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Bergen-Belsen concentration camp horrors revealed in records

Published 31/03/2016

The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany last year
The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany last year

Tales of "rampant" cannibalism in a German concentration camp and torture at the hands of the Gestapo are among scores of tales of harrowing brutality recounted by victims of Nazi persecution as they fought to get compensation for their suffering.

Detailed applications for financial assistance made in the 1960s by UK victims of Nazi persecution and their families have been released by the National Archives for the first time.

In 1964 the Federal Republic of Germany agreed to pay the British Government £1 million - about £17 million in today's money - to those who had suffered, or their dependants if they had died.

More than 4,000 people applied and 1,015 awards of compensation were made by the Foreign Office.

For many, filling in the applications marked the first time they had confronted the horrors of their past.

But compensation was far from guaranteed - only those who spent time in a concentration camp or similar and were a British citizen would get payments.

Among the files released by the National Archives at Kew, west London, is an application from Harold Le Druillenec, the only British survivor found at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, who went on to give evidence at the Belsen Trials.

Arrested in Jersey - the Channel Islands were the only part of Britain occupied during the Second World War - the day before D-Day in 1944 for helping his sister harbour an escaped Russian prisoner of war, having a radio and for "non-co-operation" with German forces, he was interned in three camps before being the first prisoner liberated from Belsen on April 16 1945.

In a moving handwritten medical note requesting disability compensation, he said: "I survived three concentration camps by a lot of luck and the ability to 'live outside the carcase'. I retain this trait.

"Rarely do I admit, even to myself, any physical weakness, ailments or discomforts and only see a doctor when it is imperative to do so. The filling-in of this form has been somewhat of a trial and I apologise for any incompleteness therein."

Mr Le Druillenec's first-hand account laid bare the horrors endured by prisoners under the Nazi regime.

He recalled that in Neuengamme they lived alongside "hardened" criminals and "laboured to the death for the ultimate benefit of the Greater Reich" while Banter Weg, also in Hamburg, was "a tough camp with torture and punishment the rule day and night. Means of putting inmates to death included beating, drowning, crucifixion, hanging in various stances …"

But it was Belsen that was "infinitely more uncomfortable - no food, no water, sleep was impossible".

He wrote: "All my time here was spent in heaving dead bodies into the mass graves kindly dug for us by 'outside workers' for we no longer had the strength for that type of work which, fortunately, must have been observed by the camp authorities.

"Jungle law reigned among the prisoners; at night you killed or were killed; by day cannibalism was rampant.

"The bulk of Auschwitz had been transferred to Belsen when I arrived and it was here that I heard the expression 'there is only one way out of here - through the chimney!' (crematorium).

"All in all a most unpleasant place, with the liberation of the camp coming not a moment too soon for me, for I had reached the stage of being a 'musselman' (Belsen expression for 'a Gandhi') which, in those circumstances, meant death within hours."

He was freed after 10 months' imprisonment, during which he lost more than half his body weight, and spent almost a year recovering from the dysentery, scabies, malnutrition and septicaemia he suffered.

He interrupted his convalescence to give evidence against camp staff at the Belsen Trial in Luneburg in 1945 and went on to help the War Crimes Investigations teams as they examined atrocities at other concentration camps.

In his application for compensation he described how his experiences had left him "generally weak", with his heart and lungs affected and how he had lost most of his memories of pre-war life.

He wrote of his life back in Jersey: "All in all I am in good shape but must needs live a quiet life".

The Foreign Office eventually agreed to pay him compensation, awarding him £1,835 - around £30,000 today - for the time he spent imprisoned and his disabilities, which were deemed to be "less than 50%".

Some 900 files have been released so far, with more than 3,000 to come by spring 2017.

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