One sight I'll never forget ... The Bare Bones of Bergen Belsen

17th January
Rating: (6 votes)

A childhood school trip that has stayed with me for 34 years.

They say that the birds don't sing in Bergen Belsen; outside, the birds sing in the heath and woodlands, but inside, they remain quiet. It seems fitting.

My father was in the armed forces, and for many of my school years we were in northern Germany, so it was natural that one of our history lessons saw us visiting the nearby site of the concentration camp, famous for having had Anne Frank as one of its prisoners, claiming her young life just months before the camp was liberated on 15 April 1945.

There is little left of the camp, which was burned down by the British liberators, but the mounds of thirteen mass graves stood as testament to just some of the horrors of the place. These graves were where the soldiers hurriedly buried around ten thousand bodies that had been left to decompose when the German guards fled. Many thousands of others who perished here were not even afforded that small dignity in their death.

Around one hundred and twenty thousand Soviet POWs and Jewish prisoners came through Bergen Belsen, and of those, almost half are believed to have died, mostly of diseases like typhus, or simply of starvation. The grounds of the place were a memorial to those who had their lives taken from them, and it was a very moving place to walk around.

It was quiet too - those birds didn't sing.

But as thought provoking as the grounds and graves were, it was what I saw inside the documentary house that was to become burned into my memory for ever more.

It was here, alongside the plans of the camp, discarded prisoners' belongings, and all of the historical facts and statistics, that they had on display the photographs taken when the camp was liberated.

Those pictures, of men, women and children, little more than living skeletons, were truly haunting. Their eyes stared out, too large for their shrunken faces, and it seemed that you could see every single bone in their emaciated bodies. These were the fortunate ones, the lucky sixty thousand or so survivors of the camp.

Other photographs showed those that had not managed to outlive the horrors of the place. Piles and piles of corpses, already skin and bones when they died, and now with the remaining flesh falling away.

These photos have stayed with me, etched into my brain, for the 34 years that have passed since I visited.

And if they weren't already a lasting memory when we left the camp, then our school dinner that day would seal it permanently. We got back to the school, to a meal of roast chicken portions. A single look at the visible ribcage of the cooked bird took me straight back to that documentary house and those graphic images. I wasn't the only one; you could clearly see who had been to Bergen Belsen that morning - I don't think that a single one of us touched our food.

I can eat it now, of course, but to this day, when I see those ribs on a portion of roast chicken, my mind goes to that visit and those photographs. It truly was a sight that I will never forget.

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  • 25th January by Nandini

    Your story reminds me of Dachau and the pictures there. Not so much the skeletal nature but there was one where everyone looked the same- shaved head, vacant expression, striped uniform. The loss of identity chilled your heart. Thanks for sharing.

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  • 25th January by DavidRoss

    I imagine this is something you won't ever forget, especially since you were still at school at the time. The meal choice seems astonishingly insensitive in the circumstances though.

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  • 25th January by Around the world in 8000 days

    Yes Nandini, I haven't been to Dachau yet, but have been to a few others since, and you're right, the loss of identity and of personal dignity, is terrible to see. And of course, completely intentional.

    To be fair David, it was a big school, and we were just a few classes. I doubt the kitchen knew we were going, or the teachers knew what was for dinner - it was just an unfortunate coincidence. It really did reinforce the memory though!

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  • 30th January by steve48

    I'm not surprised those images stayed with you!

    I once visited the Gross Rosen concentration camp in Poland where they told me it was now illegal in Poland for kids under a certain age to visit a concentration camp ... but once they got to High School it was a compulsory part of the curriculum for every child.

    Great writing, Congratulations on your win.

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  • 30th January by Around the world in 8000 days

    Thanks Steve. I do think it is a good idea for older children to learn about - and see - these things. It certainly makes an impression then, as I can vouch for. I've been to other places since, including the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, which all make their mark, but I think it is the first time you see such terrible things that probably makes the most impact.

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