Last week I was very privileged to hear first hand from someone who saw something of the horror of Belsen at the end of the Second World War.
As a rebellious teenager, Barbara (not her real name) had joined the Field Army Nursing Yeomanry and was sent close to the front line as an auxiliary to the armed forces. She had already experienced bombing in London, rushing in her ambulance to provide first aid to those she could help.
At the end of the war, as retreat became defeat and still only 17 years old, she was part of a convoy of ambulances and military personnel wending its way through Germany towards a camp at Belsen. Those in the convoy had no idea what awaited them.
As the dismal concrete building came into sight they could see it still being guarded by German troops. After a long wait outside the gates, the convoy entered an enormous desolate area, full of silent corpse-like people.
No one would say for how long these prisoners had been without food. And they had mere shreds of clothing left on them, but it was the smell which Barbara remembers most strongly. It was, she says, far worse that the smell of any animal sheds.
While British soldiers rounded up the German guards, Barbara and others from the ambulance convoy had to deal with the prisoners. They were crouched singly, or in small groups, or walking aimlessly. And apart from the occasional shouted command, the place was silent. Eerily silent when there were so many people.
The prisoners shied away when approached. They didn’t reply when spoken to. They flinched in fear when touched. Uniforms just meant pain. Many were close to death, and the resources the liberators had with them were totally inadequate.
The convoy had brought food with them, but for people so badly starved the food would be too rich. Drawing on her Girl Guide training, and the ambiguous uniform she wore as a members of the Field Army Nursing Yeomanry, Barbara ordered soldiers to find something to make a fire and pans to boil up some of the more conventional rations they had brought to make a gruel with which to feed the prisoners. Most could take no more than a teaspoonful at a time.
Then taking two soldiers with her she went exploring. Were there really no more clothes here? Was there food? What other horrors were behind the closed doors?
The liberators were shocked and traumatised by what they were seeing, but the soldiers with Barbara provided the practical strength to break down doors when needed as they explored.
Living quarters for the prisoners were huts with three-tiered shelves for beds – just bare boards. The area was hotching with fleas, lice and other insects. Barbara was thankful that she’d tucked her trouser-bottoms into her socks to give some protection from the various parasites. And the smell…
They found what should have been the hospital. Barbara froze at the entrance. Impatiently one of the soldiers with her pushed past her, and also froze in his tracks. This was a torture chamber, not a hospital.
What should have been operating tables had manacles. There was electrical equipment with electrodes designed to be applied on, or in, the body. On shelves were parts of bodies, wrapped in paper or in ice or loose. There were rows of jars, containing unknown chemicals, ready to hand. This was a torture chamber.
It was here that Barbara was sick.
Over the next three days, like the other ambulance crews in the convoy, Barbara and her driver ferried prisoners fit enough to be moved to hospitals elsewhere in Germany to be provided with care. The ambulance had rarely carried even two patients at a time in London, but here they squeezed in as many as seven or even eight at a time.
It was rare for a prisoner to say anything. Speaking took energy, and they had none to spare. But one she does remember speaking, whispered to her in perfect English that he was a doctor. She took his hand, leading him like a child to see a superior as he might be able to provide useful information.
Barbara has never knowing met any of those she helped save. Afterwards she was debriefed; asked to remember many of the horrors she had seen. Maybe that record still exists.
Traumatised by what she’d seen Barbara had nightmares, and still occasionally does. Back in Britain after the war, she immersed herself in learning, going to university and becoming a teacher.
Barbara is now in her late 80s, and like many others who have experiences of war, she had never told her story. I and others who listened to her felt privileged to be able to share it.
It is right that stories like this are heard. We must remember, learn and do all we can to prevent such horrors in the future.