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From the Centropa Biographies - Lívia Révész

Country: Hungary

The liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp and the role of British and American soldiers in it

“I remember the day and the hour of our liberation very well. It is burned in my memory and I couldn’t wipe it out if I tried. I remember every small detail clearly. I’d also like to say something about the events preceding it. The British forces reached us on April 15, 1945, three weeks before Germany’s final capitulation. (It was the 11th British Armoured Division)”

Needless to say, we couldn’t get our bearings in the camp. We knew what day it was only because we scratched lines on the wall of the wooden barrack with the handle of a spoon, and bunched the lines by sevens. That’s how we knew what month it probably was and which day of the week. There were no calendars and no pencils. On April 12 it was strange that nobody came to get us up and there was no line-up. The SS guards where nowhere in sight. They used to get us up at 4 a.m. and those of us that could still walk had to go outside for the roll call.

On that day nobody came, nobody brought food, and the camp was silent. When I went outside the barrack, by which I mean that I was dragging myself on all fours, of course, because I couldn’t walk any more, I saw with the others that the SS guards had disappeared. On the other hand, we saw Wehrmacht soldiers, who were probably serving the SS barracks. We hadn’t seen them before.

Needless to say, there was nothing. The conditions in the camp were indescribable by then. Nothing worked. There was no water at all. There was a water reservoir. They used it for anti-aircraft purposes. During the last couple of weeks the crematoria weren’t working either any more, so they threw the dead in there. And we drank from it because we were thirsty. The sound of cannons was coming closer and closer. We knew that the invasion was on since the summer that the British-American forces had landed [at Normandy].

We suspected that they must be approaching the camp. Day by day, we could hear the troops advancing because of the cannons. Since we couldn’t be sure about what day it was, for me the liberation became a holiday, like Sunday, regardless of what day it actually fell on. As we lay in the barracks listening to the sound of the cannons, we grew more and more fearful. We couldn’t be sure who were coming and what would become of us. Then the tanks crashed through the camp’s fence. They rumbled through the camp. I’ll never forget how horrified the British soldiers were at the sight that greeted them. They were aghast. Pyramids of the dead, the dying and we who were still alive. Most of us couldn’t even walk any more.

The consternation showed on the soldiers’ faces. They looked at us without speaking, but with sympathy. They had to act on the double and save those who were still in a condition to be saved. I can’t describe how elated we were. In less than an hour they brought hot, sweet milk in huge cauldrons (military containers). They must have made it from powdered milk. They must have thought that given the condition we were in, it would do us good. At least, that’s what I think. We drank out of empty tins. It wasn’t drinking, of course. We threw ourselves at the milk and gulped it down.

Needless to say, we were just human creatures by then, not human beings. I can’t describe how we drank that milk. Then they brought us tinned food. They brought it to the barrack in big cars. They distributed individual rations, each meant for one solider. We were given two each, but we didn’t know what they contained. And when I opened the first, it was beans with smoked meat. We’d been starving for seven or eight months by then, and this is what we got. I realized that in our condition this could kill us, but I gobbled it down. I was so hungry I didn’t care. I was eating so voraciously, I didn’t chew the beans, not one.

Then I opened the second tin. The second tin contained 20 dkg. sweetened cocoa powder. I think this is what saved my life back then. Diarrhoea in such a weakened state can be fatal, but the cocoa powder prevented me getting it. Those who got beans and meat in both tins, or something similar, died.

When the soldiers saw how emaciated we were, naturally, they gave us food, and they didn’t think it could be fatal for many of us. Despite their best intentions, many of us died from eating. I saw the consternation on the soldiers’ faces then, too. I never forget how the soldiers started taking care of us as soon as they arrived. The British were very, very kind and helpful. In a matter of days we started regaining our strength. After they gave us food, they immediately saw to it that we should be disinfected.

That same day, a military disinfecting vehicle showed up. We were given masks and with a contraption that looked like a vacuum cleaner, they sprayed us with DDT. That’s the germicide they used to kill the lice. Of course, most of us had typhus by then. The lice spread it. The days that followed are rather vague now.

But I remember that in a couple of days I felt a little better and dragged myself out of the barrack, and mobilising my knowledge of English, I attempted to speak to the soldiers. Some of us spoke very good English, and the soldiers struck up conversations with them. They asked what had happened in the camp and wouldn’t believe their ears. The way the soldiers looked after us remains a beautiful memory. In a couple of days they saw to it that we should have better beds and moved us to the SS barracks. The soldiers were extremely kind, sympathetic, and it is a beautiful memory for me.

Three weeks later, on May 8, the loudspeakers came on, and in all the languages the inmates spoke in the camp, they made a speech and announced that the war was over and that Hitler had committed suicide. I was surprised to hear this, because for me the war had ended on April 15. The Brits moved us to the SS barracks, and they got the doctors to look after us.

They made the SS soldiers clear away the pyramids of the dead with bulldozers, and they guarded them very closely to prevent revenge killings.  I could hardly walk. I was suffering from tuberculosis, and I’d gone from 60 to 28 kgs. A Hungarian doctor they’d taken prisoner treated me. He was sent to heal me. Since the soldiers didn’t have a doctor, they ordered the doctors they’d taken prisoner to see to us. They also brought nurses from Bergen-Belsen. I had a Hungarian doctor from Békéscsaba look after me. He gave me injections and medicine that made me a bit stronger.

The locals gave us clothing. When we’d regained a bit of our strength, they gathered up those with tuberculosis and drove us to Lübeck on military ambulance busses and there they transferred us to a Swedish boat that took us to Stockholm.

I arrived in Sweden on July 1. In Sweden the soldiers handed us over to the Swedish Red Cross. I didn’t want to go anywhere, I was fed up with life. Then in the hospital they set up on the campgrounds I came across an old acquaintance who talked me into it. She didn’t want me to give up. It was a strange feeling to be eating with a spoon, knife and fork off of a plate again. I am very, very grateful to the British soldiers for saving my life. The campground was so contaminated, it had to be burned to the ground, and later the Germans built a memorial site there. I went back fifty years later, but I found nothing there except the forest that we crossed every day when they made us work at the camp.