"I find it hard even now to get into focus all these horrors, my mind is really quite incapable of taking in everything I saw because it was all so completely foreign to everything I had previously believed or thought possible." British Major Ben Barnett's words echoed the sentiments shared by medical students, Allied soldiers, members of the clergy, ambulance drivers, and relief workers who found themselves utterly unprepared to comprehend, much less tend to, the indescribable trauma of those who survived at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The liberation of Bergen-Belsen by the British in April 1945 was a defining point in history: the moment the world finally became inescapably aware of the Holocaust. But what happened after Belsen was liberated is still a matter of dispute. Was it an epic of medical heroism or the culmination of thirteen years of indifference to the fate of Europe's Jews? This startling investigation by acclaimed documentary filmmaker and historian Ben Shephard draws on an extraordinary range of materials-contemporary diaries, military documents, and survivors' testimonies-to reconstruct six weeks at Belsen beginning on April 15, 1945, and reveals what actually caused the post-liberation deaths of nearly 14,000 concentration camp inmates who might otherwise have lived. Why did it take almost two weeks to organize a proper medical response? Why were the medical teams sent to Belsen so poorly equipped? Why, when specialists did arrive, did they get so much of the medicine plain wrong?
For the first time, Shephard explores the humanitarian and medical issues surrounding
the liberation of the camp and provides a detailed, illuminating account that is far more complex than had been previously revealed. This gripping book confronts the terrifying aftermath of war with questions that still haunt us today.
Why did 14,000 inmates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp die after its liberation and under British control? Shephard, creator of the Emmy-winning documentary series The World at War, casts a critical but judicious eye on British management of the camp. Drawing on letters and diaries by British military and medical personnel, he paints a textured picture of the camp's desperate state, rife with starvation and typhus. Shephard acknowledges the enormity of the problems the British faced and the logistical difficulties of wartime. Yet he makes clear that many deaths could have been prevented. Some died from food that was too rich and heavy for starving people, and the evacuation of both the sick and fit was delayed. At the same time, he commends some people, often outside the military structure, who saved lives through individual initiative and heroic measures. Shephard draws lessons for today in, for instance, the difficulty the military has in dealing with a humanitarian disaster, and the basic reality that there's only so much that can be done when confronting a den of disease. B&w photos.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
November 14, 2005
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from After Daybreak by Ben Shephard
"WE ALL FEEL the end approaching," Hanna Levy-Hass wrote in her diary on 30 August 1944. "We are gripped . . . by a mad delusion that all will soon be over." A schoolteacher from Sarajevo, she had been rounded up by the Gestapo six weeks earlier and sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; but now, with Allied armies victorious in Normandy and the Red Army advancing through Poland, she was hopeful that she would soon be liberated.
Belsen was an unusual camp. Its origins went back to a meeting held in an ugly concrete bunker in East Prussia on 10 December 1942. On that day, Heinrich Himmler, the mild-mannered, bespectacled man in charge of organising the systematic murder of millions of people all over Europe, drove over from his own luxurious field headquarters nearby for one of his frequent conferences with the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, at the Wolfsschanze.
They met at a pivotal moment in the war. On the Russian front, the 200,000 men of General Paulus's Sixth Army had just been cut off by a Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad and, although Hitler was choosing to believe Goring's assurances that they could be supplied from the air by the Luftwaffe, most of his entourage knew better and were bracing themselves for a disaster. The news from the Mediterranean Front was equally grim: in early November 1942, only a week after Field Marshal Rommel's defeat at El Alamein in Egypt, Anglo-American troops had landed in Algeria and Morocco; now they were heading towards Tunis. To those in the know, it was apparent that Hitler's bid to achieve a decisive victory before the military might of the United States could be deployed in the European theatre had failed. A shudder passed through. Axis morale; the Italians buckled and needed stiffening.
The Fuhrerhauptquartier had so many military concerns that day--organising von Manstein's counterattack at Stalingrad, sending reinforcements to Rommel, shoring up Italian morale--that it might seem surprising Hitler could find time to see Himmler at all. But he always had time for the Reichsfuhrer, and the recent reverses had only strengthened his resolve to "proceed ruthlessly against the Jews."
Himmler, moreover, could offer better news. The "Final Solution" of the Jewish problem was proceeding very well; so well, in fact, that just over a year since the policy of systematic genocide had begun, over two million European Jews had already been exterminated. For all the vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric of Hitler's early memoir, Mein Kampf, and all the barbarous threats uttered in his speeches, the Nazis' road to genocide had been long and tortuous and the Fuhrer had been careful to distance himself from most of it. Before the war, the emphasis had been on deporting the Jews from German territory and as late as 1940 there were still vague plans to send them to the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar--plans which had to be abandoned when the invasion of Britain was postponed and mastery of the seas could not be achieved. When Hitler turned against his Soviet ally in June 1941, the plan was to send the Jews eastwards, into the vast empty Russian steppe, there to die of starvation and overwork. When, however, Operation Barbarossa began to falter in the late autumn of 1941, the Germans confronted once more the question of what to do with the large Jewish population in Eastern Europe. All this time, murderous Einsatzgruppen had been working behind the Wehrmacht as it advanced into the Soviet Union, shooting Jews and Communists in their thousands, while all over occupied Eastern Europe local commanders had taken "initiatives" against the Jews, knowing they would meet with approval in Berlin. But now, in the later months of 1941, the line between mass murder and organised genocide was crossed.
On 15 August 1941, in Minsk in the Ukraine, Himmler witnessed a mass execution for himself and saw at first hand what a messy business it was. That gruesome experience may have provided the catalyst which led him to look for more efficient methods of killing; but even before then he had decided to apply to a new purpose the expertise in the lethal use of poison gas developed in the "mercy killing" of some 70,000 German mental hospital patients.
This programme was executed with breathtaking speed. Initially gassing vans were used, but in late November 1941 teams arrived at Belzec in Poland to advise on the building of gas chambers and, in the spring of 1942, two other extermination factories were created, at Sobibor and Treblinka; in July the enormous camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau began to function. By the end of that year, "the overwhelming majority of Jews in the Central Government [of Poland] had been murdered, and the rest of Europe's Jews were set to follow them into the gas chambers."