Posted by: sommecourt | 06/12/2011

A Visit to Belsen

During some research for an upcoming television series, I had the privilege of spending some time at the site of the Concentration Camp at Bergen-Belsen last week. Despite having visited WW2 battlefields for more than 30 years, this was the first Concentration Camp I have ever been to. Part of me has been putting it off for years as my grandmother’s French family all died in Auschwitz and I really did not know how I would think about it. Perhaps Belsen has proved to be a gentle introduction to Holocaust sites, as much as it can ever be gentle, as it was not the dark foreboding place I had imagined, but a place where nature has taken hold once more; there are trees, shrubs and birds sang in the trees – something many modern visitors claim doesn’t happen at these places, so I recorded it on my iPhone to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. Belsen looks little like it did during the war; there are no surviving buildings but the grave sites are marked in a very subtle way, and the information centre was excellent.

Belsen was a place where the ideals of a society drifted into a cruel and inhuman madness; today it stands not only as a potent memorial but as a warning, that the Holocaust was not just about one man, or a small group of men, and what they believed, but was about a whole society being culpable, even if it was often through ignorance. The fear has always been, could it happen again? And the darkness that such a thought brings makes the hair stand on the back of your neck among the swirl of branches and birdsong at Belsen today.



  1. The sites of former concentration camps are, obviously, all very sobering places to visit. So is it worth visiting them? I really believe it is. It’s one thing to read about events in a warm and comfortable room, yet quite another to walk the ground where events actually took place. Imagine such places in the depths of winter. Imagine having nothing to wear but rags. Imagine have virtually nothing to eat or drink. Imagine being a hair’s breadth away from death, at the mere say so of some other. Imagine staring at the chimney of a crematorium at full bore.

    All this *is* hard to imagine for people today. But not so difficult after all standing on the windswept hill at Buchenwald or in the forest at Belsen.


  2. My mother was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, and I have attempted to recreate her experiences there and in a labor camp, Grunberg, in my book, My Mother’s Shoes. Thank you for writing about your visit. Time has a way of covering the past, just like the new greenery has hidden the memory of those atrocities in Bergen-Belsen. It is up to us in the second and third generation to act as the emissaries of our families, or else the mistakes of the past are bound to be repeated.

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