The armored troop carrier came to a sudden halt outside the huge entrance. The heavy gates were flung wide open and a large brick building could be seen one hundred yards beyond. The soldier manning the machine gun on the roof of the troop carrier now stood with the gun cocked and ready. He waited, alert for any movement from within the forbidding complex. The place looked eerie and deserted. Although the gates were open, Colonel William Sandhurst of the Royal Artillery 63rd Anti Tank Regiment was not taking any risks.
He looked behind him, reassured by the sight of his three Churchill tanks with their heavy guns all targeted on the ominous structure ahead of them. Sandhurst cast his gaze around the building, noting the outer fence with its metal poles bent inward at the top and supporting several rows of barbed wire that seemed to go on forever. It appeared to be a large complex. Inside this fence was yet another, similar to the first, but about five yards closer to whatever lay hidden from sight by those brick walls. Towering over the yard and around the perimeter were several wooden guard towers, but these too were deserted. No sign of soldiers and no sign of machine guns.
Behind the tanks over five hundred experienced British troops, all ready for action, stood waiting. They moistened their lips and stared anxiously at the building. It would be a real bastard to get yourself shot when the bloody war was going to end in maybe the next month or two.
"What is this place?" asked twenty- four-year-old Captain Scott Morris who was sitting beside Sandhurst.
"Looks like some sort of prison, maybe for prisoners of war. The place stinks to high hell," he added, wrinkling his nose.
"Yes, like meat that's gone off, from what I can remember."
Sandhurst looked at his map once again and frowned.
"It's must be the old prisoner of war camp, Stalag 311, by the looks of this map," he said, pointing to an area circled with a pencil.
"Can't see any prisoners. Well, for that matter I can't see anyone at all." Scott looked again, carefully scanning for any movement.
"Well, the CO said to take the village and make the surrounding area secure so that's what we have to do."
Scott nodded. He felt just as confused as Sandhurst. They had no information at all about this place.
"Looks like it's been deserted by the enemy. No sign of the Germans at all."
Sandhurst cast his binoculars across to the entrance and focused on the sign firmly fixed above it.
"What's it say?" asked Scott when Sandhurst put the binoculars down.
"It says Bergen-Belsen, whatever that is. "It's not the name of any Stalag we've heard of."
"I guess we had better go in then," said Scott impatiently. They had been on the road without rest for over ten hours now and apart from one or two skirmishes with retreating pockets of German troops, they looked forward to stopping for rest.
"Okay, but be ready for trouble," said Sandhurst, waving the tanks to follow. Slowly the car moved through the gates into a large yard surrounded by what looked like barracks.
What stunned them was to see about fifty German troops standing in open file, all unarmed. Most wore bandages of some sort and their uniforms had that tattered look of a defeated army. Buttons undone, coats open, trousers ragged and dirty. Standing at attention in front of them were two officers, also unarmed. Opposite them were twenty women, all in SS uniforms. They too were standing in open file.
"Look at the women," said Scott when they came into view. "Shit, most of them could play in my University Rugby team."
Sandhurst nodded, realizing Scott was right. The women were all of solid build, well fed. They stared grimly at the new arrivals. Had they not been wearing skirts they could easily have been taken for men.
"Keep your guns trained on them, Sergeant," said Sandhurst as the personnel carrier came to a halt. The tanks rumbled into the yard followed by squads of soldiers running, with their weapons at the ready. Sandhurst and Scott walked up to the officers who saluted briskly.
"Good morning, Sir," said one of the officers in perfect English. "I am Hauptmann Otto Bruger. I offer our surrender without conditions. My men are unarmed as you can see and our weapons are over there."
He pointed to a pile of weapons that included rifles, schmiessers, handguns, and several machine guns. Ammunition boxes were neatly stacked in several piles to a height of nearly six feet.
"I'm Colonel William Sandhurst; this is my two IC Captain Scott Morris. I accept your surrender, Hauptmann. Now tell me what is this place?"
"I can only give you a very brief description, sir. My men and I have only taken over in the last three days."
"From who?" Scott frowned at this news.
"From the SS. We received orders to oversee the place while they moved out. They were in a hell of a hurry."
"And where did they go?"
"There is a pretty dense wood some five kilometers from here. I presume they went there. The opposite direction is open country and your planes would have picked them off easily. They left yesterday."
Sandhurst turned to his sergeant, snapping an order. "Search those men for any weapons then line them up against that brick wall when you're sure they're clean."
"Sir!" said the sergeant, saluting immediately. Scott watched as his men ordered each soldier in turn to raise his arms. The sergeant reeled back when he came to the first man. His took off his helmet to reveal a bloody head wound, swathed in a filthy bandage, but that wasn't what shocked him. The man was a boy of no more than twelve years old. As the sergeant went down the line he could see most of the German soldiers were around fifteen to sixteen years old. Some of the men were much older, more like fifty to sixty, but mostly they were only boys.
"What is this, Hauptmann, a troop of boy scouts?" Sandhurst shook his head at what he was confronted with.
