Bergen-Belsen 15. April 1945: Die Befreiung aus Sicht von Augenzeugen

Die Befreiung von Bergen-Belsen durch die britische Armee hat in den letzten Tagen viel mediale Aufmerksamkeit und viel Politiker-Betroffenheitsansprachen erhalten. Und natürlich wird die Gelegenheit genutzt, um zum Kampf gegen die In-Ismen der Jetzt-Zeit aufzurufen.

So hat Niedersachsens Ministerpräsident, Stephan Weil, in seiner Rede dazu aufgerufen, “die Erinnerung an Bergen-Belsen und die Verbrechen der NS-Zeit wachzuhalten. Dabei sei besonders wichtig, “die richtigen Lehren zu ziehen, und auch heute gegen alle Anzeichen von Antisemitismus, Rassismus und Unterdrückung mit aller Konsequenz vorzugehen”.

Die wolkigen Worte “Rassismus”, “Antisemitismus” mögen heute in sein, sie werden dem, was von britischen Einheiten am 15. April 1945 in Bergen-Belsen vorgefunden wurde, jedoch in keiner Weise gerecht. Einmal mehr spielt die Realität in einer ganz anderen Liga als die Begriffe, die so gerne benutzt werden, wenn auch kaum jemand eine konkrete Vorstellung damit verbindet.

Bergen-Belsen wurde am 15. April 1945 von britischen Special Commandos, des SAS (Special Air Service), befreit. Befreit ist vielleicht das falsche Wort, übernommen trifft es vermutlich besser. Wir geben im Folgenden eine Passage aus dem Buch “SAS Rogue Heroes” von Ben MacIntyre wieder, die aus Augenzeugenberichten, Interviews und Dokumenten, die MacIntyre im SAS-Archiv gelesen hat, zusammengestellt wurde.

Wer will, der kann die Sonntagsreden der Politiker den Augenzeugenberichten gegenüberstellen, um zu sehen, dass beide nichts gemein haben.

“The smell hit them first. On 15 April 1945, the SAS jeeps were driving through the dense woods of pine and silver birch outside Celle, heading for Lüneburg Heath, when they caught the first whiff, a cloying stench of rot and excrement that seemed to hang in the air like a plaque miasma. The reek of pure evil, it grew steadily stronger as they advanced. ‘We’d been coming through the forest,’ said Reg Seekings, ‘and for a day or so we’d had this horrible stink.’

Lieutnant John Randall and his driver were on a reconnaissance foray ahead of the main force when they came to a pair of impressive iron gates, standing open at the entrance to a sandy track. Randall was intrigued, wondering if this might be the gateway to some grand country house, and ordered the driver to turn in. After half a mile, they reached a barbed-wire fence 10 feet high, and another gate. If this was a POW [Prisoner of War] camp there might be Allied servicemen inside awaiting liberation. The smell grew ever more powerful. A handful of SS guards stood idly by, and stared listlessly as the SAS jeep drove through. Machine-gunners in the watchtowers spaced along the fence looked down but made no move. Randall drew his revolver as a precaution. He was struck by the nearby tended flowerbeds on either side of the gate, and the gleaming whitewashed kerbstones.

One hundred yards beyond, they entered a surreal tableau. In a wide clearing, beside rows of low, shuttered huts, wandered an aimless army of ghosts, shuffling, withered semi-skeletons with sunken eyes and parchment skin, some clad in black and white striped prison garb, but many almost naked. The prisoners converged on the jeep, plucking at the men’s uniform in supplication, speaking a multitude of languages, including English, pleading for food, help, protection. ‘There were hundreds of them and an overpowering stench,’ recalled Randall. The guards looked on, without apparent interest. A little further on was what Randall initially took to be a potato patch, which some of the starving, half-naked figures seemed to be picking over, as if in search of sustenance. On drawing closer, Randall saw it was a pile of dead bodies; the living were pulling off the ragged garments of the dead to cloth themselves. Some 50 yards beyond that was a spectacle that made Randall gasp and retch: a vast pit, 50 feet square, containing a contorted mass of bodies, a charnel pit filled to overflowing with the dead, and the main source of the appalling smell.

Randall and his driver were the first Allied soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, a place that would become synonymous with Nazi barbarity. Some 60,000 prisoners were still packed into a camp designed to accommodate 10,000; the bodies of another 13,000 people lay all around the site, victims of disease, starvation and brutality. Some 70,000 people perished at Belsen. Just over a month before the arrival of the SAS, the fifteen-year-old Anne Frank had died here, most probably of typhus, leaving behind a diary that would go on to become the most widely read testament to the crimes of the Holocaust.

