The Relief of Bergen Belsen (2007)  

 

 

 

Director:     Justin Hardy.

Starring:    Katrine Bach (Lotti Burns),  Simon Day (Major Stadler),  Oliver Ford Davies (Martin Lipscomb),  Iain Glen (James Johnston),  Iddo Goldberg (Emmanuel Fisher),  Vern Griffiths (Richard Dimbleby),  Paul Hilton (Leslie Hardman),  Nigel Lindsay (Mervyn Gonin),  Laura Lowton (Nurse),  Tobias Menzies (Derrick Sington),  Henry Pettigrew (Alexander Paton),  Corin Redgrave (Glyn Hughes),  Jemma Redgrave (Jean McFarlane),  Erich Redman (Hans Eckhart),  Jmes Saunders (Nazi Officer).

British military shocked upon seeing the conditions at Bergen Belsen

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

A lot of bombing is going on.

April 17, 1945. "The battle for Berlin raged through Northern Germany. But a British ambulance unit was diverted from the front line to handle an unfolding medical crisis."

A fellow gets out of the ambulance. He walks over to the German guard and says that he is Lt.-Col. Mervyn Gonin, 11th Light Field Ambulance. He then asks if anyone can speak English? No response.

A vehicle drives up and an officer jumps out. It's Lt. Sington, Propaganda and Psychological Warfare. He walks over to Gonin and salutes. Gonin asks if he speaks German? Yes, he does. Then tell the German guard to allow the ambulance to go inside. So the gate is lifted out of the way.

Gonin wants to know why are there armed German troops running around here? Sington says it's due to the local truce that was worked out. He says Col. Johnston will explain it all to him. Sington tells Gonin to go ahead and follow him, but, whatever he does, do not turn to the left.

"The British liberation of Belsen did not bring an end to the death toll. Instead it was the start of a humanitarian catastrophe. British liberators left hundreds of first hand accounts. This film dramatizes just a few of them."

The smell of the place is terrible and the people in the ambulance cover their noses with something. All Gonin knew was that they were headed into a concentration camp. Then he finds out that the camp has a typhus outbreak. Gonin would realize later that this would be the greatest challenge of his life.

The ambulance stops. Gonin gets out and inspects a cart with quite a few dead men and one child laying on it. They were shot for stealing apples. A British soldier yells at the Germans that they will fucking hang for this.

Sington tells Gonin that he was one of the first into the camp and he had never seen anything like it before. "The dead are everywhere. Corpses are just piled up." And lice are everywhere. There was a woman whose whole head moved continually because of the lice.

The inmates fall into one of three categories. minority criminals; politicals, like Russian POWs and Resistance workers, French and Belgium; and a lot of Jews. Rabbi Hardman is there listening to this. Three-quarters of the prisoners are women, from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Germany.

There about 4,000 sick prisoners. Col. Johnston is supposedly an expert in a situation like this. Is the typhus contained? Don't know.

"A local truce allowed 3,000 German and Hungarian troops to remain at Belsen. Their job was to prevent any typhus infected prisoners from escaping."

Gonin goes into the German headquarters building. He can't believe it when he sees swastika flags everywhere together with a huge portrait of Adolf Hitler. Gonin asks how many inmates are held here? Sington says he doesn't really know.

A briefing is being made for the British officers. The speakers says that Col. Johnston will be along shortly, but he would like to start the ball rolling. Bergen-Belsen is divided into two sectors. They are presently in Camp 2 where there is an academy for Hitler's tank corps -- a Panzer training school.

Camp 1 contains around 40,000 prisoners. They live in 200 huts that were designed to hold only 200 people. In one hut there were 1,346 people (not counting the dead). There are no sanitation facilities and the camp is surrounded by rotting corpses. No food has been distributed for the last two weeks.

Their main concern is the typhus. If they don't get the typhus under control, they won't have to worry about having enough food to eat. Col. Johnston was right there in the thick of it during the crisis following the Quetta earthquake. And, like Quetta, the fight for Belsen is a race against the clock.

Gonin says he thought he could handle anything, but the concentration camp overwhelmed him. The half-starved people are reduced to an animal level.

Johnston comes into the room and the speaker welcomes the Hero of Quetta to the briefing.

"It was down to Johnston to ensure that for the 40,000 inmates at Belsen, liberation meant survival. To do this, he had fewer than 20 doctors."

Johnston says they want to save as many people as possible in the short amount of time. To accomplish this, he wants Camp 1 evacuated. Many of the worst cases will go to a receiving hospital they will set up at Camp 2.