"They are all that is left of the German army in this area. Three weeks ago we had five hundred troops, all boys, like these. The Fuhrer conscripted every male he could find to defend the Fatherland, but I'm afraid most of them can hardly fire a heavy weapon. Most who volunteered died bravely, but I cannot let the ones left needlessly throw away their lives for a lost cause."
"You know Germany has lost the war?" said Scott quickly.
"The news came through yesterday. The Russians are on the outskirts of Berlin. The Fuhrer has destroyed our country with his madness, so the only thing to do is save what we can. Most of these soldiers would willingly die, but I can't let that happen."
Scott looked towards the women still standing in file. "What's with the women?"
"SS guards for the women's quarters. It seems there weren't enough trucks to take them all, so they were just abandoned."
"So is this what they call a concentration camp?" asked Sandhurst, now understanding.
Bruger shifted his feet uncomfortably and looked down to the ground. "Yes, it's the first time I've seen one too."
"Just how many prisoners are held here?"
"From the papers I've read, there are about sixty-six thousand. Five thousand of them arrived last month after being shipped over from Auschwitz. It seems the Russians were about to overrun the camp and the SS didn't have time to completely finish their work. The survivors were put on a train or marched here."
"And just what was the work of the SS, Captain?" asked Scott still not catching on.
"You must understand," Bruger blurted out. "I only realized myself when I saw the documents in the Commandant's office."
"Answer my question, Hauptmann," said Scott warily.
"It appears that Auschwitz is an extermination camp built to erase the Jewish presence in Europe. Over a million Jews have been gassed."
"Gassed?" Scott looked at Sandhurst, astounded. "You mean killed?"
"It is the first time I have been ashamed to be a German soldier," said Bruger.
"My God. Is this such a camp?"
"Yes, although the inmates have not been gassed. They have been systematically starved to death. If you will allow me, I will take you on an inspection of the camp. Colonel, I must say that hardly any of the German people knew of what went on in these camps. I know it sounds lame, but that's the way it was. I was as shocked as you when I arrived."
"You people have been persecuting the Jews for years, Hauptmann, so I don't want to hear any excuses for the German people. Let's just start this inspection." He turned back to his men. "Sergeant, when you have finished searching those soldiers, check the women as well."
A quick order from the sergeant saw the men move across to the women, ordering them to raise their arms. They were quickly searched. An array of knives and coshes were found and thrown on the ground. Scott and Sandhurst turned and followed Bruger. He led them around the first building with twenty soldiers following, rifles raised.
"As far as I know this camp was divided into five sections," said Bruger. "The first was called Neutraleniager. It was a camp for Jewish citizens from neutral countries. The second was a special camp, called Sonderiager. This was for the Polish Jews with Palestinian emigration papers. This of course has changed since then."
"Go on," said Scott, listening with interest.
"Then there was the Ungamlager camp for Jews who were to be sent to Switzerland. A camp for the exchange of Jewish prisoners for captured Germans was the fourth camp called Sternlager and the last was called Haftlingslager, a prisoners' camp for people brought from Buchenwald and Natzweiler. It appears they were very badly treated."
"And just who ran this camp, Hauptmann?" asked Sanhurst.
"SS Hauptsturnfuhrer Josel Kramer. He changed everything when he took over. He disappeared a few days ago with his men."
"Is that the whole tale?" asked Scott sarcastically.
"No, it seems the prisoners from Auschwitz began arriving after a death march. The women were pushed into separate quarters and isolated from the men."
Bruger and Sandhurst walked on. As they came around another corner they stopped in their tracks.
"Oh, Jesus," said Sandhurst when he saw the first pile of corpses. Bile raced to his throat. He had to look carefully to see if they were really human, such was their condition. They were piled one on top of the other, all naked and all just gaunt skeletons with skin stretched tightly over their bones. Both men and women, it made no difference. This explained the awful stench that had hit them when they arrived.
"How many are in that pile?" asked Scott, feeling the vomit rising in his gut.
"Over eight hundred," answered Bruger. "There are others further on. This has been going on for years. Yesterday five hundred prisoners died from Typhus or other diseases."
"Do you know how many prisoners have been through here?" Scott tried to suppress his rage at the scene before him. If he hadn't seen it with his own eyes he wouldn't have believed it.
"I can only estimate from the papers I've seen. I would say it is a minimum of three hundred thousand, but I can't be sure."
"And there are only sixty-six thousand left?" It seemed unbelievable that this could happen.
"Yes, the numbers were boosted when the Auschwitz prisoners arrived. I understand six hundred of them were shot by the SS on arrival."
They moved on with the inspection and both Scott and Sandhurst became increasingly appalled by the enormity of the crimes committed against these people.
"Open the barrack's doors," said Sandhurst when they came to the first building holding the prisoners. Two of the soldiers lifted the wooden bars and swung the doors wide open. Inside were bunks built on top of each other to a height of two meters. Lying on the bunks were gaunt vestiges of what passed for people, their eyes wide with fear, their cheeks hollow, the bones protruding. Their bodies were covered with striped rags, hardly disguising the thin bones that were once fully formed arms and legs.
