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Belsen-One Man's Journey

by CSV Action Desk

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Archive List > World > Germany

Contributed by 
CSV Action Desk
People in story: 
Arthur Lesley Robbins
Location of story: 
Belsen - Germany
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A4469475
Contributed on: 
16 July 2005

This story was submitted to The Peoples War website by Lawrence Robbins in memory of my grandfather Arthur Lesley Robbins, quite possibly the kindest man I ever knew. Even though he is no longer with us, I feel his story must be told. What follows is based on research, evidence, and family history.

To some he was known as a good father and husband, but to me he will always be known as grampy. He never mentioned his experiences during the war, but like all those who survived it, I was sure he had a tail to tell.
At some point between the years of 1944 and 1945 LAC Gunner Arthur Lesley Robbins served in the European theatre, in the countries of France and Germany, where he received the Air Defence Medal for his actions.
Belsen was a concentration camp located between the villages of Bergen and Belsen near Hanover in Northwest Germany, housing French and Belgium prisoners of war. The camp was split into eight sections, a detention camp, two women’s camps, a special camp, neutrals camps, "star" camp mainly Dutch prisoners who wore a Star of David on their clothing instead of the camp uniform), Hungarian camp and a tent camp.
While Belsen contained no, gas chambers, more than 35,000 people died of starvation, overwork, disease, brutality and sadistic medical experiments.
By April 1945 more than 60,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Belsen in two camps located 1.5 miles apart. However the exact figure will never be determined.
On April 15th 1945 members of the British Royal Artillery 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment liberated Belsen and the subsequent relief operation which followed was directed by Brigadier H. L. Glyn-Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of the Second Army.
I have know idea how Gramps or his regiment came to be there, all I can determine is that they were part of what became known as “the clean up operation”. He took pictures of the guard towers and furnaces where unimaginable horrors took place. And also of rows of men digging mass graves to bury the dead, to try and halt the onset of Typhus and dysentery.
Judging by the pictures he took I get the feeling he had to help out with this operation, and years on it deeply affected him. Even when I was growing up I noticed he was a quiet and reflectful man, surrounded deep in his own thoughts, until now I never knew why.
Today all that remains of the camp are burial mounds and a memorial plaque, but until this day no trees are said to grow there. And like my grandfather and other people who he served with. The only question I find myself asking is why.

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Message 1 - Re: Belsen - One Man's Journey

Posted on: 17 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Lawrence

Your grandfather would have had three medals, rather than one: the 1939-45 Star, the France and Germany Star, and the Defence Medal - there is, however, no such decoration as the 'Air Defence Medal'. His service in France would have been from D-Day 6 June 1944, at the very earliest, unless he was in the Dieppe Raid of 19 August 1942 (but most unlikely from the unit he was in); there were no British Troops in France between June 1940 and June 1944.

I read your description of Belsen with interest and I share your horror of it. Could I, however, respectfully clear up one or two points.

The location of Bergen-Belsen was 11 miles north of Celle. The complex was initially used as a prisoner of war camp and held about 600 Belgian and French PoWs (this was Stalag 311), but this was before 1941. In July 1941, it was expanded and 20,000 Russian PoWs were brought to it. It was from then that it began its slow but steady slide into a chamber of horrors. The Russians were sifted and all commissars sent to Auschwitz for immediate execution (murder, I think, being a more correct word). But they were perhaps lucky, for by February 1942, only 2,097 of the Russian PoWs survived in Belsen (euphemistically then still called Stalag 311), the rest had starved to death.

In July 1943 it was opened up as a concentration camp for Jews, from then on holding an average of 95,000 prisoners. As you say, there were no gas chambers in Belsen, Jews were simply worked to death through gruellingly harsh forced labour. Belsen was also, surprisingly, used as a transit camp for Jews that the Germans intended to barter. Martin Gilbert in "The Holocaust - The Jewish Tragedy" records, regarding some Jews from Salonika who happened to be Spanish subjects that "[In February 1943]... the Spanish government intervened. Instead of being sent to Birkenau, all 367 Spanish subjects were transferred by train to the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. There, they were exempted from forced labour, and six months later, were sent to Spain, and to safety". These more fortunate inmates wore their own clothes with the obligatory Star of David, but all others were further stripped of their dignity by having to wear coarse striped prison garb and, of course, the Star of David. You also mention death by "sadistic medical experiments", but I am not aware that any were carried out at Belsen.

Dutch Jews were indeed sent there, and Belsen is the hell hole in which Anne Franks died. Nor were all Jews so fortunate as the Sephardi Jews saved by the Spanish - on 23 October 1943, to reduce overcrowding, 1,750 Polish Jews were sent from Belsen to Birkenau, a camp of the vast Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, and immediately gassed. But it worked both ways, at the end of October 1944 the gassing of Jews ended at Birkenau and many of the survivors were sent by train or marched to Belsen to die there; the first of the death-marches, as they came to be known. Anne Frank's mother Edith died in Birkenau, after the gassing stopped, in January 1945, but Anne had been taken from Birkenau to Belsen in October with her older sister, both to perish there. I mention these facts because it was mainly Jews who died at Belsen, some 35,000 to 50,000, the exact figure will be never known.

For a fuller history of Belsen go here: www.scrapbookpages.com/BergenBelsen/BergenBelsen01.htmlAbout links

Best regards,

Peter

 

Message 2 - Re: Belsen - One Man's Journey

Posted on: 17 July 2005 by CSV Action Desk

Dear Peter,

Thankyou for clearing up some of the points in my account. I often wondered about the background behind these medals so thankyou for clearing that up. The evidence regarding the Air defence medal I gained from my grandfathers service and release book, form 2520A where it states in the decorations section, (Air Defence Medal), so maybe the guy writing it filled the form in wrong.
As for the dates, again, I had to go on the evidence at hand. Which isn't much. I do however, have pictures that he took at the camp, which I will post with the story as soon as I can get my hands on some equipment. I just wanted a little piece of him to be immortalised in a short story. Thanks for the info.

Kind Regards,
Lawrence.

 

Message 3 - Re: Belsen - One Man's Journey

Posted on: 17 July 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Lawrence

Thank you too for your story, I do agree that it is important to keep these memories alive. Your grandfather must have seen enough in that dreadful place to give him nightmares for life.

As for medals, you may find my webpage on them here http://www.petergh.f2s.com/medals.htmAbout links of interest.

Best wishes
Peter

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