Our new mini Reading Room exhibition, created in order to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, tells the story of what British troops found when they liberated the camp on 15 April 1945 and how news of the camp was spread by the British media.
Bergen-Belsen was first established in 1940 as a prisoner of war camp and from 1943 held Jewish civilians with foreign passports whom the Nazis used as leverage in order to secure money or the release of Germans interned in Allied countries. Later it became a concentration camp and in 1944, the first large transports from Auschwitz and other camps arrived, transforming the camp into a collection centre for survivors of the death marches. The camp became exceptionally overcrowded and conditions deteriorated further.
When the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945 they were unprepared for what they found. Thousands of bodies lay unburied around the camp and some 60,000 people were packed together without food, water or basic sanitation. Typhus, dysentery and starvation were rife. The discovery of the Bergen-Belsen camp and the horrendous conditions there made on powerful impact on public opinion in Great Britain and elsewhere. According to Leonard Berney, first British officer to liberate Bergen-Belsen:
“Soon many British reporters and press photographers and newsreel cameramen came to the camp and ‘Belsen, the horror camp’ was widely reported in the UK. Public reaction was shock and outrage. Ironically, it was the story of photographs of Belsen that for the first time, even after five years of war, made the people of Britain realise the atrocities the Nazi regime had practised.”
– Liberating Belsen Concentration Camp: A Personal Account by Leonard Berney, pg 4
Daily Mail book published in 1945 that promised to reveal “the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps…in the most terrible photographs ever published” to British audiences. Also featured is testimony from British personnel and a collection of photographs showing post-war life in the displaced persons camp.