Wednesday, September 02, 2009

After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945

On April 15, 1945, the first British tanks entered Bergen-Belsen. Inside the concentration camp were piles of dead bodies and 60,000 people--more than half of them Jewish survivors of the Nazi Final Solution. They were still clinging to life and crying out to be saved. Shephard, a documentary filmmaker and historian, notes that it fell to the British to help them. This book is about how they responded to that challenge. He observes that the role played by 96 volunteers from London medical schools who were sent to the camp was lauded, but when historians looked at this event again in the 1990s, they noticed several disturbing elements. Why did it take so long (almost two weeks) to organize a proper medical response? Why were the medical teams sent to the camp so poorly equipped, with only aspirin and opium, and no surgical instruments and anesthetics? Above all, was it inevitable that nearly 14,000 people should die thereafter it was liberated? The answers, Shephard writes, can be found in contemporary military records, diaries, and the testimony of survivors. He concludes that it is a moving story of brotherhood, a sad tale of human frailty, and an illuminating case study. Sixty years later, the author offers readers a precise sense of what went on in the camp day by day. He believes that Bergen-Belsen should be remembered not simply for the evil perpetrated there but for the humane and life-affirming work that was done.

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