of diseased evacuees, one of the worst typhus plagues in the history of the camps broke out, sweeping through Belsen in almost demonic fury. Most of the camp population died either from starvation or typhus, or a combination of both -- so quickly that thousands of bodies piled up all over the area.
Belsen had none of the modern crematorium equipment found in other camps. Consequently, the mess that greeted the British liberating army was as gruesome as could be found; and the sights transcribed on film and in photographs became known throughout the world. As one of the incoming officers described it:
There were people dying in the compounds, dying in the mass before our eyes. There was one crematorium, but the Germans did not use it because they could not cope with the number of deaths.
We saw enormous covered death pits. One was uncovered. It contained a great pile