Content warning: the following post contains description of the inhumane killing and burial practices at the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, as part of the Holocaust.
This post continues our series from students on ‘Death, Dying and the Dead’, an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Stephanie Bennett, focuses on the brutal and inhumane practices of body disposal at one concentration camp, as documented by the camp's liberators.
Most people have some knowledge of the Holocaust. But, how much do you know about the small concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen? For the soldiers engaged with World War Two, you’d expect their contact with the dead to an everyday experience. Yet, when the British army liberated the camp of Bergen-Belsen in 1945, it was a ghastly sight. The camp irrevocably altered British soldiers’ perceptions of death. The British Army’s Film and Photography Unitrecorded their experience in the form of documents called dope sheets. Dope sheets are the documents accompanying photos, to provide explanation and context, in this case of what was happening at Bergen-Belsen. These are now held in the Imperial War Museum archives alongside a wealth of other material. These include photographs and audio recordings of interviews with the liberators.
Scholar Ewa Domańsk's article examines necrocide in the context of wider Holocaust studies. She has defined necrocide as ‘the killing of that which is already dead’. This process occurs by disturbing the remains and violating the right to proper burial and the sanctity of the grave.
What can a few sheets of paper tell us about the conditions of Bergen-Belsen? And what can these dope sheets reveal about twentieth-century perceptions of the dying and the dead?
While initially established as a Prisoner of War camp, in 1943 areas of Bergen-Belsen became dedicated to holding Jewish hostages. The aim was to exchange them for captured German prisoners. Between 1941 and 1945, the small camp became inundated with prisoners from surrounding concentration camps. The result was mass overcrowding and disease. The liberating soldiers found 60,000 ill prisoners and over 13,000 unburied corpses.
One of the emerging themes from the dope sheets is the sense of desecration from the lack of body disposal. Our usual perceptions of burial today revolve around elaborate rituals for burying the dead. These often include having a dignified funeral dedicated to their lives and memories. These processes are often grieving mechanisms and help people construct memories. So, what does it mean that these people were denied these rituals?
Dope sheets are papers that go with the captured images of the camp’s conditions, providing the explanation and context for the accompanying photographs. Dope sheets are a unique type of historical document. They reveal the cameraman’s thoughts. Alongside the images, the sheets give a small but significant glimpse into the perspective of these men. They highlight how their concepts of death and dying altered in the face of suffering.
These dope sheets are also literal snapshots of their immediate experience and reactions. Unlike autobiographies or later liberation descriptions, these dope sheets document a single moment. There isn't any potential distortion through memory.
The dead found at Bergen-Belsen’s liberation were not disposed of in ways that we would typically assume to be humane today. Instead of respectful individual treatment, the bodies were left in piles to decompose. There was little distinction between men, women and children and there was no time to uncover their identities. These soldiers had not trained for such encounters. Their reactions illustrate that this situation was far beyond their usual realm of experience. They didn’t know how to begin to comprehend the camp and its many victims. Their conceptions of death and body disposal were consistently undermined by the camp’s conditions. It’s clear that these soldiers experienced a similar form of horror that we do today.
Dignity in death?
One dope sheet gives corresponding titles to the images the team captured during the camp’s liberation. One description notes that the camp was ‘an incredible sight – similar to which is seen in all parts of the camp’. The term ‘incredible’ is particularly interesting here. It gives a glimpse into this reactionary language. Today, incredible has connotations of positivity. The original (more apt) meaning is that of being unbelievable, surpassing belief about what is possible. Here, the soldiers experienced disbelief, or unbelief, at the sheer volume and cruelty the bodies exemplify.
Tampering with the bodies of dead victims is often motivated by a desire to dispose of bodies to cover up a crime. Here, necrocide is the violation of the long tradition of burial by inhumation. It's the inappropriate practice of tampering with remains.
In their article, historians Sue Harrington and Andrew Millard argue that all burials are a performance, from the grave goods to the position of the body. From this assessment, the bodies of the victims of Bergen-Belsen act out a similar performance. Not one of care, but carelessness. Stripped of all clothing and personal items, the abandoned bodies were in pits or left on the ground. This discarding of the bodies is a performance acted out through the lack of appropriate burials. The absence of respect and dignity afforded to the dead suggests the Nazi soldiers’ beliefs about those they held prisoner. It’s a violent political statement of their cause. It's also one that can be traced through the writings of the camp’s liberators.
Jewish burial practices
In the context of wider Jewish practices, the treatment of the dead becomes a starker representation of necrocide. Jewish culture places great significance on the mourning rituals of the dead. Scholar Avriel Bar-Levav argues that mourning requires certain rituals. These include certain requisites like having a community to mourn properly. Jewish people mourn for seven days, thirty days, and then a day of remembrance every year. Bar-Levav also notes that burial is a valuable practice in the Jewish community. The ceremony and rites of Jewish burial is an important framework when exploring Nazi necrocide. This culture of ritual burial is a stark contrast to the Nazi system of degradation and depersonalisation.
The significance of exploring these dope sheets is clear. They offer a unique glimpse into the beliefs of Bergen-Belsen’s liberators. The British Army’s disbelief in these violent crimes is clear. Nazi necrocide is a statement of their disregard for the lives of their victims. Their systematic degradation continues into their treatment and disposal of the bodies. In the wider context of Jewish burial rituals, necrocide and the lack of disposal indicates extraordinary Nazi hostility. From this perspective, the Unit’s experience highlights the horrors of liberating the camp. The disposal of bodies undermines twentieth and twenty-first perceptions of death. Dignity and respect were not part of the Nazi method.