As the world prepares to mark the anniversary, a former British soldier and a prisoner he freed recall the Nazi concentration camp
It was a “lovely spring day” when Corporal Ian Forsyth arrived at a place of darkness and death. The 21-year-old wireless operator with the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars was among the first British troops to reach the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany 75 years ago this week.
“We weren’t expecting to see anything – we didn’t know there was such a place. We had been going ahead without any idea there was anything there. I think that was the worst part,” Forsyth, now 96, recalls.
A young survivor walks along a road lined by the corpses of hundreds of prisoners who died at the Bergen-Belsen camp, in May 1945. Photograph: George Rodger/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
What he and other British soldiers found on 15 April 1945 was beyond comprehension. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – I couldn’t believe … people could sink to that level, and treat people the way they treated these prisoners,” he says. “When you see a person who is a living skeleton, as these people were, it’s difficult. It’s astonishing that any human being could survive the terrible torture …
“Anybody who didn’t see the place as we saw it would find it very difficult to believe what we actually saw. Bodies stretched out on the ground. Nobody had the strength to move them. The people on the other side of the barbed wire didn’t know who we were – they just stared as we approached.”
This week’s 75th anniversary of the liberation will be a rather different occasion from the one planned. Events due to take place across the world on Wednesday have been cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and commemorations will instead take place online.
Liberated women and children prisoners at Bergen-Belsen huddle together in a hut at the camp. Photograph: AP
Although people are unable to gather in person, Olivia Marks-Woldman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, says: “We must each remember the brave efforts of the British liberators, and honour the memory of the thousands of Jews, Roma people, prisoners of war and many others murdered there.”
Bergen-Belsen, about 40 miles north of Hanover, was established as a prisoner-of-war camp in 1940. Three years later the SS turned it into a detention camp.
As the Allied forces advanced, the Germans forced prisoners from other camps on “death marches” to Bergen-Belsen. The camp’s population grew from about 7,300 to at least 60,000 and tens of thousands of people died in grossly inhumane conditions, including Anne Frank and her sister.
A sign at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, while under British control. After its liberation, the camp was burned to the ground to combat the spread of typhoid. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
Zsuzsanna Blau was a teenager when she arrived half-dead at the camp in spring 1945. The previous year, her father had been taken from the family’s home in Felsögöd, Hungary; she never saw him again. Her mother had been gassed at Auschwitz.
The girl was sent to work as a slave labourer in an armaments factory near the Polish border. From there, she was marched to Bergen-Belsen. “It was an endless journey across frozen fields,” recalls Susan Pollack, as she is now called. “We could barely move, but those who could not walk were shot.”
At Bergen-Belsen “conditions were indescribable. It was a place of immense suffering. There was no food; corpses were left to rot. My mind was a blank –there was no me.”
After a few days or weeks, convinced she was dying, Pollack crawled from her hut. “I felt someone gently picking me up. I didn’t know who it was, but I realised something had changed – I was being treated with kindness.”
Susan Pollack, who the survived Bergen-Belsen camp, holds a photograph of herself with her parents, who both perished at the hands of the Nazis. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
British troops found tens of thousands of emaciated and diseased prisoners alongside thousands of unburied corpses. The broadcaster Richard Dimbleby described the scene shortly after liberation. The BBC initially refused to play the report, unable to believe the scenes he recounted. It was finally broadcast only after Dimbleby threatened to resign.
“Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted tracks … Inside the huts it was even worse,” he reported. “I’ve seen many terrible sights in the last five years, but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful interior of this hut.
“The dead and the dying lay close together. I picked my way over corpse after corpse, until I heard one voice above the gentle moaning. I found a girl. She was a living skeleton. Impossible to gauge her age, for she had practically no hair left on her head, and her face was only a yellow parchment sheet, with two holes in it for eyes.”
Ian Forsyth joined the army in 1942 as part of the 1st reconnaissance Regiment at Lockerbie. He was later part of the 11th Armoured Division which liberated Bergen-Belsen. Photograph: Royal British Legion Scotland
The liberation was not the end of the horror: more than 13,000 camp inmates died in the following days.
Pollack, along with other survivors, was taken to a displaced persons camp, and from there went to Sweden, then Canada, before marrying a fellow survivor and settling in London. She lost more than 50 members of her extended family in the Holocaust; only her brother survived.
Recalling the liberation, Forsyth says he “changed completely that day”. He still wakes in the night “with it going through my mind”; every detail is still clear.
“I hope people can realise how far mankind can sink if they are not careful,” he says. “Why is there so much hatred? It’s something that I just don’t understand. We don’t choose our life, but we can choose whether we hate others.”
The liberation of Bergen-Belsen confronted the world “with the incomprehensible cruelty inflicted by the Nazis”, said Marks-Woldman of the Memorial Day Trust. “We remember with a purpose: to combat denial, which today spreads so easily online, and to challenge all forms of identity-based prejudice and violence. As time passes and survivors of the Holocaust become fewer and less able to tell their stories, we must remember and ensure we work together for a better future.”
(Source: The Guardian)