A report on the liberated concentration camp at Belsen (1945)

British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen on April 15th 1945. American war correspondent William Frye entered Belsen soon after and filed this report:

Belsen, Germany, April 20th.

“The dead were getting a burial today at this fearsome concentration camp—each nameless dead getting a ghastly burial. No coffins or flowers at this funeral. No tears or well-bred sympathy. No music.

These naked corpses were hauled in trucks and dumped into a pit. Their pallbearers were SS (elite guard) men and women, now Allied prisoners. Their litany was the hoarse shouts of British soldiers, sick with disgust and fury, ordering these marked members of Hitler’s chosen legions about their horrible task.

I saw Belsen—its piles of lifeless dead and its aimless swarms of living dead. Their great eyes were just animal lights in skin-covered skulls of famine. Some were dying of typhus, some of typhoid, some of tuberculosis, but most were just dying of starvation. Starvation—the flesh on their bodies had fed on itself until there was no flesh left, just skin covering bones and the end of all hope, and nothing left to feed on.

Tragically, there is still hope inside these still-breathing cadavers. As long as eyes can stare from the bodies scattered everywhere on the floors and on the ground there is hope. Hope in these for whom there is no hope. They are living but they cannot live. No food, no care can save them. Ahead of them is nothing—nothing but that pit with the bulldozer waiting to cover them with earth.

Nothing—well, there is one thing, the knowledge that after months of bestiality there is suddenly, unbelievably, friendliness and good will among men. At least they will die aware of that. Countless thousands—some say 30,000, some say more—died without even that comfort, died horrible deaths before the British Second army reached this camp on the Aller river southeast of Bremen Sunday.

I saw these dead—hundreds and thousands—lying in ditches and against walls of drab huts and piled in heaps, each one in a grotesque attitude in a grotesque mound. Some were clothed, but most were naked. Their nakedness was of no account because there had long ceased to be anything recognizably human about them, even before the last flicker of life disappeared.

I saw the living beside these dead. Living—they still walked and talked and stared curiously, unemotionally at visitors and snipped cigarette butts tossed from a passing army car, went to the cookhouse for food and knelt around fires. There were supposed to be 29,000 of them alive when the British arrived. Living—but hardly men and women now, their spirits so broken and degraded that the nameless horror around them was without meaning or significance. I saw there was no sex, no shame, no modesty, no self-respect among these people, driven in a few months backward a million years towards primordial scum. Some habits remained. Women stood naked cleaning themselves with cans of water, unconscious of their flat, empty nakedness.

Men, equally naked, also remembered the habit of bathing. Clothing to these people meant warmth, nothing else. I saw children walking about in this hell. Children—the first I saw I’ll never rub out of my mind. A boy, perhaps seven, and his sister, maybe five. The knobs of their joints bulging through their thin clothes, faces like mummies, timorously sneaking up with small pails towards a water truck, their great fierce eyes intent on a chance to rush in and steal pails-full of water. Obviously they were unable to comprehend something being freely given. It was agony to watch their stealthy approach, keeping always behind a British soldier who was there helping all who came.

I saw SS men and women, once the torturing, brutal guards of this purgatory beyond imagination, put to labour loading the bodies of the people they had killed into trucks. I saw them at the pits unloading these human carcasses, dragging them through the sand and dumping them into a great hole half-filled with dead. I saw these dead—dead long beyond rigor mortis—tumble limply into the vast common grave that hid their namelessness forever. I saw the living and dead lying beside each other in filthy huts—long, barracks-like buildings—the living no more able to rise than the dead.

I saw men eating food just brought from the cookhouse, eating within a yard of corpses dead for days, unconcerned by the death beside them or by the stench from slow-burning heaps of rags impregnated with filth. Outside one of these huts within a barbed-wire compound I saw a smouldering heap of rags, and underneath it the half-burned body of a man, dragged out with the rags and undiscovered until the gradually consumed waste disclosed this one-time human among the ashes. Not that it would have made any difference to the others if they had known.

Inside this hut, I saw and heard something else. Inside this hut, I choked and cried. What once were men lay on the floor clothed in rags. Already they lay in the same grotesque macabre attitudes of the corpses on the heaps a few yards away. A major who took me there, Major J. P. Fox of Dublin, Ireland, commander of a field hygienic unit told me “nothing can help these poor wretches. We can’t even feed them. They are too far gone to retain any food. They are dying and there is nothing we can do about it.”

There they lay, already pushing through the gates of death. As we walked through the door they were cheered. We could see the light of deliverance flash into those dying eyes. One or two feeble, wasted arms came slowly up and waved a “V” sign slowly in the air. The ghosts of voices quavered something that sounded like “hurrah” at the sight of Allied uniforms.

The major, another American correspondent and I staggered out of the hut, unable to see or speak and Major Fox said, “I think I have shown you all there is to see in this place.” But he had shown me only a little. There was more—much more. He showed me proof that the human spirit can survive even such calculated evil as was practiced in this abominable spot.

He took me to the cookhouse and introduced me to a Polish woman who for several years had been an inmate of German prisons and concentration camps. She had been in Belsen seven months. Previously she had been confined even longer in famous Auschwitz in Poland and for 27 months in prison – in the relative comfort of prison – in Berlin. We were received in her miserable little room in the cookhouse – hers since the liberation – as in a castle drawing-room. She spoke English – brokenly, cautiously – but she spoke English, and talked. With restraint, with great care, without bitterness, she talked. This is what I heard:

Josef Kramer, SS commander of Belsen now under close arrest, previously commanded Auschwitz, where children were taken from their mothers and burned alive, where a gas chamber killed thousands, where Kramer kept his own orchestra to entertain him with Strauss waltzes while abominations were practiced under his command outside his windows.

At Belsen, Kramer’s predecessor, also of the SS, was kind and considerate – prisoners had enough to eat and proper medical care, and were treated as human beings. The vileness began with Kramer’s arrival five months ago. He instituted starvation as punishment, kept it up as a habit. He enjoyed the shuddering filthiness, with a lascivious lust for degradation and death, that Belsen became. I heard that occasionally men starving in Belsen watched the dying with hunger, and as soon as they were dead, cut out their hearts, livers and kidneys and devoured them to sustain their own vanishing lives.

I heard from madame’s lips that one man seized in cannibalism by the SS was forced to kneel publicly, holding in his teeth the ear of a corpse, the entire day. I heard that SS women tied one living and one dead together, and burned both on a smouldering heap of scrap leather and worn out shoes and boots, while linking hands in a hideous bestial dance macabre around this incredible pyre. I heard that their sadistic joy in watching the slow disintegration of humans into something less than beasts was not always enough to satisfy Kramer’s devils and witches—beatings, chopping off fingers and other glittering savageries gave occasional zest to their jaded appetites.

I heard more—but I cannot go on. Once the woman faltered in her conversation. I asked how she learned English and she replied that there had been an English governess for two years for her little boy. But there are times when even a reporter may not ask questions—I not only do not know what became of the boy—I still do not know even madame’s name.

Once she broke entirely. Tears streamed down her face. That was when we left. She clung to Major Fox’s hand for a moment, said: “We will never forget. We still cannot believe people can be as kind as you have been to us.” What I saw and heard at Belsen is something never seen or heard of in the world before the Nazis created concentration camps of their own bestial, incomprehensible kind.”