Bergen Belsen 1

“Hear this, ye old men, and give ear, all ye inhabitants of the land…Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children and their children another generation.”

BOOK OF JOELCHAP 1

LT. COL. LEONARD BERNEY, WHO AS A 25-YEAR-OLD BRITISH ARMY MAJOR HELPED LIBERATE THE BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP, DIED ON 8TH MARCH 2016 AGED 95.

Leonard Berney

In the summer of 1961 I went into hospital for one of those procedures that today they knock off in an hour and then send you home. In 1961 it took seven days plus convalescence. Because I was 16 I was put into a men’s surgical ward. Far from whining kids with tonsils to be removed and umbilical hernias to be repaired, it was a blessing. Apart from one elderly man with ‘senile satyriasis’ who gave the poor nurses a very hard time the other seven occupants of ’Men’s Surgical’ were friendly and interesting and called me ‘Professor’ because I went to a grammar school.

They usually spent their time quietly ‘putting the world to rights’ as they would say – comparing football teams or cars, the value of double digging allotments or anaglypta wallpaper, whether central heating or wall-to-wall carpeting would ever catch on. Then one evening they began talking about the War. Nothing very significant it seemed — just vague memories of things that had happened to them 15 or so years before… a drill sergeant that tripped over on parade, a friend in the Desert Rats who had been blown up by a land mine but his only injury was sand under the foreskin… and so on. The German woman in the street who refused to give up her garden railings to build Spitfires, the V.1 that landed in the park – but then…

berney1

I cannot remember his name. He was a quiet fellow and he seemed rather elderly to me although he was probably not much older than 40. He began talking about the advance of the British Army into Germany in April 1945. It was early spring. The hard fighting from the D-Day beachheads to the Rhine was over and the countryside and farms of lower Saxony seemed untouched by war. There was blossom on the trees and the German population appeared pleased to see them. Some waved. As his unit approached the village of Belsen the army column stopped. It was very quiet. No gunfire. The troops unhitched their packs and sprawled on the grass. Then a message came down the line that a German colonel holding a white flag had warned a British officer that there was a camp ahead holding ‘civilian prisoners’ and it was in the grip of a typhus epidemic. The German suggested that to avoid spreading the contagion the prisoners in the camp should not be released. The following day – on the 15th April 1945, contagion or not – British troops and the man in the bed opposite entered Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.

bergen belsen

We didn’t ask many questions in ’Men’s Surgical’ that evening. We already knew about the concentration camps — the horror, the squalor, the countless deaths, the inhumanity of it all — but the man in the bed opposite was the first person we had ever met who had seen it at first hand. In a very quiet voice he talked about the huge piles of corpses, the smell of filth and putrefaction, the arrogance of the remaining guards and the piteous condition of the surviving prisoners, emaciated, sick, some to the point of death. He said that there were so many dead he was ordered to take a bulldozer and push the bodies into open graves and cover them over. So appalling was the stench rising from the tumbling corpses that he held a handkerchief over his nose… and that is how I still see that man today when he appears in the photographs and the documentary films about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, driving a bulldozer with a handkerchief held to his nose, that same man in a hospital bed, wearing pyjamas and a dressing gown quietly talking about the Holocaust.

This only came to mind last week when I read that Lt.Col. Leonard Berney, one of the first British officers to enter Bergen-Belsen had died at the age of 95. He wrote…

“I remember being completely shattered. The dead bodies laying beside the road, the starving emaciated prisoners still mostly behind barbed wire, the open mass graves containing hundreds of corpses, the stench, the sheer horror of the place, were indescribable. None of us who entered the camp had any warning of what we were about to see or had ever experienced anything remotely like it before.”

berney with book

Lt. Col. Berney wrote down his experiences at Bergen-Belsen as a reaction to a growing number of people who deny that the Holocaust ever happened…

“I’m doing what I can, and others are doing what they can, to educate the young people about what can happen, what did happen and what can happen again.”

belsen sign

I am certain about the Holocaust. I have walked the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have seen the gas chambers and the rooms full of shorn hair and children’s toys. I have spoken to elderly Polish men and women living in Acton with numbers tattooed on their arms… and one day in summer 1961 I sat on a bed in ’Men’s Surgical’ listening to a man talking about driving a bulldozer with a handkerchief over his nose. He started crying that evening as if he would never stop and there was nothing we could do to comfort him.

— from Martyn Day