HOLOCAUST survivors and officials gathered at the memorial site of the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany yesterday to commemorate the liberation of the camp 70 years ago.
The camp was liberated by British soldiers who found around 10,000 dead bodies when they entered the Nazi camp.
German president Joachim Gauck yesterday honoured the British soldiers as “ambassadors of a democratic culture who were not looking for revenge”.
Around 200,000 people were deported to Bergen-Belsen. More than 52,000 camp inmates and 20,000 prisoners of war died there, among them the teenage diarist Anne Frank. Ceremonies were also taking place at the former Flossenbuerg camp in southern Germany, where 30,000 people died between 1938 and 1945.
“We must look to the past to put an end to injustice,” said Mr Gauck.
“We commit ourselves to the obligation of never denying these crimes, or relativising them, and of preserving the memories of the victims.
“The British soldiers were the ambassadors of a democratic culture that wasn’t bent on avenging the crimes of its enemy, and this helped Germany restore its obligation anew to justice and the dignity of the human being,” Mr Gauck said, before professing his “deep need” to thank Great Britain for liberating Bergen-Belsen.
The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, warned of a resurgence of xenophobia in Europe and called for action against anti-semitism.
Mr Lauder deplored that in Paris, London and Copenhagen, Jews couldn’t wear a kippah without being afraid of violence.
Addressing the Bergen-Belsen survivors, Mr Lauder expressed his gratitude for their perseverance: “We are so proud of you. You were confronted with the most horrific cruelty imaginable, and still you left here with your dignity intact.”
In early 1943, two years after being erected, parts of Bergen-Belsen were turned into a concentration camp. The SS initially called it an “internment camp” for Jews, who were to be used as prisoner swaps for Germans detained abroad.
From March 1944 onwards, sick and wounded prisoners from other countries were also interned at Bergen-Belsen, which led to the camp being quickly filled to capacity. By the final year of the war, there was almost no food or water. Typhus and dysentery had quickly spread throughout the camp, costing tens of thousands lives.
The British reached the camp on 15 April, 1945. By mid-June, another 14,000 now-liberated prisoners had perished in makeshift hospitals set up by the Allies. The British evacuated Bergen-Belsen and burned the entire camp to the ground to stem the spread of the epidemic.
Nothing remains of the camp barracks today.
According to the state of Lower Saxony, which runs a foundation tasked with preserving the site, some 52,000 prisoners were murdered in the concentration camp, in addition to 20,000 other prisoners of war.