We were up at eight o’clock this morning as we were leaving for an excursion at 9.00. But maybe “excursion” isn’t the right word for it, for it certainly wouldn’t be a pleasure trip. Today we were booked to visit Bergen-Belsen, the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
Of course, the actual camp buildings don’t exist anymore, as they were all burnt down after the liberation of the camp in 1945. But we would still see many sad and sombre artefacts as well as the truly horrific mass burial mounds, and lots of memorial stones and many preserved documents and photos which keep alive this eternal memory of Germany’s shameful war record.
The bus journey to the village of Bergen, on the outskirts of which the Belsen camp was based, took about one-and-a-quarter hours, then we alighted from the bus and found ourselves at one of the most notorious addresses in Germany.
Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp in what is today Lower Saxony in northern Germany, southwest of the town of Bergen. Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of it became a concentration camp. Initially this was an “exchange camp”, where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps.
After 1945 the name was applied to the displaced persons camp established nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration camp. From 1941 to 1945, almost 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there. Overcrowding, lack of food and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945, shortly before and after the liberation.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name “Belsen” emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site, and this is what we had come to see.
The first thing we arrived at was one of the horrific mass burial mounds. A simple stone in front of the mound read “HIER RUHEN 1000 TOTE – APRIL 1945” which translates simply as “Here lies 1000 dead” followed by the date. There were several of these mounds; 2000 dead, 5000 dead and so on. All of the memorial stones had little mounds of stones and pebbles placed on them by members of the Jewish community and this is a mark of respect as stones do not wilt and fade the way flowers do.
As we walked around the site, our guide explained what we were looking at and showed us pictures of the camp as it was before liberation. The sheer numbers of those who died here was staggering. We also saw the Jewish memorial which reads:
“ISRAEL AND THE WORLD SHALL REMEMBER
THIRTY THOUSAND JEWS
EXTERMINATED IN THE CONCENTRATION CAMP
AT THE HANDS OF THE MURDEROUS NAZIS
EARTH CONCEAL NOT THE BLOOD
SHED ON THEE!
FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF LIBERATION
15TH APRIL 1946
14TH NISSAN 57061
CENTRAL JEWISH COMMITTEE
In addition to the mass graves and memorial stones, there were also individual stones placed by relatives and descendants of those who died there, including one for famous teenage diarist Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Walking around these sad relics was a moving and sobering experience.
Inside the memorial hall, we saw many papers, identity cards, index cards and other documentation relating to the inmates, as well as the infamous striped ‘pyjama’ uniforms the inmates were required to wear. Many photos had been loaned to the site, by relatives of the survivors, showing the camp and life as it was then.
For me, the most horrific part of the visit was seeing actual cine camera footage taken by the British Armed Forces in 1945. Many contained interviews where those who witnessed the horrors of seeing thousands of emaciated people, dying and dead, said it was the worst thing that they had ever experienced.
The distressing footage showed skeletal corpses, in naked indignity, being dragged along the ground and thrown in a heap into ready-dug pits, as well as bulldozers literally shovelling them in their thousands into the mass graves. Several scenes had me gasping out loud and clapping my hand to my mouth at man’s inhumanity to man. I noticed it was completely silent in the room where the film footage was being shown; everyone was equally stunned. Horrific and upsetting as it was, however, I think it is something everyone should see and know about, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.
When we’d seen as much as we wanted, we came out of the exhibition hall and slowly made our way back to the bus for the return journey to Hamburg.
Just over an hour later, around 2.30pm, we arrived back at the port, but Trevor and I didn’t go back to the Balmoral. We had another place to visit as we wanted to end the day on an “up-note”.
We walked into town and, as we hadn’t had any lunch, we went into one of the many little cafés and snack bars for a sandwich and a bottle of beer each. Then off we went as we had tickets to the world-famous Miniatur Wunderland model village and railway.
Miniatur Wunderland boasts the longest lengths of model railway tracks in the world, totalling 15,400 metres with 1,040 trains. It is operated by 50 computers, took 760,000 hours to construct and cost 20 million Euros. It is growing and being added to all the time, and the exhibition is over three floors.
What can I say? Miniatur Wunderland is an amazing experience for visitors of all ages. Its attention to detail is breathtaking. We saw many very-realistic railway viaducts, tracks and stations, with little people waiting; trains arrived and departed while vehicles travelled around the periphery, some of them even showing their headlights and indicators. Throughout the visit, the lighting would change to show the model villages by daylight, sunset and evening, when lights would twinkle in the windows of the buildings. Several famous places such as Rome, New York and Paris were reconstructed in miniature. There was a football stadium, containing cheering crowd and showing the big TV screens at either end, also an outdoor “benefit concert” which even had the flashes of cameras coming from the miniature crowds!
We saw fairgrounds and ferryboats, motorways and mountains; campsites and car parks and even a protest march and a team of fire engines putting out a church roof fire. Everything was planned and painted to the tiniest detail; it was amazing.
Best of all was the airport. Aircraft were taxiing along the runway, lights flashing, and queuing up ready to take off. Then they would speed down the runway, making all the realistic sounds, before lifting off the ground. Planes coming into land would make their way along to the arrivals gates, and along the perimeter road airport vehicles such as luggage carriers and fuel tankers busily made their way to and fro. Honestly, this place has to be seen to be believed. 😊
We spent a couple of hours in there before leaving around 5.30pm and starting to make our way back along to the ship. A brief and sudden shower of rain took us by surprise; the sun came out immediately however and resulted in a beautiful very bright and double rainbow, showing all seven colours against a steel-grey sky. We took some photos and saw lots of other people doing the same.
Back on board the Balmoral we got washed and changed and went to the Palms Café for our dinner, as we were too late to go to the restaurant. It meant, however, we were out in time to go and grab a good seat in the Neptune Lounge to see tonight’s treat, which was a visit by the German mariners local Shanty Choir De Tampentrekker. It was really excellent; there were lots of ex-sailors dressed in nautical uniforms and singing old-fashioned sea shanties all in harmony. What a great show!
Afterwards we made our way to the Observatory and met up with Alex and Marian, Roy and Joanie, still all hoping for the quiz win which had so far eluded us. However, we were still unlucky – no win.
We finished off the evening in the Lido Lounge where the entertainments team were running Prize Karaoke; everyone who got up to sing would win a prize. Quite a lot of people put their names down, so I only got the chance to sing once. I did my usual Nothing Compares 2 U and won myself a Fred Olsen branded bottle opener keyring. 😊
We stayed in the lounge fairly late, talking with Joanie (the others had gone to bed) and enjoying a couple more drinks. Then it was off to bed, after a very full day in which we’d experienced the full gamut of emotions. We slept very well.