Gonin writes that the starvation victims seem to somehow be compelled to keep wandering around until they drop dead. Johnston grabs a BBC correspondent. He tells the man that it is critical that the situation at Bergen-Belsen be broadcast to the United Kingdom. The journalist says he will resign if they don't show the film to the public.

Gonin estimates that 20,000 of the 40,000 prisoners are sick with typhus. And there are virtually no supplies with which to treat these people.

A report of the basic facts is given. There are around 40,00 men, women and children in the camp. 25,600 of them are ill due to a lack of food or are actually dying due to starvation. In the last few months 30,000 prisoners have died or been killed.

A German officer complains to Johnston about the BBC cameras being allowed into the camps. He says this will make the Germans look very bad. Johnston says: "I imagine it will." Johnston tells the officer that every word of his meticulous statement about the camps was a lie. They deliberately underestimated the seriousness of the situation. And, worse than that, they deliberately allowed the typhus to get out of hand.

The German officer says that it was always their intention to keep the Jews alive in the camps in return for the safety of their own lives. He says the Allied bombings made it impossible to receive enough supplies to continue to care for the prisoners. It's obvious that Johnston doesn't believe a word the man is saying.

"Every day, on average, 600 people were dying from typhus and starvation. British Tommies gave what they could."

The Rabbi collects food to give to the starving people he works with. Col. Johnston stops him from doing this. He says the meals served to the men contain 3,000 calories, the amount needed for an army on the go. But the inmates' systems will not be able to handle that many calories. The Rabbi says he has to do something for these people. Johnston lets him continue on.

Johnston tells the men that they are not moving on to Berlin. They are situated here and here is where they will be staying so they better get used to it

"The medical team gained 8 doctors from the inmate population and a handful of German nurses. It was their job to turn the barracks into a hospital."

Supposedly, the Germans and their families will be leaving the area starting tomorrow.

Johnston says that they are going to turn the horse stalls building into their contamination reception area. He expands on the idea of the area being one for "human laundry". They can't have contaminated people contaminating the nearby hospital. So the people will be thoroughly cleansed in the contamination reception building. In the stalls the patients can be scrubbed and dusted. He wants 40 patients to go through the cleansing routine every hour.

The German soldiers are being to bury the many dead.

"Under British orders, the SS were forced to clear the backlog of corpses."

Also used to bury the dead were the Kapos, cruel overseers that maintained order in their barracks and elsewhere.

A female Jewish doctor speaks with Johnston on the working conditions in the camp. He has her sit with him to have lunch. The male officers at the table are very solicitous of the needs of the doctor. Her name is Dr. Bimko.

They ask the female doctor how long has she been here? Not long. Before this she was at Auschwitz. She says, yes, it is another camp, but much worse than Bergen-Belsen. One of the guys says it can't be worse than this place. The doctor says Auschwitz was specifically designed to be a place for the systematic elimination of the enemies of the Third Reich. On the other hand, Belsen is just an over-crowded prison camp.

She says she survived because she is a dentist and therefore useful to the Germans. Her parents, her sister, her husband and her little boy were killed at Auschwitz. That shuts up all the men who remain silent in the face of such a grievous loss for the doctor

"Auschwitz was liberated three months before Belsen, but no information had been released by the Russian army. In the last months of the War, another 13 camps were discovered in Germany alone."

Johnston watches more disturbing film of the dead. This time a soldier uses a bulldozer to bury the massive number of dead bodies.

Days after liberation: 5. Total dead since the British arrived: 4,021. Total admitted to the hospital: 0. But at last the Germans were leaving.

Many of the Germans march away, while others ride in the back of trucks and in jeeps.

"With the Germans gone, British ambulances could begin collecting patients for the Human Laundry where every inmate would be cleansed of typhus."

Just as the Human Laundry was about to start, the generator goes out and there's no electricity. In fact, the Germans have sabotaged about everything and anything they could get there hands on. There's also no hot water.

"On the fifth day the evacuation for the inmates was cancelled. Rabbi Hardman provided solace for the inmates in Camp One."

The Rabbi comes into see Johnston. He asks him why did he cancel the evacuation? It took a long time to get the Jewish inmates ready for evacuation and now it's cancelled. Rabbi Hardman adds: "These are the last Jews in Europe and we are letting them die."

Johnston gets angry and tells the Rabbi that he is out of order. After all, 42% percent of the camp are non-Jews. He adds that while Hardman is down tending to his flock, he is ignoring the pastoral needs of the Jewish soldiers in this unit.

"Despite electrical problems and desperate understaffing, Johnston pressed ahead with the Human Laundry."

Col. Gonin is on his way with the first batch of inmates.

"The Human Laundry would be a resounding success. Of all the patients processed through its doors, only two subsequently died."