There were three to a bunk in some cases and others cowered against the wall at the end, huddled with their legs pulled up and their bodies rocking backwards and forwards rhythmically. The smell inside was unbearable and Scott could see that there were no mattresses on the bunks, just planks of timber. It must have been hell in here during a cold winter.
"Get them out of here, Bruger," said Sandhurst, hardly able to control his rage.
Bruger shouted in German and they watched as the prisoners shuffled forward, fearful that they might be beaten or even more fearful that they were about to be executed. They were all men, ages ranging from sixteen to fifty, but it was hard to tell, such was their poor condition. Dust rose from the dirt floor as they all left the building and stood uneasily in a group watching the soldiers warily.
"Does anyone here speak English?" shouted Sandhurst. One man came slowly forward.
"I do, sir," he said and Scott looked at this pathetic man who could hardly stand.
"What is your name?" asked Sandhurst when the man stood in front of him.
"Josef Rosensaft. I am thirty-five years old and have been here for three years."
"I'm Colonel William Sandhurst of the British Army and we have come to set you free. Will you convey this to your friends?"
"Free? We are free? God bless you, Colonel. I have waited for this moment for so long." He fell to his knees, clasping Sandhurst around the leg.
"Get up, man. Please, tell the others what has happened." He waited while Rosensaft turned to the others and spoke excitedly. Suddenly the air was filled with cries of joy. People held each other while many shed tears. The chatter became a noise until Sandhurst caught Rosensaft's attention.
"Tell them we will feed them as soon as we can. I will have a team of doctors arriving in the next few hours; meanwhile if the strong ones can help the weaker ones that will be a help. Now, Hauptmann Bruger, we will see to the rest of these poor souls. Mr Rosensaft, will you accompany me to the other barracks and tell the other prisoners the news?"
"It will be my pleasure, sir," said the man as the soldiers moved to the next building and repeated the process. Soon a great herd of prisoners were assembled in the yard as soldiers began preparing fires to cook soup from the German stores and from their own rations. Scott was even more horrified by the appearance of the women. Most were skin and bone, their hair thin and lank, their skin pale and translucent, and their eyes sunken.
"My God, look at them," said Sandhurst to Scott.
They watched them sitting in groups in the yard, eating their first wholesome meal in maybe years. He gave orders for them not to eat too much, as their stomachs would not be able to handle it. Sandhurst called one of his junior officers to him.
"Lieutenant Williams, leave those bodies exactly where they are and go into the village for me. Round up every man woman and child and bring them here to witness what their beloved Fuhrer has done to these people. Do not take any excuse for them not to come; in fact, drag them by the hair if you have to. Be back here in three hours."
"It will be my pleasure, sir," said the young man, saluting. Two hours later the villagers were lined up outside the brick entrance.
Sandhurst had an interpreter with him as he spoke to the villagers.
"You people will enter the gates in single line, following my men. You will see with your own eyes these heinous crimes against humanity and feel the shame of being part of this German nation."
There were a few curses about the English from some of the people, and in some cases laughter, until they filed into the concentration camp. When they came to the first pile of bodies, there were gasps from some and a few of the women put their hands across their eyes and tried to muffle their sobs. When the forced viewing was over there was utter silence as they left the compound, unable to look the remaining prisoners in the eye.
When the SS women were taken to one of the barracks to be held in custody, shouts and abuse rose from the prisoners. The soldiers had to hold them back to prevent them killing their former guards with their bare hands. It was remarkable where they got their strength from as they tried to tear these women to pieces.
That evening Scott sat in the commandant's former office drinking a glass of schnapps left behind by the SS.
"It's over, Scott; this bloody war is nearly over. Here's to home and victory in the Pacific."
"To home, sir," said Scott, looking quite morose. "Not that there's any home for me."
Sandhurst looked down, his face coloring at his own insensitivity.
"I'm sorry, Scott, it was thoughtless of me. I forgot your circumstances."
He looked at Scott sadly as he raised his glass. "Here's to the English and the whole bloody world. May this nightmare never happen again."
"I'll drink to that, sir."
After they had finished their drink, Sandhurst got back to business.
"Tomorrow the RAMC units will arrive, followed by the Red Cross and the Allied Relief Rehabilitation Association. We will turn the German barracks into a temporary hospital to cater for the desperately ill prisoners."
"I thought all of them were that," said Scott, glumly.
"They are. I'll get that Rosensaft fellow to organize a Jewish Camp Committee. They will listen to another prisoner better than us. Interviews will be conducted to see where they came from and it will be checked against their records. Brigadier Llewelyn Glyn-Hughes will be arriving to take over the camp. Then it's out of our hands."
"We sit and wait?" said Scott, hearing this news.
"No, the interviews will take time so we will make a start tomorrow. Looks like we won't have to hunt Germans for a while."
Scott raised an eyebrow at this news. "This will take a fair while. There are over sixty-six thousand people to look after."
"I know. We can't get them all but we will help with the interviews of course, but it will be up to the brass to see where they'll be sent. It looks like it's going to be a long day tomorrow."
My troubles are nothing compared to these people, thought Scott as he sat back staring out of the window.