Bergen-Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp near Hanover, in northern Germany, and part of the Holocaust run by the dreaded Nazi SS. It was set up in 1943 on Heinrich Himmler's orders with the designated purpose of holding Jews who were to be (temporarily) exempted from deportation to the extermination camps in the east so that they could be exchanged for German civilians held abroad. Between 1943 and 1945 it changed from being a detention camp to a concentration camp where people were sent to die. The SS operated the camp, dividing it into Camp I which held Soviet POWs, but later also included a Frauenlager for women and children. Camp II, or the Star Camp, was for Jews. The conditions were among the worst of any of the concentration camps. Before liberation on April 15, 1945, this site had deteriorated to the point that inmates transferred from Auschwitz were shocked by the camp's poor conditions.
The most famous prisoner was Anne Frank. In December 1944 she and her sister, Margot were transferred to Bergen-Belsen; they died of typhus in March 1945, a month before the liberation of the camp.
The number of Jews for whom Bergen-Belsen actually proved to be the antechamber to freedom was limited. The British Foreign Office bears some responsibility for this. It regarded proposals from Nazi Germany for such exchanges as blackmail, and giving in to it as unacceptable. It also insisted that the most important task of the anti-Hitler coalition, and best chance for saving Jews from extermination, was a quick and unconditional victory over Nazi Germany. Instead of pushing for serious negotiations to secure the release of as many Jews as possible, the British Foreign Office played for time. Schulze (2005) argues it is highly likely that a larger number of Jews held at Bergen-Belsen could have been saved if the negotiations about exchange had been conducted with a greater sense of urgency.
The US State Department, under pressure from British and American intelligence, undermined a proposed exchange of Jews at Bergen-Belsen for Germans from Latin America. Although large numbers of Germans were willing to be repatriated, American officials feared that doing so would help the Third Reich's war effort. They also suspected that the Jews being traded to the Allies were spies. Although the United States did eventually reverse its stance and tried to rescue these Jews, it was too late. On 15 April 1945, the British army took over Bergen-Belsen, finding there about 60,000 emaciated, disease-ridden prisoners and some 10,000 unburied corpses. From then until 21 May 1945, when the camp was burned to the ground, the British Army Film and Photographic Unit documented everything, using both still and motion cameras. It sought to create a believable and sympathetic picture of the survivors, document the efforts of the British military and medical authorities, and accurately portray the grim reality of the camp: the mass graves, the pitiable state of the inmates, and the indifference of the SS guards, both male and female. In transmitting the story to the British public, editors, censors, politicians, and war correspondents struggled to find the best way to present the material. The chief dangers were that shock and horror might cause the public to reject the information out of hand or that the public might dismiss the reality of the concentration camps as staged government propaganda.
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