Johnston says that now 300 patients are deloused and sleeping in beds with clean sheets. That's good. But the starvation continues and will soon reach 5,000 dead. Johnston suggests establishing this rule: if you can walk, you can get food and stay in the camp another day. Dr. Bimko says: "So the strong ones stay behind until they get sick." Johnston ends the discussion.

Nurse MacFarlane arrives and speaks with Johnston. She says she and her nurses have not had that much nursing experience, but they will learn as they go along. Then Johnston is foolish to mention that he can smell the alcohol on the nurse's breath. The nurse gets angry and says she will report to sister.

"Despite the treatment of typhus with the new insecticide DDT, the death rate in Camp One was accelerating. Starvation became the new medical priority."

One of the women patients starts screaming her head off. Dr. Bimko says the woman is afraid of the syringe, because the SS would inject benzene into the women to speed their cremation in the ovens.

"Dr. Hadassah Bimko was interviewed by Movietone News. She provided one of the first eye-witness accounts of the Final Solution."

Days after liberation: 9. Total admitted to hospital: 1,100. Total remaining in Camp One: 31,000.

The Rabbi has to act like a black marketer trying to get the types of food he needs, such as paprika which improves the taste of the food they eat.

Days after liberation: 10. "Despite British efforts, the death rate had soared to 900 per day."

Johnston talks with nurse MacFarlane. He inquires as to her health and says she deserves a big stiff drink. He is about to ask something of the nurse, but a soldier says that Col. Lipscomb has arrived. Lipscomb came all the way from India. He is an expert on nutrition. He has brought with him something called Bengal Famine Mixture. It contains the right balance of nutrients to help the starving.

"The British tried feeding inmates with rations and skimmed milk, even intravenous drips. But nothing seemed to work."

In the last 24 hours, there have been 1,700 dead. Johnston shows nurse MacFarlane and Dr. Bimko the Bengal Famine Mixture. He says the problem is that they just don't have enough staff to distribute the mixture. Dr. Bimko grabs a can of the mixture saying that her people can do this. She leaves to start the distribution.

Johnston discovers some of the staff consuming the Bengal Famine mixture. That really makes him mad. And it makes him more discouraged because he has fewer and fewer reliable staff to help keep this kind of pilferage down.

Gonin is a real complainer. He bad mouths Johnston and suggests that he has had little experience with the type of crisis they have at Belsen. Gonin says that he thinks Mr. Johnston is a pen-pusher.

"Days after liberation: 12. Total dead: 9,699."

German planes bomb and strafe the hospital area of the camp. "On the thirteenth day the Luftwaffe attacked the hospital, despite its Red Cross status. Gonin's ambulance men bore all the casualties."

One of the soldiers dies on the table. Gonin tells Fisher to find some hospital beds for his men and do it now.

Lipscomb suggests using three different meals with different amounts of calories. One at 800 calories, one of 1,700 and one of 3,000 calories.

"Days after liberation: 14. Total dead: 11,047. But trained reinforcements had finally arrived." Johnston and others notice that the reinforcements are awfully young. The commander says that he needs trained men, experts in fields such as hospital administration, famine relief and psychological rehabilitation.

Johnston tells the lads: "Up until now we've been more like undertakers, than doctors." The men will have difficulties, because even though they saw the films of concentration camps, films can't give them a sample of the terrible stench in the barracks. And the new guys will be in this stench for hours, because they are going to feed the Bengal Famine Mixture until one day he hears one of the young men say to him: "Good morning, sir. No one died today."

Nurse MacFarlane says her nurses can help with the distribution of the mixture. Johnston insults her by saying that they need people with training. The implication is that MacFarlane's people are not trained well enough.

At the bar Gonin apologizes for Johnston's remarks to MacFarlane. She says he didn't mean it. He's just exhausted.

Newcomer Patton has to tell Johnston that a lot of the women in his hut won't even try the famine mixture. And many of those who try the mixture have problems of throwing it up or running with diarrhea.

Dr. Lipscomb shows a body to Patton and Johnston. Patton says the two kidneys are missing and so is the liver. Who did this? Lipscomb implies that this is an example of cannibalism. Johnston goes to the latrine to throw up.

The Rabbi tells Johnston that the famine mixture is just too sweet for the people. But, if he puts a little paprika in the mixture, some will eat the stuff and some will even ask for more of the mixture.

"As the doctors struggled to feed starving inmates, extra provisions began to arrive, including children's toys, sanitary towels and lipstick."

Johnston confides to MacFarlane that he is losing this war with starvation. MacFarlane says he's overlooking some of the little steps of progress. Patton told her that some of the fitter inmates are growing much stronger. And she saw a mother with her children walking in the sunshine.

