75 years on, the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education remembers the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

‘April, 2020. Belsen. The liberation of that camp. The awareness that brought to the world of what had happened, is of signal importance’ said Jonathan Dimbleby when interviewed by Centre colleagues as part of a programme to develop lesson materials and a classroom film to ensure teachers and schools were supported to mark today’s anniversary.

Jonathan’s commitment to commemorating this 75th anniversary came from a desire to honour his father’s legacy, the words of Richard’s famous dispatch and a determination to ensure ‘brains are not washed of important information’ about Belsen and of the Holocaust.

On this day, this anniversary, the Centre’s Executive Director, Professor Stuart Foster, reminds us of that ‘important information’ in his anniversary remarks…

‘When British and Canadian troops entered the Nazi controlled camp on this day 75 years ago they witnessed the most unimaginable and harrowing scenes. 10,000 unburied dead bodies lay strewn across the ground and 55,000 starving and desperately ill inmates clung desperately to life.  Those who survived were victims of callous and inhuman brutality and typically were physically and psychologically scarred for life.  From 1943 to 1945, more than 50,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen. Inmates included the diverse spectrum of victim groups persecuted by the Nazis and their collaborators, the majority of whom were Jewish.  The experiences and events at the infamous camp stand as a searing reminder of a time in which violent Nazi extremism and vicious antisemitism cast a dark and ruinous shadow across Europe. 

April 15, 2020 is, therefore, vitally important because it offers a profound opportunity to commemorate this significant event in our collective history and to remember those who suffered and died.  It also highlights the bravery of British military personnel who courageously fought against Germany and her Axis allies. More broadly, the Bergen-Belsen commemoration presents an opportunity to educate more people about the Holocaust and encourage all citizens to reflect on its contemporary significance.  The UCL Centre for Holocaust Education is, therefore, proud to have played a pivotal role in the Belsen75 educational programme and is committed to ensuring that young people continue to have a deeper understanding of Britain’s relationship to the Holocaust.’

As we mark this 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British Forces, the Centre encourages teacher and SLT colleagues, students, friends, partner organisations and stakeholders to take some time today to reflect. To this end, we are delighted to share a selection of writings, which have been specially authored, clips and links to help us learn and commemorate, inform and inspire.

In the first, The History of Bergen-Belsen: Doxa and paradox’, we note that the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen is marked by widespread media coverage and news items, and be forgiven for presuming that this particular camp has always held a position of prominence in British historical culture. For the first two or three decades after 1945, this was largely true: for the generation alive during the war and for their offspring, the term ‘Bergen-Belsen’ was shorthand for atrocity, horror, and Nazi bestiality. However, for the last quarter of the twentieth century and much of the early twenty-first, Bergen-Belsen somewhat receded from view – replaced, instead, by Auschwitz. Whilst Bergen-Belsen and its liberation has re-entered Britain’s historical culture in recent years, much myth, misunderstanding, and general ignorance abounds about the camp and its history.

Such paradoxes are not confined to the present. In this piece, Dr Arthur Chapman offers an enlightening take on the history of Bergen-Belsen, showing in the process how – for all the prominence that the camp has in British cultural memory – the historical particularities of the site lie beyond the awareness of many. By being better informed of these, Chapman implies, we can learn a great deal more about both Bergen-Belsen, and the histories that can be accessed through it.

The liberation of Bergen-Belsen took place at a time before rolling news, media channels and social media. Instead, contemporaries relied upon the reports and photographs taken by journalists and broadcasters. Foremost among them was Richard Dimbleby, whose dispatch from Bergen-Belsen depicted for listeners at home the harrowing scenes that he encountered.

In this third feature, Dimbleby’s son, Jonathan Dimbleby – himself an eminent broadcaster, journalist and author – offers in ‘Return to Belsen’ a personal reflection on his father’s report, and the resonance that it has for us today.

