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Last Updated: Friday, 15 April, 2005, 00:40 GMT 01:40 UK
'Unspeakable relief' at Belsen liberation
By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News

Sixty years ago, the German concentration camp of Belsen was liberated by British troops. One camp survivor tells of the "unspeakable relief" on the day help arrived.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch survived both Belsen and Auschwitz camps

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was one of 50,000 sick and starving people found by British troops in Belsen, a camp also filled with piles of bodies and mass graves.

Sitting in her north-west London house, the 80-year-old recalls the confusion, surprise and disbelief on 15 April 1945.

"We had an inkling that something was not going right, there seemed to be fewer guards, and there was complete chaos, even more than the usual chaos.

"We had been very afraid that we would be blown up - we'd heard rumours that other camps had been blown up before they were liberated."

By April 1945, Belsen was overcrowded and infested with typhus, dysentery, and tuberculosis.

The German camp authorities had given up on providing even the most basic requirements to sustain human life. There was no food and water had been turned off on 10 April.

I have vague images of trying to keep people alive
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch
Belsen survivor

On 15 April, Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch remembers hearing an unusual noise, possibly the sound of tanks.

"And then suddenly they were there - the British had arrived. We just couldn't believe it."

With freedom and help so close, she remembers encouraging ill comrades to "hang on".

"I have vague images of trying to keep people alive."

Although details are sketchy - "it was such a monumental experience, one didn't register details" - her sister has told her she was ill, but still able to walk.

Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch, from a Jewish family in Breslau, Germany, had already survived a year at Auschwitz, mainly because of her musical talent - she played cello in the camp orchestra - when she was transferred to Belsen.

"For years you expected to be murdered, you lived minute by minute, not day by day. Now, with the British in Belsen, you knew you weren't going to be killed."

Belsen inmate

The horrific treatment at Belsen meant that 20,000 inmates alive when British troops arrived were seriously or critically ill.

About 13,000 inmates died after liberation, adding to the 20,000 corpses there when the troops arrived.

Inmates were transferred to a British camp a couple of miles away and the camp burnt down at the end of May to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch's eventual arrival in Britain was down to her involvement with the British Army.

Her sister had begun working as an Army interpreter, and encouraged her sister to do the same.

'Beyond description'

"She could speak English, but I couldn't do anything. And even being liberated can be a boring experience."

But she managed to become a typist in the British Army office, and gradually learnt English.

"I became part of the British Army which was a huge advantage."

"We were allowed to use the officers' bath between 0600 and 0700 - that was fantastic. We had army rations and cigarettes. We lived a charmed life."

With the help of a British officer who was heading to Brussels, Mrs Lasker-Wallfisch and her sister left Belsen on Boxing Day 1945 and arrived in Britain on 17 March 1946.

"Finally I could turn my back on Belsen. We couldn't get out of there fast enough.

"What happened there was beyond description."


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