Anne Frank
Learning About the Holocaust

Liberating Belsen

This is a transcript, made in 2001, of an interview recorded in 1981.

Muriel Gofton (MG:) was with the Red Cross organization when the Allies liberated Belsen in 1945. She saw at first hand what had happened in the notorious concentration camp. The interviewer is Sylvia Usher (SU:), a teacher from the East Riding of Yorkshire.

SU: Easter 1981. I am going to be talking to Muriel Gofton who was one of the first people who went into Belsen at the end of the war after the Allies had liberated that area.

MG: During the war I joined the civilian relief section of the Red Cross in the hope that I would help to feed some of Europe's starving.

In February 1945 we sailed from Tilbury to Ostend in a flat-bottomed tank landing craft.

It took 12 hours.

We were stationed on the outskirts of Antwerp, waiting to go into northern Holland, when the Germans withdrew.

We were able to help the Belgian Red Cross with transport for air raid precautions because Belgium was heavily bombed with flying bombs at this time.

On April 15th the British army uncovered Belsen concentration camp.

The result was that we never went to Holland, but we were called in to help clear up the mess at Belsen.

It took us three days in convoy to reach Belsen.

I remember as we crossed the Rhine, on a Bailey bridge, with notices everywhere, “FRONT LINE TRAFFIC ONLY” wondering to myself how I had managed to get into this position with the war still on.

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We finally arrived in the afternoon of April 21st. at what is now Honagh Camp, three miles from what was the actual concentration camp.

Although we could not see the camp, you could smell it miles away.

When we arrived and were waiting for instructions about our billets, etc., an army major, a doctor, came out of what he called the “human laundry” and said,

“You may as well come and see what is happening.”

The victims were being washed and cleaned before going into what was an improvised hospital.

I shall never forget the sight of these living skeletons, and the hard faces of the German women warders who were being made to wash the victims. Their faces were so hard they were hardly human.

The barracks had been occupied by a Nazi tank corps, and we were put into what had been the officers' billets.The remaining barracks were made into an improvised hospital where the victims of the concentration camp were brought if the army doctor thought that they could live for the another 24 hours.

The death rate was 700 per day for the first two weeks.

They died mostly of typhus and dysentery.

The army set up a mess in a tent where we took our mugs and mess tins with us for each meal.

For the first few weeks everything was tinned.

We even had no bread: only army biscuits.

But we were given a rum ration.

Every morning we were smothered in DDT powder to protect us from typhus; and the fact that each evening we could have a bath saved our lives, I'm sure.

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The Nazi officers had a huge bath house, with beautiful tiled bathrooms, in all different colours; the water heated from a central boiler.

I was put in charge of some of the kitchens, each of them serving approximately 500.

The staff were either former Hungarian guards, or inmates of the camp well enough to help.

The army produced the rations each day, and these starving patients were on a very strict diet: the worst cases on a small cup of skimmed milk and a pinch of salt and sugar, every two hours.

The stronger patients used to steal the weaker patients' rations, with the result that many died because the could not take so much food so soon.

My first morning in one of the kitchens was quite an experience.

The huge boilers in which they made soups - I was asked how many hundreds of litres I needed.

I had to do a lot of hasty calculations as we weren't used to litres in those days.

Language was a problem too.

The army delivered the correct rations for each day, but it was extremely difficult to get the cooks to use them all.

They just couldn't believe that more would be delivered the next day.

The patients never ate all that they were given: they put a bit of bread or potato under their pillows in bed.

We worked 12-14 hours per day, and didn't even know what day of the week it was.

Coming out of the kitchen one evening I saw the corpses being loaded onto a lorry, and taken for burial in mass graves.

Somehow, in the midst of these horrors, because there was so much, and so many tragedies, it almost seemed unreal, and one was able to cope, because it just didn't register.

In spite of all the ghastly sights that we saw, the worst feature of it all was that people could do such awful things to their fellow human beings.