A few minutes later Randall was joined by others from the troop: Reg Seekings and Johnny Cooper, along with the chaplain, Fraser McLuskey, and Major John Tonkin, the commander of Operation Bulbasket. ‘We stood aghast,’ wrote Cooper. ‘we simply could not comprehend how it was possible for human beings to treat their fellow men in such a brutal and heinous way.’ The remaining prison guards, either oblivious to the arrival of Allied soldiers or unconcerned by it, were carrying on the business of murder as usual.


At that moment there appeared a smiling figure in SS uniform who introduced himself as Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, the commandant of Bergen-Belsen. Alongside him stood a blonde woman in the near uniform of a female camp guard; he introduced her as Irma Grese, the warden in charge of women prisoners. Kramer politely inquired if the visitors would like a tour of the camp. ‘He seemed most willing to oblige,’ wrote Cooper, ‘and declared that he was not responsible for the condition of the inmates.’

Kramer ushered the visitors into the nearest hut. It was gloomy inside, and eerily silent, save for the occasional groan. ‘We were overpowered by the stench,’ recalled Randall. ‘Emaciated figures peered out at us, in fear and surprise, from the rows of bunks. Lying among them, on the same bunks, were dead bodies.’

The SAS men reeled back out into the sunshine, to be met by another shocking sight. In the yard, a camp guard was methodically beating a prisoner with a rifle butt. Cooper glance across to his old friend. ‘The effect on Reg Seekings was one of utter rage. I could see that he was on the verge of pulling out his pistol and shooting.’ Instead, Seekings turned to Tonkin and asked for permission ‘to teach the guard a lesson’. Tonkin nodded his assent. Seekings walked up to the SS guard and punched him in the face with all the power and precision of a regimental boxing champion, combined with the fury of a man whose core morality has been outraged. When the man had staggered back to his feet, Seekings punched him again. This time, he did not get up. Tonkin gave orders to arrest Kramer and Grese, and lock them in the guardroom: ‘We are now in charge, not you, and any guard who attempts to treat a prisoner with brutality will be punished.’ It would have been only too easy to unleash the SAS on the remaining SS inside the camp: instead, calmly and quietly, Tonkin chose to demonstrate what civilization means. Eight months later Kramer and Grese […] were tried, convicted of crimes against humanity and then hanged in Hamelin prison.

The rest of the patrol set about distributing whatever rations they had to the prisoners, while an intelligence officer tried to explain in English, French, and German that they were now free. He was struck by the apparent lack of response to the moment of liberation: ‘Their faces were dull, exhausted, emotionless, not capable of expressing joy and excitement as had everyone else in Europe.’ Cooper fell into conversation with a Jewish Belgian journalist, a prisoner in Belsen for only a few months, who explained: ‘We might be able to restore some of the inmates to bodily health but their minds would be distorted for years to come – perhaps for ever.’

The SAS men found it hard to put into words the horror they had witnessed, but a few hours later there arrived at Belsen a man who could. Richard Dimbleby’s report for the BBC would stun the world with its vivid, heartsick, furious depiction of Nazi brutality.

Bergen Belsen

‘Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which … The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights aorund them […]

I saw it all – furnaces where thousands have been burnt alive … The pit – 15 feet deep – as big as a tennis court, piled to the top at one end with naked bodies … The British bulldozers, digging a new pit for the hundredes of bodies lying all over the camp days after death. … The dark huts piled with human filfth in which the dead and dying are lying together so that you mus step over them to avoid the sticks of arms that are thrust imploringly towards you.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible day of my life.

The SAS soldiers who had stumbled on the camp shared that sentiment. ‘I had been in action for three years and was no stranger to violent death, but what I saw in the camp will stay with me forever,” wrote Cooper. It took days before Randall could get the smell of death out of his hair and remove the lingering stench from his clothing. He could never expunge it from his memory. ‘The smell and the sights of these dead bodies haunted me.'”

Stephan Weil will die Erinnerung wach halten. Wir haben seinem Wunsch entsprochen. Mit Rassismus und Antisemitismus hat das, was die SAS Soldaten in Bergen-Belsen vorgefunden haben, wenig zu tun, aber viel mit Unmenschlichkeit. Unmenschlichkeit ist kein Ismus, sondern eine reale Handlung von realen Menschen mit realen Folgen.

Wem die Beschreibung noch nicht reicht, hier der Beitrag von Richard Dimbleby, der am 19. April 1945 von der BBC ausgestrahlt wurde.

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