Channel Islanders imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp:
By Roderick Miller
Harold Le Druillenec is the only known Channel Islander to have been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen (Aufenthaltslager Bergen-Belsen, Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen) (often just ‘Belsen’) Concentration Camp near the northern German towns of Bergen and Celle in Lower Saxony. Belsen was built as a barracks camp in 1940 for Belgian and French prisoners of war. From 1941 it was used for Russian POWs, who died en masse in the winter of 1941-1942 from hunger, cold, and disease. Part of Belsen continued to be used as hospital for Russian prisoners until the camp’s liberation.
In late 1942, Hitler and SS chief Heinrich Himmler agreed to make a camp for the purpose of setting aside Jewish families as hostages, with specific instructions that they be given healthy living conditions, so that they could be used at an unspecified later to be traded as hostages for Germans civilians living in allied and allied-occupied countries, for foreign currency, or for much-needed supplies. For this purpose, Jewish people were to be chosen under categories such as those who had special influential connections in foreign countries; those who were themselves of some importance in foreign countries; those who already had so-called ‘Palestine certificates’ giving them the right to emigrate to Palestine; those who already had authorized travel visas to allied countries; those who had ‘hostage value’ via political or economic means, or who were leading Jewish functionaries.
The Nazis first called Belsen a ‘civilian internment camp’ (Zivilinterniertenlager) but the official name was later revised to ‘detention camp’ (Aufenthaltslager) so that the Nazis would not be required to allow access to the camp to international commissions such as the Red Cross. Despite the name, the camp was still a part of the Nazi concentration camp system. Belsen was unique in the Nazi camp system in a number of ways, however. From the very start it was a camp intended for families, with a large number of children and teenagers. As a rule, entire families rather than single persons were not sent to Belsen, even if only one person in family fulfilled the above criteria for ‘hostage value’. This remained thus until the entire structure of the camp system began breaking down towards the end of the war. ‘Hostage prisoners’ in Belsen were also allowed to retain their personal belongings in the camp, a ‘privilege’ not given to most prisoners in the concentration camp system.
All other concentration camps within the boundaries of the German Reich mixed non-Jewish and Jewish prisoners, but in Belsen, non-Jewish prisoners were kept in a strictly separate part of the camp called the Häftlingslager (‘prisoners camp’), and even Jewish prisoners were separated by nationality into different camp sections that were divided by tall barbed-wire fences. The Jewish prisoners from Western Europe came primarily from France and Holland. In late 1944, 80 to 90 percent of the camp’s prisoners were Jewish, but by liberation in April 1945, the camp’s non-Jewish population had risen to 50 percent.
The first large prisoner transport to Belsen was on 30 April 1943 from Buchenwald Concentration Camp, followed by transports in May and June from Niederhagen and Natzweiler concentration camps. These were mostly non-Jewish foreign concentration camp prisoners whose purpose was to perform forced labour, expanding the camp and preparing it for the forthcoming Jewish ‘hostage prisoners’, who began arriving in the camp in July 1943. Prisoners who arrived with documentation that the Gestapo judged to be forged or in the possession of a person other than for whom it was intended — as was often the case with Polish Jews in possession of so-called ‘Promesas’ visas — were immediately deported to a nearly certain death in Auschwitz.
Although Belsen was never intended as an extermination camp in the sense of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka, many of the first widely published concentration camp photographs and films were from Belsen and gave the impression that it was an extermination camp. These images of emaciated, skeletal bodies, both living and dead, remain strongly ingrained in the popular imagination as the ‘typical image’ of a concentration camp. Imprisonment at Belsen was, however, originally intended by the Nazis as a place for ‘hostage prisoners’ and not as a place to commit mass murder. By the end of the war, however, as the allies began overrunning Nazi-occupied territory, the Nazis chose to move prisoners from occupied territories into the German Reich rather than let them fall into allied custody. This resulted, by the end of 1944, in massive overcrowding in the camps in the Reich, with the result that the camps were rampant with malnutrition and a variety of vermin and communicable diseases. Most of the people whose emaciated bodies are to be seen in the British Army films and photographs actually died of malnutrition and disease — not from gassing or some other form of wilful execution. Starvation reached such levels that prisoners resorted to cannibalism.
Around 1000 ill, mostly non-Jewish forced labourers arrived from Mittelbau-Dora Concentration camp in March 1944 to the Häftlingslager section of Belsen. This section of the camp was intended for ill non-Jewish forced labourers, but had no official medical staff or medical dispensary. Within one month of arrival, more than a third of the prisoners from this transport were already dead. By the end of 1944, so many transports of non-Jewish prisoners from other camps had arrived in Belsen that the Häftlingslager was expanded into a formerly Jewish-only section of the camp (see camp map). The death rate in the Häftlingslager was significantly higher than in the other sections of the camp, as many of these prisoners were ill even prior to coming to the camp.
