Did the victims of Belsen suffer the worst fate of all?

By Vivian Wineman

It is one of the ironies of the Holocaust that the event chosen to be marked by Holocaust Memorial Day, the liberation of Auschwitz, made very little impact in the West when it happened. Auschwitz was liberated by The Red Army with no Western press or media on hand. By contrast, the liberation of Belsen, followed by the famous Richard Dimbleby broadcast, created a sensation in the UK and brought the Holocaust to the attention of the British public for the first time. That liberation was commemorated last week in a series of moving ceremonies held at the camp which unlike Auschwitz was not preserved but destroyed soon after liberation. Now it consists only of memorials, individual and mass graves – including one for Anne Frank.

Since liberation we have acquired a different perspective. Auschwitz, as the largest extermination camp accounting for the death of over a million people – the vast majority of them Jewish – has come to epitomise the evil of the Holocaust. Belsen, by contrast, was not an extermination camp but a ghastly concentration camp and small by comparison.

Having attended the commemoration ceremony I see matters in a different light. Auschwitz was a hugely efficient killing machine. Victims came from all over Europe and often were dead within hours of arrival with the principles of the conveyor applied to the purpose of mass murder. The very efficiency of the process however meant that frequently the agony was brief.

Belsen was different. The inmates arrived emaciated and exhausted after gruelling death marches and were deposited in the camp leaving hunger and disease to finish them off in prolonged agony. It is a chilling fact that the Holocaust did not end when the camp was liberated. Almost 14,000 inmates died after liberation. Though they saw the liberation they were too weakened by hunger and disease to survive long after it.

But this has a significant message for us about the Holocaust. It was not just about death camps but rather a long tale of brutality and lethal humiliation. It probable that the majority of victims did not die in extermination camps but rather by shootings and starvation  – a death more brutal in its execution and more agonising in its effects.

Vivian Wineman is the Board president

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