After the outbreak of World War II, the Wehrmacht set up a camp for Belgian and French prisoners of war in huts at the edge of the Bergen Military Training Area. The camp was significantly expanded in the spring of 1941. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, over 21,000 Soviet POWs were deported to the camp until the autumn of 1941. Nearly 20,000 prisoners Soviet POWs died in the Bergen-Belsen POW camp and hospital of starvation, disease and exposure.
In April 1943, the SS took over the southern section of the camp and turned it into an “exchange camp” for Jewish prisoners. The SS decided in the spring of 1944 to also use the camp for other purposes and additional groups of prisoners. This dramatically changed the character of the camp, the structure of the prisoner society and, above all, the prisoners’ living conditions. When the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated on 15 April 1945, British soldiers found thousands of unburied bodies and tens of thousands of severely ill prisoners.
A total of 52,000 prisoners from all over Europe were killed in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp or died immediately after its liberation as a result of their imprisonment.
After the liberation, the British Army set up an emergency hospital at the nearby Wehrmacht barracks which developed into a camp for Polish and Jewish displaced persons (DPs). This was the largest Jewish DP camp in Germany, at times holding up to 12,000 survivors of the Shoah. The DP camp was closed in 1950.
The Bergen-Belsen Memorial was found in 1952 and encompasses the entire grounds of the former Bergen-Belsen POW and concentration camp. Numerous monuments between the mass graves commemorate the tens of thousands of people who suffered and died here. Only the foundations of the buildings from the former camp still remain. The redesign concept for the Bergen-Belsen Memorial calls for exterior landscaping as well. Careful landscape modifications will reveal the camp’s historical topography, preserve the remaining structural elements and make it easier for visitors to find their way around the site.
Visitors reach the Memorial by crossing a central square which lies outside the grounds of the former camp. A path leads to the long, two-storey Documentation Centre that houses the new permanent exhibition on the history of Bergen-Belsen. Buildings on the other side of the square are used for administration, education, special exhibitions and events.
The Memorial is surrounded by other sites with a direct connection to the historical events that took place here: Tens of thousands of POWs and concentration camp prisoners arrived at a military loading platform north of the village of Belsen, and countless transports to other camps left from there as well. Nearly 20,000 prisoners who died in the Bergen-Belsen POW camp and hospital are buried in the Hörsten cemetery, and sites commemorating the Bergen-Belsen DP camp can be found in the grounds of the former Wehrmacht barracks nearby.
The Bergen-Belsen Memorial is managed by the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation.
Source: The Bergen-Belsen Memorial