Belsen survivors remember day that shocked the world

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The Independent Online

Ruth Turek, aged 77, stood outside the gates of the Nazis' former Belsen concentration camp and fought back tears as she recalled the moment British soldiers freed her from a "living hell" of starvation, death and disease 60 years ago to the day.

Ruth Turek, aged 77, stood outside the gates of the Nazis' former Belsen concentration camp and fought back tears as she recalled the moment British soldiers freed her from a "living hell" of starvation, death and disease 60 years ago to the day.

"We didn't believe it was happening," said Mrs Turek, a former Polish citizen who lives in the United States. "The British soldiers seemed to me like angels from heaven at the time. We were starving and they brought us food."

Mrs Turek was one of more than 150 Belsen survivors from Britain, America, Canada and Israel who returned to the site of the camp to mark the anniversary yesterday. Many described their ordeal to German schoolchildren. An estimated 70,000 prisoners died at Belsen. Although the camp was never officially a death camp, it was used as a dumping ground for Jews from throughout Europe during the closing stages of the Second World War. Its victims included Anne Frank, the Dutch Jewish girl who wrote a diary of her persecution by the Nazis.

By the time the camp was liberated by the British in April 1945, it housed thousands of emaciated and lice-ridden prisoners who had become too weak to work. Huge numbers had been left to die of starvation and disease. There was no running water, many of the inmates had only blankets for clothes and the camp was plagued by typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis.

British Army film of soldiers bulldozing thousands of stick-like corpses into mass graves at the camp shocked the world and brought home the barbarity of the Nazi regime for the first time. Until that stage of the war there had been no images of what had happened in the camps.

Mrs Turek lost all her family in the death camps. She was subjected to brutal medical experiments while in the Auschwitz camp and worked as a slave labourer before being sent to Belsen at the end of the war. When British troops entered the camp she was lying in a barrack-room dormitory that was packed with the bodies of the sick, the dying and the dead.

"I had seen so much suffering that to be honest I didn't dare go out for the first hour," she said. "I know it sounds strange, but I felt I had no right to be free." Major Dick Williams, 84, one of the first British Army officers to enter Belsen, recalled how ashen-faced people "seemed to hang on the barbed wire" of the fences as the troops drove intothe camp. "It was dreadful. There is no adequate way to describe what I saw," he said.

The British broadcaster Richard Dimbleby reported from Belsen that he passed into a nightmare on entering the camp. "Dead bodies, some of them in decay, lay strewn about the road and along the rutted track," he said in a BBC radio report. "There were faces at the windows, the bony, emaciated faces of starving women too weak to come outside. This day at Belsen was the most horrible in my life."

Fran Laufer-Lack, 74, a Polish survivor, said she had flown from America to go back to the camp for the first time since her release aged 14. Like so many others at Belsen, she lost nearly all her relatives. "I had to come back," she said. "I did it for the sake of my family - to show them that I survived."

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