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SSAFA remembers liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp
15 April 2020 marks 75 years since British forces liberated the German concentration camp. Here SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity shares some of the survivors’ stories …
With the outbreak of COVID-19 monopolising headlines, SSAFA is aiming to ensure that pivotal moments in the history of our nation are not forgotten. Two women have re-told their stories to SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, to help keep those memories alive and ensure that no one forgets the horrors suffered by those in the camp, but also to celebrate the actions of the heroic British soldiers on the day of the liberation.
In 1944, Renee Salt (pictured) was forced out of her home in Poland, sent to live in two different ghettos, then later moved to her first concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Later, in 1945, she was force-marched to Bergen-Belsen at just 15 years old. Her mother was also sent to Bergen-Belsen, but they were separated on arrival.
‘When I first got to Belsen,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think I would survive. It was so terrible, it was worst of all the camps – I was in Auschwitz as well – but of all the camps, I thought this was the worst. Everywhere else, I hoped maybe we would survive, we would find someone from our families, but once we were in Belsen, I gave up all hope of surviving.’
After the liberation of the camp on 15 April 1945, Renee was taken to a makeshift hospital, but unfortunately nearly 14,000 prisoners died from starvation and disease, including her mother.
After leaving Bergen-Belsen, she found members of her family and moved to Paris. Years later, she met and married a British soldier, who had been a liberator of the very camp in which she had been imprisoned.
Mady Gerrard, 90
Mady Gerrard (pictured with portrait of Lieutenant John Randall) lived in Hungary, but her country was invaded by Germany in March 1944 and she was taken to Auschwitz on 8 July. Like Renee, she was force-marched from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in January 1945 as a prisoner – she was almost 15 by this time.
‘There was no sanitation, no showers,’ she says. ‘We were put into a barracks, with no furniture, lying on the floor with very little food. We got thinner and thinner and thinner. Then we started to die by the dozen.’
On 15 April 1945, British soldiers entered the gates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for the first time. Lieutenant John Randall, an SAS man, and his driver, Corporal Brown, were the first to enter the camp. Mady saw him arrive. Knowing he was her hope of survival, she went and spoke to him. Decades later, she found him and became friends with her liberator.
After the liberation, Mady lived in Sweden and Hungary before she and her daughter moved to Cardiff.
Says SSAFA director Lisa Shattock, ‘Now, more than ever, it could be easy to forget these turning points in our military history as we focus on this new, invisible enemy that threatens us all. But the harrowing tales that we have collated from survivors of Bergen-Belsen must be remembered and shared. It is only through keeping this conversation alive that we can ensure that the events of the past are never repeated.
’These accounts hold a great personal connection for me, as a proud member of the Jewish community, however there are lessons of determination and bravery in the face of danger that we all can draw from now during this time of fear and uncertainty. We thank our military for their brave role in liberating these camps.’
SSAFA has been there for the Armed Forces community for more than 135 years. Help us to support the men, women and families of the military whenever they need us – click here
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