Bergen-Belsen operated near the town of Celle, Lower Saxony in Northern Germany. It consisted of a number of camps, developing into a complex camp system. It became known as Bergen-Belsen in 1943, when it was officially designated a Concentration Camp. There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, however with poor sanitation, limited water access, and limited rations, thousands of people starved to death. Disease was rife and outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery were devastating. By 1945 the conditions and treatment including forced labour and brutality had murdered around 52,000 people.

Prisoner of War Camp

From 1940 to 1943, Bergen-Belsen operated solely as a Prisoner of War camp. Prior to its establishment, a Prisoner of War camp began operation near Fallingbostel, known as ‘Stalag XI B’. This later became part of the Bergen-Belsen camp complex held up to 95,000 people during the course of the Second World War.

In 1941, following preparations for the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union another camp was created as an extension; ‘Stalag XI C’ was intended to hold 20,000 Soviet Prisoners of War and ran until 1943, at which point remaining prisoners were moved into ‘Stalag XI B’. By April 1942, around 41,000 people had been murdered by the inhuman conditions in the camps, starvation, disease and brutal treatment were rife.

Prisoners came from France and Belgium, with thousands coming from the Soviet Union later in the Second World War. They were required to carry out forced labour and were treated very poorly. In 1944 the camp also held Italian and Polish prisoners of war, following the Warsaw uprising.

Concentration Camp

After Bergen-Belsen had been declared a concentration camp in 1943, the structure was changed to include a range of sub camps by the SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (Economic Administration Main Office). Initially the Resident’s camp and the Prisoner’s camp were established; these were intended to hold included Jewish people, political prisoners, Romani Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, criminals, and homosexuals, as well as Prisoners of War. People were transferred into Bergen-Belsen from across Europe.

For more on The Nazi Camp System, click here.

Prisoner Camp

The Prisoner Camp encompassed the Recuperation Camp, the Tent Camp, the Small Women’s Camp and the Large Women’s Camp.

The Prisoners camp was created by the SS in April 1943 to accommodate around 500 people who had been transferred from various concentration camps across Europe; these included Natzweiler-Struthof, Buchenwald and Niederhagen. It was the original camp which formed the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, and had some of the worst conditions, with drastically poor sanitary conditions. The site became known as the ‘Recuperation camp’ when it was used to hold people sick or injured, and now unable to work. One thousand people arrived having been deemed unfit for work from Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp. After surviving extreme abuse and inhumane conditions at Mittelbau-Dora, these 1000 people were in a terrible state on arrival at Bergen-Belsen. Only 57 of this group survived Bergen-Belsen to liberation in 1945.

In August 1944, a Tent Camp was created following overcrowding within the prisoner’s camp for female prisoners who were ill or injured. Most of the women in the camp were Jewish, and were soon transported to Auschwitz. The Tent camp was subsequently destroyed by poor weather and replaced by the Small and Large Women’s camps.

As Soviet forces advanced towards camps in the East, the Nazis began to move people West to prevent their liberation. The influx of people moved from Auschwitz and other concentration camps in 1945 led to huge overcrowding, and further deteriorated conditions for people in the Women’s camps. Many women were murdered by conditions in the camp, particularly starvation and diseases such as typhus. Among the women and girls who did not survive Bergen-Belsen were Anne Frank and her sister Margot.

Residents Camp

Sub-camps were established to hold Jewish deportees of different nationalities. The Resident’s camp contained the Special Camp, the Neutrals Camp, the Star Camp, and the Hungarian Camp. As the allied forces approached Bergen-Belsen in 1945, some people held in these sub-camps were moved towards Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia, with the aim of preventing their liberation.

The Special Camp received 2,400 Jewish people from July 1943, holding between 2,300 and 2,500 people transported from Poland. These people did not have to carry out forced labour, and were not allowed to mix with any other groups of people. In October 1943, 1000 people were deported to Auschwitz, followed by 350 more in the early months of 1944.

The Hungarian Camp, created in July 1944 by the SS, held Hungarian Jews used for exchanges within the Third Reich. These individuals did not have to wear the camp uniform; they had to wear a Star of David on their clothes to identify themselves as Jewish. They did not have to carry out forced labour. Although 1,600 prisoners were relocated into Switzerland as part of an exchange deal, very few ever left the camp until they were forced on towards Theresienstadt in April 1945.

The Neutral camp began operation on arrival of the first transportations of Jewish people from countries with neutral status during the Second World War, in August 1943. 350 Jewish people who had citizenship in Spain, Turkey, Argentina and Portugal were brought to Bergen-Belsen in July 1944 and remained until March 1945. This sub camp had better conditions than most others within the Bergen-Belsen camp complex.

The Star camp was created after the arrival of Dutch prisoners, and held people who were intended for political exchange with the Netherlands, Tunisia, Tripoli, and France among others. As in other camps within the Residents camp, people held in Star Camp were only required to wear the Star of David. Around 4,100 people were resident in the Star camp in 1944, with many being moved towards Theresienstadt in 1945.


In the period between April 6, and 11, 1945, the SS forced people in the Special, Neutrals, Hungarian and Star camps out of Bergen-Belsen towards Theresienstadt, to prevent their liberation by Allied forces.       

On April 15, 1945, the 11th Armoured Division of the British army entered the Bergen-Belsen camp complex; this was the first concentration camp liberated by British forces, who were unprepared for what they found. British soldiers arriving were unprepared for the devastating conditions of the camp. Of the 60,000 people alive when the British liberated the camp, 28,000 people died within two weeks, as their conditions had deteriorated too much for medical aid to save them. Between April 15, and 28, mass graves were dug, British troops forced the SS guards who had been in charge of the camp to carry out this task. By the end of the month the task became too great, resulting in the use of bulldozers to move bodies to the grave sites. The British burnt every building within the camp complex as they moved through in order to prevent the spread of diseases such as typhus. The original camp complex was completely destroyed.

Following the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the camp was replaced by the British with a displaced persons camp, near the site of the concentration camp. This became the largest displaced persons camp in Europe following the Second World War. It housed around 10,000 Jewish people who were not free to leave the site until well after the Second World War; these individuals were led by Yosef Rosensaft and organized a range of cultural, social and political activities. The Red Cross transported 6,000 survivors to Sweden in assist their recovery from their imprisonment in Bergen-Belsen. Survivors remained at the displaced persons camp and many marriages took place between 1945 and 1948, with over 2,000 babies being born within the camp. Schools were established, as was an orphanage for those child survivors with no living relatives. Vocational training centres were also established for adults. Until 1949, departure from the camp was restricted by the British government; by 1950 the camp was empty, with most survivors migrating to the United States, Canada and Israel.


Adolf Haas was the first Camp Commandant of Bergen-Belsen, from March 1943 to December 1944. He was succeeded by Josef Kramer, who had previously been camp commandant at Auschwitz Birkenau and Natzweiler. Rudolf Haas left Bergen-Belsen in 1944 to take command of the Panzergrenadir Battilion, he was reported missing in action in May 1945. The SS succeeded in destroying most of the camps files before the arrival of the British in 1945. This included the file on personnel.

After the end of the Second World War, British authorities held a military tribunal in September 1945. 48 former members of staff were tried, including Josef Kramer, who was sentenced to death for his crimes against humanity.


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