Johnston kisses MacFarlane. But then he notices a sleeping Patton nearby.

"Days after liberation: 18. Deaths per day: down to 200. Hospital admissions: up to 1,000 and some of the fitter inmates were preparing to leave."

Some of the children and women now interact with the British soldiers. One of the mothers of two children bends over, collapses onto the ground and dies. Johnston says he wants an autopsy done on this woman. Johnston says to MacFarlane that and now even the fit are beginning to die.

More than 10,000 of the fit are ill and if they are not gotten to a hospital soon, they will die. So what is going on here? A doctor weighs the heart of what they thought was a fit woman and finds that it's only a fraction of the weight it should be. The Brigadier General says apparently a prolonged period of starvation can damage the heart. So the deaths occurring in the camp are not due to anything the camp staff did, but really the Germans are the ones that killed them years ago by starving them.

One of the staff refuses to clean up a spill. Johnston is told and he goes ballistic. He pushes the man's head into a closed door, pulls him out under a tree and starts to hang the man. By this time help arrives and they put an end to the hanging.

There is a search on for Johnston. They search all over. MacFarlane and some others find him. Johnston apologizes to everyone for what happened this morning. Gonin tells Johnston that Patton has some good news for him: "In my hut, no one died, sir." Gonin says to Johnston: "The point is we turned a corner. And even I am prepared to admit it. Your bloody system's working."

MacFarlane says there's something else they want to show Johnston. The women patients are putting on lipstick with the help of a hand mirror. Johnston says that the Rabbi was right. If you want to save people, treat them like humans.

"In early May the British Red Cross set up a second hand clothes store. They named it after their favorite shop: Harrods." Harrods turns out to be a great success.

The Brigadier General tells the staff around him: "Oh, I almost forgot. Thought you'd all like to know. Apparently, the war is over."

"Days after liberation: 23. Victory in Europe. " Women and men walk together.

"Total requisitioned hospital beds: 13,000."

Flame throwers light up the barracks and soon the camp is completely destroyed.

There is a little party given for the staff.

"32 of the German medical staff who worked in the human laundry themselves caught typhus." One of the sick German men asks German nurse Lotte if there is any redemption for them?

Dr. Bimko says after the war ended the Jewish women still at Belsen did not celebrate. After all, they had lost their families. There was nobody to hug -- nobody was waiting for them anywhere.

In 1946 Dr. Bimko married Dr. Rosenstauf, a leader of the Belsen survivors. Their son was born two years later at Belsen hospital. Dr. Bimko-Rosensaft would like to become one of the founders of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Brigadier General Glyn Hughes became godfather to dozens of Belsen babies. In 1945 his improved medical hospital was renamed the Glyn Hughes Hospital. It still stands today.

Patton became an eminent clinical physician. He remained in touch with his fellow students who were at Belsen.

Emmanuel Fisher became a famous musician, conducting the London Jewish male choir for 20 years. He led tours around the world and even composed music for Hollywood.

Rabbi Hardman performed a lot of weddings at Belsen. He remained in touch with his congregation to this day.

Sington prepared indictments for the Nurnberg Trials with the help of his secretary, Gertrude. He married her in 1948.

Mervyn Gonin received a distinguished service order and returned to general practice in Ipswitch. He died in 1954.

Jean MacFarlane followed Johnston's unit to the next posting. She became president of the Lacrosse Society. Jean adopted a child from Europe. She never married.

Johnston stayed in the army for 30 more years. He became a major general and took command of all Army medical training. He remained in touch with those who shared his experiences at Belsen.

 

Good film.  This film is set during World War II, but the time is very close to the victory of the Allies over the Axis forces.  Col. Johnston is put in charge of the camp and this is not an easy job.  One reason is that an active German detachment continues on at the camp.  Everyday there were instances of Germans shooting Jews or other people.  But the main reason for the difficulties was that no one knew how to put a stop to the enormous amount of inmates dying of starvation every day, day after day.  Nobody knew what to feed starving people.  Nor did they know how much food to feed them.  So they did a lot of trial and error routines, but none of them seemed to work.  Inmates just kept dying. This constant dying made everyone unhappy and Johnston had a lot of work to reassure everyone that they will straighten out this situation.  There were lots of criticisms directed at Johnston. 

Col. Johnston tells his people that he had a dream.  He said that one day in the future an orderly will report to him and say Col. Johnston, nobody died in my barracks today. 

But the problem of starvation was no easy matter to conquer and the film tells the story of Johnston's and his people's hard work to find a solution. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

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