Bergen-Belsen is an important node in Britain’s relationship with the events we call ‘the Holocaust’ and the history of the Second World War. But the history of the camp did not begin, nor end, with its liberation. Just as the camp’s evolution during the Second World War is complex and complicated, so too is the history of liberation’s aftermath – its effects on survivors, liberators, and the wider world. It is also a history which continues even today, over seven decades since the end of the war.

These themes are explored by Lord Eric Pickles in ‘Remembering Bergen-Belsen’. As he reflects on them, he highlights how Britain’s relationship with Bergen-Belsen – like its relationship with the Holocaust more generally – remains very much alive.

What is past and what is present? What is the nature of the relationship between the two? How does history and memory relate and mediate that which has come before, so as to give it presence in the world we inhabit? Such questions have troubled, perplexed and animated human beings throughout history, but they belie simple answers. Because of this, we can sometimes shy away from them – seeking either to reduce ‘history’ to ‘then’ and privilege the present, or to make history a repository of instructive ‘lessons’ that we need merely learn in order to redeem the future.

Reality, of course, is far more messy, more complex. And much more uncomfortable for that. In this final piece, ‘What put the goodness into your heart…?’ the Centre’s Ruth-Anne Lenga offers her thoughts on marking the historical moment that is the 75th anniversary of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation at a time of extraordinary and unprecedented change, reflecting on the testimony of Bergen-Belsen survivors and how acts of compassion inspire us to face modern adversity.

Whilst falling outside of the school term, in ‘normal’ times, schools across the country would have marked the anniversary, particularly this 75th year, in some way, before or after the holidays. Perhaps as a school or local community they would have gathered for a commemorative assembly, designed a memorial, organised a special event, or maybe took part in family and cross-generational learning to foster community cohesion and inclusion.  Schools across the country would have also continued to participate in the Belsen75 project visits in which teachers and Sixth Form students travelled to the sites of the former death camps.  Accordingly, read how two Centre colleagues, Helen McCord and Corey Soper contributed and their pre COVID-19 reflections on the visits.  As a result of the Belsen 75 programme teachers would have incorporated lesson or tutor time materials from the resources hub, planned or delivered commemorative legacy projects, created displays, welcomed survivors, and researched local history, family or regiment connections.

With school closures, owing to COVID-19, that collective endeavour won’t be possible, instead schools have had to be creative and consider remote learning or other commemorative ideas. See three student examples: a poem, written reflections and commemorative legacy visual.

Schools engagement, where possible, and young people’s participation and opportunity to engage with Bergen-Belsen, as part of a study of the Holocaust, is important.

  • Since its liberation in April 1945, the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen has occupied a centrally significant position in collective British memory of the twentieth century. For playwright Alan Bennet and others who first encountered the camp and all that it came to represent through the horrifying imagery revealed in Pathé film reels, shared in British newspapers or unflinchingly recounted over radio broadcast, “Bergen-Belsen was not a name one ever forgot”. Yet research conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education in 2016 suggested that only 15% of English secondary school students recognised it as in any way connected to the Holocaust – a striking contrast with the 71% who recognised a connection with Auschwitz-Birkenau. And in more than 6,000 free-text student descriptions of the Holocaust, Bergen-Belsen was included only once. At the same time, fewer than half (46%) of the students surveyed knew that the Holocaust ended with the Allied liberation of German-occupied lands and when invited to discuss Britain’s relationship to the Holocaust during interview, not a single student mentioned the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by the British Army in April 1945.

For UCL researchers, findings such as these raised important questions as regards what, if anything, was being taught about Belsen and its liberation in England’s classrooms? How? And why?

