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Posted Friday, November 6, 1998

Major new history of KZ Belsen confirms:
No gas chambers, not an extermination camp [GermFlag]



RIGHT: SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, commandant of Belsen, hanged by the British

Friday, November 6, 1998


Britain's Holocaust Images



pageturner   Jo Reilly, Belsen (published by Routledge, London, at £45)


IF ONE WERE to choose one word guaranteed, for the British, to encapsulate the horrors of the Holocaust, it would be "Belsen." No one who has seen the footage of the piles of corpses being bulldozed into the mass burial pits can ever forget it.

So, it was the newsreels of the liberation of Belsen that brought home to the British public the existence of gas chambers and the Nazi extermination camps and the reality of Hitler's "Final Solution."

Well, no, actually. According to Jo Reilly, it was more the case that reports of the liberation confused the public's understanding of all these points. Belsen had no gas chambers and was not an extermination camp.

Belsen prisonersIf anything, it had been one of the less brutalised camps, since one of its purposes had been to hold some prominent Jews for exchange with interned Germans.

It was only as the flood of inmates from camps in Poland poured into Belsen in the last months of the war that it took on its familiar, hellish character.

But, for the British public, it was inconceivable that there could have been other camps that were even worse, so people thought Belsen was as bad as it got. This obscured awareness of the existence of purpose-built extermination camps in Poland, and the policy they were designed to implement.

Belsen inmates (PHOTOS: AR-Online/Belsen museum)   

Nor was Belsen linked at the time with the specifically Jewish tragedy, despite the fact that Jews were the majority of the inmates at the liberation. Again, this obscured the reality of Hitler's genocidal war against the Jews.

After the war, Belsen became a camp for displaced persons. Reilly describes the struggle between the surviving Jews in the camp to establish their rights as Jews, rather than as nationals of the countries from which they had been deported.

This brought them into conflict with the British government, which wanted to repatriate nationals to their home countries. Clearly this made no sense for Jews whose communities no longer existed.

The British government was loath to concede that Jews were different from other DPs, reasoning that to do so would be to follow Nazi ideology. They were also worried that a strong Jewish presence would inevitably lead to unwelcome pressure for a Jewish homeland.

In the propaganda battles that followed, the British were so afraid of the resonance that the word "Belsen" would have around the world that they renamed the camp Hohne. The Jews, with equal resolution, continued to call it Belsen.

Reilly's analysis is scholarly, meticulously referenced and never less than even-handed. When discussing the British government's obstructive policies, or the less-than-impressive response of Anglo-Jewry to the plight of European Jews after the war, she always explains these "shortcomings" in the context of the prevailing ideologies or political realities -- for example, the delicate position of Anglo-Jewry in the run-up to the creation of Israel and the associated terror campaign against the British.

She provides valuable insights into the aftermath of that uniquely British liberation, both in respect of its meaning for the survivors, who had lost everything, and in terms of the highly charged politics of Anglo-Jewish relations.


John Jacobs is the director of Sussex University's Holocaust studies course.

Our opinion
ARSmallLogoDavid Irving writes: "After the war, when my Mother took my twin brother and me on a week's seaside holiday to the Isle of Wight -- we were then aged eight -- I remember her pointing to our skinny ribs and exclaiming, 'You look like Belsen boys.' We had no idea what she was talking about, but the phrase clings to our memory."

ballblue Letter from a Belsen survivor George Frankl, January 1999
ballblue Belsen survivor recounts "gas chamber" experiences
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