Man's inhumanity to man.

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SU: Thank you very much indeed, because that really tells us so much. You told me once how many unburied bodies there were at Belsen.

MG: When the British army went in, there were reputed to have been about 13,000 unburied dead.

SU: What did they actually do with that number? Did they make the Germans bury them, or what?

MG: They made the Germans bury them, at point of a gun, into mass graves of 3 (3000?) and 5000 in each.

SU: And does anybody know who those people may have been? Was there any means of identification, or was it simply impossible?

MG: Most of it I think was impossible. One of the biggest tasks even when they had the healthy people, or the so-called healthy, was to try to get some sort of lists of who they were.

SU: And to know anything about them?

MG: And to find out something about them.

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SU: And when they were in the hospital the only thing they could be treated for was malnutrition, and the fact that they were so desperately, desperately thin and weak?

MG: Yes, and the fact that they had typhus or dysentery, or something, or tuberculosis, or they had all sorts of things...they had.

SU: You told me that story of the incredible story (sic.) about the way they had reacted to injections. Can you tell it to me again please?

MG: They brought out Dr, Janet Bron to feed the very worst cases intravenously, and when she produced a hypodermic needle there were screams of “crematorium”.

They were absolutely petrified because, apparently, in the camp they had been injected with a mixture of creosote and benzene, which had created the effect of paralysis, and dead or alive they had been sent to the crematorium.

And in order to do anything for these people, she had to first put the needle into herself before she could do anything with these people.

They were so frightened.

SU: And she would have to do it time and time again?

MG: Oh yes.

SU: For each group of people?

MG: Yes until they began to realise that they were not sent to the crematorium.

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SU: And then there was that funny story about the people who had the bath in the soup basins.

MG: That was in a Hungarian kitchen, and the little army sergeant, whom we called “Service with a Smile”...

SU: Why did you call him that?

MG: Because he was always so bright and cheerful.

SU: Oh, how nice!

MG: ...was late with the rations, because we were not allowed to leave until they had been put under lock and key, because food was at a premium.

They raided German farms, anywhere they could get it, to get the food.

And he said: “I shall be late tonight. Go to the Mess for dinner, and come back.”

So we did this, and when we came back into the kitchen, we found the Hungarian cooks having a bath in the soup kettles, as they called them.

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SU: Presumably they stand about the height of armchairs, and they could actually get in them.

MG: Oh, they stand higher than that- about the height of that chair.

SU: And would they have hot water in them - not the soup.

MG: Oh yes, they weren't in the soup. They were in the hot water. The soup was made in them the next day.

SU: Who washed them out?

MG: Oh yes, they washed them out. We don't know was the most surprised when we went in.

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SU: It was nice that you had some good laughs among all the other things. When you went, you said there were eight nurses, How many doctors were there?

MG: They did get a few more, but when we first went in, it was 32 Casualty Clearing station, and they only had 8 casualty nurses until they recruited some more.

They recruited a whole load of medical students, from London, and they were flown out.

Eventually they were some German nurses, and some Swiss nurses.

SU: And how many people were there working with you on the feeding side?

MG: I can't remember now. We were might have four, and then there would be Polish staff.

SU: There was so much work to be done by so few people.

MG: Yes, I suppose so, but you coped...I don't know.

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SU: How big an area was Belsen? And they talk about the camp? I mean, was it the size of a small town?

MG: No it was part of a village, a little village called Bergen-Belsen.

It was the wooden barracks packed to the roof with corpses when we got there.

But we didn't, at the beginning when we got there, go into the camp itself.

Some of us did.

But on the 21st of May, I think it was, when they were all out, they burnt it to the ground with flame throwers - and were all at that ceremony.

SU: Was that symbolic of ending all of what it stood for, or was it sheer practical hygiene?

MG: Sheer practical hygiene in one way; and also it helped symbolically from the other point of view. From the British point of view.

SU: Thank you very much.

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