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Queen visits Bergen-Belsen site

Published 26/06/2015

The Queen is to visit the Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war and concentration camps site
The Queen is to visit the Bergen-Belsen prisoner of war and concentration camps site

The Queen has spoken of the "horrific" scenes British forces faced when they liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as she visited the notorious site.

At the camp in northern Germany where 70,000 people died from disease, starvation or brutal mistreatment the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh paid their respects by laying a wreath.

With quiet dignity and the minimum of protocol the royal couple toured the site which was razed to the ground and is now a museum and memorial to those who died during the Second World War.

Among those who perished at the site were Anne Frank and her sister Margot who died a few months before British troops walked through the gates and liberated those interned on April 15 1945.

The Queen, who is patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, had not visited a concentration camp before and it is believed she requested the trip, the last event of her four-day state visit to Germany.

Dr Jens-Christian Wagner, head of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, gave the royal couple a guided tour and said the experience of visiting the site had been an emotional one for the Queen.

The Queen also met British survivors and liberators of Belsen including Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown, 96, and she asked him what sort of scene greeted him when he first arrived.

Mr Brown said "I told her this was just a field of corpses", and he said the Queen replied: "It must have been horrific really."

He added: "She was listening very carefully. I would say she was quite affected by the atmosphere here. You can't avoid it, can you?"

Bergen-Belsen was the only concentration camp to be liberated by British forces and its name became synonymous with the atrocities of the Holocaust after newsreel footage, narrated by BBC war reporter Richard Dimbleby, was shown in the Allied nations.

Michael Bentine, the Goon Show comedian who was among the British liberators, said he always regarded the events that took place at Belsen as "the ultimate blasphemy".

Nothing now remains of the huts and buildings where Jewish, Russian and other prisoners starved to death or died from disease; in their place is a knee-length grass meadow and number of simple memorials to the dead.

The British troops quickly burnt the wooden huts which housed the people to stop the spread of typhus and today the only reminder of the site's history are huge mass burial mounds, some holding the remains of 5,000 victims.

Brigadier Hugh Llewellyn Glyn Hughes, the 2nd Army's deputy director of medical services, was the first doctor to arrive at the site and took control of the relief operation.

He later said: "No description or photograph could really bring home the horrors that were outside the huts, and the frightful scenes inside were much worse.''

The British troops found 10,000 bodies lying around the site when they entered the gates, and thousands more were on the verge of death.

In the months leading up to liberation, the population of Bergen-Belsen, which was not designed as an extermination camp, had quadrupled to 60,000 and conditions worsened with a lack of water, shelter and sanitation.

Anne and Margot Frank are thought to have died in February 1945 from typhus which ravaged the camp. They were among 35,000 who perished in the months leading up to liberation.

In the weeks that followed 14,000 people died as a result of ill-treatment or sickness at the camp.

Asked if he felt the Queen was moved during her tour, Dr Wagner replied "Yes, obviously. It was more than only diplomatic protocol (prompting the visit) - I had the impression it was a personal interest in this history."

He added: "She was interested in why the site looks as it does today, and I explained to her that the wooden buildings were burned down after the liberation to stop the spread of disease, and the other buildings were later demolished by the Germans who wanted the camp to disappear."

At the site's Inscription Wall the royal couple laid a wreath near the words "To the memory of all those who died in this place".

The monument also bears other poignant words in a number of languages including Yiddish, Hebrew and Latin.

The Queen and Duke also paused at a headstone to Anne Frank and her sister which had a picture of the teenage writer placed at its base.

With their entourage at another part of the site, the Queen and Philip walked unaccompanied into the House of Silence, where visitors can sit under a glass roof and contemplate the human consequences of tyranny.

Among the survivors of Bergen-Belsen who met the Queen was Rudi Oppenheimer, 83, whose Jewish family were rounded up in Amsterdam and arrived at the camp in February 1944. Both of his parents died there but his brother and sister survived.

He said: "People who came from Auschwitz said the conditions at Belsen were worse than at Auschwitz.

"Things were really bad. Corpses were lying all over the place, we were too weak to move them and I suppose that they had already started to dig pits. There was a crematorium that could take two people at a time but there were so many bodies it was't enough. The bodies were always naked because people would take their clothes to wear.

"The food was a mug of brown water in the morning and in the evening, 4cm of bread. If you were lucky you got a litre of turnip soup at lunchtime, but usually we were spending 10 hours a day standing on the parade ground so they could count people."

Mr Oppenheimer, who now lives in London, erected a tombstone to his parents, Hans and Rika, at Belsen in the 1990s. He has visited the site about 18 times over the years to tell his story to service personnel and school children.

The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who joined the Queen for part of visit, said: "I told the Queen that the Jewish world appreciates enormously her gesture in coming here, because it shows her solidarity with our pain and suffering."

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