Belsen was the first work camp established by Hitler in 1933. As such it wasn't an extermination camp like Auschwitz, yet when it was liberated by a British armored division, almost half the inmates lay dead in piles, while the survivors, some of whom were beyond help, wandered among them.
It was the first camp to be liberated by the Allies and came as something of a surprise. Some of the Allied leaders had dismissed rumors of camps as Soviet propaganda. Eisenhower, for one, didn't believe how bad it was until he visited Belsen.
And it was bad. Barracks that had been designed for 80 men now housed upwards of one thousand. No one fed the inmates or gave them medical care. And even as the camp was being liberated, the British commander heard some popping noises and found four Nazi youths shooting prisoners in the genitals. He managed to kill three but the fourth ran away.
However, this isn't another recounting of the usual sort -- the playing of violins as the inmates are marched off naked to what they think will be showers. There were no ovens at Belsen. Inmates were killed casually and were either worked to death or left to starve.
At this point I should recommend watching "Der Wannsee Konferenz", a fine German film about the conference in which plans were laid out for the disposal of Jews. It was an amiable gathering but the problems were knotty. Suppose a man had a Jewish grandfather. Was he himself a Jew? How about his Aryan wife? How about his children.
Much of the program is given over to British attempts to deal with the ongoing misery in Belsen. Some inmates were too ill to eat. (Solution: sips of glucose.) There was the overwhelming need to dispose of the thousands of corpses that had never been buried. And typhus was rampant, so that treating the ill was dangerous. The camp was sealed off from the outside and some of the Brits wore the equivalent of Hazmat suits.
It was all shocking at the time and it still is, seventy years later. What's almost as surprising is that so many people -- abroad and here at home -- feel that it was all an exaggeration or, worse, a myth. There never was a Nazi genocide. Psychiatrists have a list, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, of all mental disorders currently afflicting individuals. But the sociologists have not yet produced a companion volume of collective madness. I am a sociologist and, believe me, such a product is needed, almost as much now, in 2015, as in 1945. Did you know that the president of the United States is actually a changeling born in Kenya? No?
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