Monday, 23 January 2012

Entering Belsen, a personal account

On clearing out my study, I found a photocopy of a letter written to my grandparents which had been circulated to all my siblings.  In crabbed writing Vincent Fay, my Great Uncle and a British Army chaplain of 9th British General Hospital and one of the Relief/Liberation staff sent to Bergen-Belsen relives the horrors of the camp.  Stretching across the years, this letter brings to life the reality of Belsen with heart-breaking immediacy.  A picture of Vincent christening a child born in Belsen can be found in the Imperial War Museum archives.

Vincent Fay, baptising a child born in Belsen

Rev V M Fay CF
No 9 (Br) General Hospital 

09 May 1945

Dear Hugh and Anne

It seems ages since I wrote to you but by now you will know the reason.  Believe me the horrors which one reads about in Belsen camp are not exaggerated.  There were some 60,000 internees mostly in camp 1, the “horror” camp.  Of these 40,000 were sick in camp 1 and altogether 4,000 have died.  At present there are 5,000 sick in camp 1, and 8,000 have been removed to the hospital area, the former German barracks adjoining the horror camp.  Conditions in the camp 1 were indescribable.  If an internee were ill he died of starvation.  All are suffering from malnutrition except a few who worked in the cookhouse and looked after themselves.  If a patient was too weak or listless or merely indifferent to get out of bed to answer the needs of nature well, it was just too bad.  Nobody cleaned him up.  The huts contained as many beds as possible, tiers of three, packed in series of six, sometimes twelve, sometimes twenty four.  However a wonderful improvement has taken place. Typhus is still very prevalent and almost all other diseases, especially TB and dysentery.   The dead were thrown out into the road and afterwards thrown into a pit and to some extent still are.  People died as they walked or stumbled about... of enough of these horrors.  Father Morrison of the CCS who came here very early on told me of this incident which happened a couple of days ago.  He was about to give Holy Communion to a woman who was wearing a short undervest and nothing else.  Suddenly as he was about about to give her Holy Communion she seized a handkerchief and put it on her head!

The internees are being gradually transferred to hospital quarters and the huts the occupied are being burnt down.

Well we tried to celebrate VE day but it was hard to do much with 5,000 patients to look after. All sorts of people are here.  Internees of every nationality especially Poles, Russians, Beho-Slovacs and many Jews.  Hungarians guard the camp.  Russians help, Germans also (a German hospital staff arrived today).  The best part of the work in my opinion is being done by 100 medical students who are caring for the internees in the huts.   5 minutes is enough for me but they are in all day.  I believe some of them are cracking up now.

My work does not consist in going into the huts; Father Morrison and some foreign priests do that, but I do the hospital especially giving a general absolution and Holy Communion.  Well things are improving enormously, thank God.

We are living on the fat of the land as regards drinks, champagne twice this weeks, wine tonight etc.  But I would give a lot for a decent substantial meal; one of ma’s Sunday dinners; food is rather short here.  We had a sort of bonfire last night to celebrate the peace, a little affair, and but the beginning of the fun.  There were several sore heads this morning and blank memories as to what had happened.

Well, cheerio and thank God for peace,

Yours ever


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