This year’s 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was a rather different occasion from the one planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, AFS deeply honors the seventy AFS Ambulance Drivers who assisted the efforts to liberate this camp in April and May 1945. They helped evacuate over 11,000 people from the camp, transported medical equipment and distributed meals to the survivors.
The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which occupied approximately six square miles of one-story, single-room huts surrounded by barbed wire, initially served as a prisoner-of-war camp. Over time, it was transformed into a horrific concentration camp for Jewish people and inmates from other concentration camps. Lack of adequate food and water, poor sanitary conditions, inhuman and overcrowded living conditions, led to an outbreak of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis and others causing tens of thousands of prisoners to die. In April 1945, the camp’s population rose to more than 60,000.
AFS volunteers worked ten-hour days for several weeks to evacuate the camp.
Robert L. Barrel [CM 56, C Platoon, 567 Company (Coy)] arrived at Belsen the day it was discovered by British troops and was completely unprepared for the scale of mass murders, deprivation, and degradation he encountered. Inmates, who were too weak to communicate with their rescuers, were carefully removed from their bunks. They were taken to a field hospital where they could recover for a time before they were transported by air to England for further treatment.
“My AFS experience changed the course of my life. I grew up tremendously. My attitude towards other nationalities did not change. I’ve always thought that people are people wherever they are or wherever they come from.”—Robert L. Barrel
Bayard D. Clarkson [CM 90, D Platoon, 485 Company (Coy)] also participated in the evacuation and cleanup of the camp. Clarkson carried many survivors in his arms and brought them to an area where they could be stripped of their uniforms, wrapped in blankets, and deloused by German nurses.
Lewis M. Allen, Jr. (ME 32, FCC, CM 97), in a letter to his parents, wrote that the things he witnessed—the overwhelming number of survivors crying out for medical attention, the unsanitary conditions, and the remains of those around the camp who were denied a proper burial—“couldn’t be exaggerated, as they couldn’t possibly be made any more horrible.
Despite the best efforts of the AFS and the British Army to save the camp’s inhabitants, 9,000 perished by the end of April and another 4,000 died within the following two months. It is estimated that nearly 20,000 prisoners-of-war and roughly 52,000 inmates (including Anne Frank and her sister Margot) lost their lives at Belsen.
AFS thanks Barrel, Clarkson, Allen, and all American Field Service volunteers who aided in the evacuation for their courage and commitment to peace. Although the COVID-19 pandemic prevented survivors, veterans, and their loved ones from gathering in person this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, these historic events remain no less of a reminder that we must never lose sight of our mission: to create a more just and peaceful world by building intercultural understanding and cooperation among people. Educating more young people to become global citizens is crucial in times like these, and it matters for the future of humanity.
References and sources:
- “75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen.” Website of the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, MJHNYC.org. Accessed on May 10, 2020.
- Carl Zeigler Photographic Album 1, circa 1945. RG2/002: American Field Service World War II Photographic Collection, 1939–1956. Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
- Carl Zeigler Photographic Album 2, circa 1945. RG2/002: American Field Service World War II Photographic Collection, 1939–1956. Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).
- Interview with Robert L. Barrel, circa 1999–2000. RG4/002: Oral History Collection, circa
1985–2012. Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS
- Kolb, Eberhard. Bergen-Belsen: From “Detention Camp to Concentration Camp, 1943–1945. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985.
- Milano, Nicole. “Evacuation of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, 1945.” Website of AFS Intercultural Programs, AFS.org. Accessed on April 29, 2020.
- Milano, Nicole. “Bayard D. Clarkson: Taking on the Challenges of the Unknown.” AFS Janus (Spring 2014): 2-5.
- Sherwood, Harriet. “The Horrors I Saw Still Wake Me at Night:’ The Liberation of Belsen, 75 Years On.” The Guardian, April 12, 2020. Accessed on May 4, 2020.
- Transcription of a Letter Written by Lewis M. Allen, Jr. to his Parents, May 3, 1945. Original retained by the Allen Family. Copy held by the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs (AFS Archives).