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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

What Was Belsen?

Belsen was a concentration camp in Lower Saxony, Germany, near the city of Celle.

Map of Belsen area, 1940s (D/DLI 7/404/52) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Overview map of Lower Saxony, Germany (D/DLI 7/404/52) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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It was established in April 1943 and its original purpose was to hold prisoners to be used in political exchanges; that is, exchanges for German nationals held by Allied countries. In reality, very few were ever set free.

The first commandant of the camp was Adolf Haas. He was succeeded on 2 December 1944 by Josef Kramer.

The camp was built by Jewish prisoners from Buchenwald and Natzweiler concentration camps. They lived in terrible conditions and mortality was high.

Those who survived to complete the camp were transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp on 23 February 1944. Initially, Belsen was split into five sub-camps:

  1. The Prisoners' Camp, for those brought in to build the concentration camp.
  2. The Special Camp, for 2400 Jews transported from Poland. In October 1943, 1700 of these prisoners were transferred to Auschwitz concentration camp, followed by 350 more in early 1944.
  3. The Neutral Camp, for nationals of neutral countries. 350 Jews were held there from July 1944 until liberation. 
  4. The Star Camp, where prisoners did not wear a uniform, but a yellow Star of David badge. There were 4000 Jews, mainly Dutch, ostensibly designated for exchange for Germans held by the Allies.
  5. The Hungarian Camp, for 1685 Jews from Hungary.

From March 1944, a separate section of the concentration camp was established, for prisoners transferred from other concentration camps who were classified as sick and, thererfore, 'unfit to work'.

The first group of 1000 prisoners came from Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp, and a women's camp was added in August 1944. Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, were sent there in October 1944. Thousands more prisoners arrived as the Germans marched them west, fleeing from the Russian advance. Conditions were appalling and most died quickly.

'The Story of Belsen', p.10, Belsen's purpose (D/DLI 7/404/10) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This extract, from The Story of Belsen, illustrates the fundamental purpose of concentration camps'to eliminate whole sections of the population'.

Although Belsen had no gas chamber, 'it was openly stated' by the Commandants in other concentration camps, 'that anyone who went to Belsen would not come back; among their inmates a transport to Belsen was regarded as the last journey ... Starvation, disease, and physical degradation were the lethal weapons employed ...'.