Harold Le Druillenec arrived in Bergen-Belsen on 5 April 1945, having survived Neuengamme Concentration Camp, Alter Banter Weg Concentration Camp, and an allied bombing of the train he was on, in which half of the prisoners were killed. He assigned to the Block 13 barracks of the expanded Häftlingslager. He testified later about his first day in Belsen:
At the end of the morning a French friend of mine asked me if I had inspected the long grey brick-built hut, on the other side of our yard and invited me to go and look through the windows, or rather, holes in the walls. The first window showed only a wash-house room, a very, crude place with one or two dead bodies floating about, or rather reclining on the flooded floor. The second window gave me a terrible shock. This room was absolutely filled up, and I really mean filled up, with dead bodies. These dead were arranged with the crown of one’s head touching the chin of the one just below him, and in that way I should think there were many hundreds per room. We strolled down the yard looking into each window in turn, and in every room of that very long hut the sight was precisely the same. I had had some experience with dead people before, both at Bremen and at Lüneburg, but this particular sight made me wonder all the more, after the first night at Belsen, what sort of hell I had entered…
And a few days later:
We were herded as a block, some six or seven hundred maybe into the mortuary yard by means of blows, the language we understood pretty well by then. We were made to understand that we had to drag these dead bodies a certain route to what we were to find to be large burial pits. The procedure was to take some strands of humid blanket from a heap where the effects and clothing of the dead had been put, tie these strips of blanket or clothing to the ankles and wrists of the corpses and then proceed to walk to the pits. We started work at sunrise and were up quite a long time before that. We got no food before we started and worked till about 8 o’clock in the evening. In those five days or so I spent on this burial work neither a spot of food nor a drop of water passed my lips.—Harold Le Druillenec, testimony in the Bergen-Belsen trial by a British Military Tribunal on 20 September 1945.
The British Army entered Belsen on 15 April 1945 and found 55,000 prisoners still alive, surrounded by the dead and dying. The British forced the remaining Nazi camp personnel to bury the estimated 10,000 plus skeletal corpses that remained strewn around the camp, and around 20 SS guards died as a result of poisoning contracted by contact with the decomposing human remains. By 21 May the entire camp had been evacuated and the camp was burnt to the ground with flamethrowers as a precaution to help stop the spread of disease. Of the camp survivors, an additional 13,000 people died after liberation from a variety of illnesses and the effects of starvation.
The Bergen-Belsen trials by a British Military Tribunal starting in September 1945 were the first allied war crimes trials to take place after the war. Since a number of the SS personnel in Belsen were previously stationed in Auschwitz, the trials were also the first de facto Auschwitz trials. A second Belsen trial took place in Celle in May 1946. Altogether 15 former SS guards and administrators from Belsen were sentenced to death and hanged, and many more were given prison sentences. As most of the SS personnel had left the camp just prior to arrival of the British army, only a small percentage of the 435 men and 45 women running the camp were ever brought to justice. Tracing the perpetrators (as well as the identities of many of the victims) was made even more difficult by the fact that the SS destroyed most of the camp records shortly before the British arrived. At least 50,000 inmates died in Bergen-Belsen, as well as an additional 20,000 Russian prisoners of war. Included among the dead was the 15 year old Anne Frank, who became known worldwide after the posthumous publishing of her diaries.
Harold Le Druillenec survived Bergen Belsen and became a key witness in a number of post-war trials of Nazis for crimes against humanity. It is probable that he, like many survivors, suffered from a variety of chronic physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorders for the rest of his life.
The official memorial for Bergen-Belsen was established in 1952 and the memorial museum collection was started in the mid-1980s. A new documentation centre was built in 2007 and includes the history of the post-war displaced persons camp.
Carr, Gilly; Sanders, Paul; Willmot Louise: Protest, Defiance and Resistance in the Channel Islands: German Occupation, 1940-1945, Bloomsbury Academic, London & New York, 2014.
Benz, Wolfgang & Distel, Barbara (editors): Der Ort des Terrors. Geschichte der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager, Volume 7: Wewelsburg, Majdanek, Arbeitsdorf, Herzogenbusch (Vught), Bergen-Belsen, Mittelbau-Dora. C. H. Beck, 2008, pp. 187-216 (in German).
Cottrell, Leonard: ‘The Man from Belsen’, from B.B.C. Features, Gilliam, Lawrence (editor), Evans Brothers Ltd., Aylesbury and London, 1950, pp. 97-110.
International Tracing Service Arolsen, Catalogue of Camps and Prisons in Germany and German-occupied Territories, 1949-1951.
Megargee, Geoffrey P. (editor): Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945, Vol. 1 , Part A. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum , Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2009, pp. 278-281.
Ochayon, Sheryl: The Jews of Libya. International School for Holocaust Studies. Available online here.
The National Archives (TNA), Foreign Office (FO), War Office (WO)
TNA FO 950/1100 (Le Druillenec)
TNA WO 235/12 (Bergen-Belsen Trials)