The Centre’s research with teachers, first in 2009 and more recently in 2019, begins to help us understand. Although the name and imagery of Bergen-Belsen was presumably very familiar to most if not all of the teachers who took part in our 2009 survey, the responses of many suggest significant confusion or misunderstanding as to the actual history of the camp. More than half of all teachers (54%) – including 50% of history teachers – mistakenly believed that Belsen was a death camp that had been built specifically for killing Jewish people. While tens of thousands of Jews and other victims of Nazism died at Bergen-Belsen, it was first established in 1940 as camp for Allied prisoners of war and became a concentration camp in 1943. The misunderstanding exemplified by so many teachers here seems likely to reflect the same oversimplifications that framed a majority of student understandings in 2016.  Here the Holocaust in its entirety is presented principally through a generalised and somewhat muddled notion of ‘the camp’, itself an overarching symbol of inhumanity and barbarism which in turn has significant implication for the understanding students are able to derive. As the authors of the 2009 teacher study reflected at the time, teachers’ confusion might also in part be explained by the enduring symbolic power of the graphic imagery of dead and dying prisoners through which Belsen is most commonly framed.

Interestingly, when UCL researchers revisited these and other questions with teachers more recently, a cautiously more encouraging sense of understanding was revealed. Among those who answered the same survey question in 2019, only 27%, and 25% of teachers mistakenly believed Belsen to be a death camp. Moreover, our ongoing analysis of the many interview transcripts that accompany our 2019 survey data suggest that some teachers are themselves reflexively grappling with issues of representation and its relationship to history. One teacher, for example described an active decision to no longer include footage of the liberation of Belsen within their teaching, because they now questioned the pedagogical value of the atrocity nature of its imagery while others insisted precisely such imagery was necessary to fully comprehend the magnitude of this history.

These are just some of the ethical and pedagogical dilemmas that teachers and our Centre continue to grapple with. Deeper historical understanding of how much Britain actually knew, how the government and public responded when information became available, including news about Belsen, provides students an essential opportunity to understand how the Holocaust links to, and is part of, their own history. It also demonstrates the need for disciplinary knowledge and facts, awareness of and skills to examine historical sources and evidence, a commitment to exploring personal testimony, providing context and the safeguarding skills of media literacy and critical thinking.

To respond to this challenge and gap in existing provision, Centre colleagues worked tirelessly to develop materials and approaches for the Belsen75 online hub. For example, our ‘British responses to the Holocaust’ CPD draws upon Wiener Library, the Imperial War Museum’s collections and Mass Observation Archive material to facilitate enquiry of what the British government and public knew and when and the attitudes and response that followed. Teachers can find out more about these materials and sessions here.

This 75th anniversary, the Centre’s CPD, along with number 6 of our research briefings, intends to support teachers in their classroom practice to teach about Belsen’s complexity and the range of British responses to the Holocaust. The new materials created and housed in the Belsen75.org.uk/resources hub, including ‘How did the British deal with the perpetrators at Bergen-Belsen?’ aims to raise students’ awareness, knowledge and understanding. Together, by investing in teachers, through research-informed CPD to provide quality provision for and experience of Holocaust teaching and learning, including Belsen, along with student resources and materials, we aim to equip and empower young people to safeguard the future by learning about the past.

At the Centre’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in January this year, we were honoured to be joined by Belsen survivors Mala Tribich and Susan Pollack – who shared with Centre colleagues, invited guests, including Beacon School Lead Teachers and students, some of their experiences and contemporary reflections. We premiered then, the Belsen75 commemorative film in which they feature.

Today, on this most significant anniversary, the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education’s social media, @UCL_Holocaust, along with our website, will endeavour to ensure ‘brains are not washed of important information’. Whilst 75 years ago British Forces liberated Bergen-Belsen, today colleagues #StandTogether, albeit staying home to protect our NHS, and we pause to commemorate that moment so seared into a nation’s consciousness and collective national history. We reaffirm our commitment to supporting teachers in educating the next generation about Bergen-Belsen, the Holocaust and Britain’s responses to the genocide.  We also remain determined to consider the contemporary significance of this history and pledge to remember the victims, survivors and liberators. Together, we will learn and remember.

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Woman clings to solider at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen