While driving to Copenhagen we saw a sign for Gedenkstatte Bergen-Belsen. We decided that on our drive back we would stop and visit this notorious place.
Bergen-Belsen epitomizes a very dark chapter in German history. We had briefly discussed the possibility of visiting a concentration camp when we first arrived in Germany but our children (then 5 and 8) seemed too young and most Holocaust museum and sites restrict access to children under the age of 10. Now, 3 years later, they were perhaps a little closer to being ready. I don’t think anyone is every truly prepared to deal with such horrors but since we would be leaving in a few months it seemed as good a time as any. Somehow leaving Europe without experiencing this chapter of history and paying our respects to those who had suffered seemed wrong.
Bergen-Belsen is probably best known as a concentration camp, and may be because one of the victims happened to be the writer of a very famous diary. However, she was only one of tens of thousands who suffered there. It was first a Prisoner of War camp; then it was converted to a concentration camp in 1943; after the war it served as a camp for displaced persons.
When the camp was liberated many of the 60,000 prisoners were suffering horribly not just from hunger, inhumane conditions and overcrowding but also from vermin and disease. Most facilities were immediately destroyed to prevent further contamination or infection. As a result there aren’t any buildings to see. (This made the visit less difficult for all of us.) We were given a map and small markers indicated what various locations once were.
The most shocking thing to see on the grounds were the mass graves. At the time of liberation there were 13,000 unburied corpses at the camp. Today there are memorial markers at the mass grave sites. This one reads, “Here lies 2500 dead. April 1945.”
This memorial was dedicated in 1952. Every German student will visit a concentration camp before graduating from school. There was a group of students visiting when we were there.
It wasn’t just Germans that were imprisoned here. The words on this memorial are written in many different languages recognizing all who suffered and died at Bergen-Belsen.
It is a Jewish custom to place a stone atop a grave. These stones are said to show to others that a grave has been visited. The stones commemorate the deceased person and his burial.
After seeing the grounds we walked through this corridor into the documentation center. Loudspeakers gave us an audible experience of the terrible suffering experienced by so many.
The Documentation Center was our last stop. It contained artifacts, biographies, photographs and personal accounts of the Bergen-Belsen experience. This was the most interesting portion of the memorial but also the most graphic and difficult. We did not spend much time here because of the nature of the exhibit and the age of our children, but I could have spent hours.
There are many “Must-Sees” in Europe. As solemn as it is, I would put a visit to a concentration on the list. It is horrible and unforgettable…as it should be.