Bergen-Belsen (Hohne)

The Belsen DP centre was located near the site of the former Bergen Belesn concentration camp in the British occupational zone of Germany. The DP centre was created immediately after the liberation of the camp in May 1945 and its first inhabitants consisted of Bergen Belsen’s former inmates. From November 1945, the camp was exclusively Jewish. With a population reaching in the beginning of 1947 11,000 people, Belsen  was the largest and most prominent of the Jewish DP communities in Germany. After  the former concentrated camp barracks have been emptied and burned down in May 1945, the DPs were housed in the other parts of the camp complex- mainly in the site of the former SS and Wermacht housing and training schools. The British authorities decided to rename the new DP centre ‘Hohne Camp’, but the change was deeply resented by the Jewish community.  Jewish DPs postulated to keep the name of Belsen alive in order to preserve the memory of tragedy of its inmates.

The inhabitants of the camp suffered from acute shortage of food, clothing and housing. The barracks housing DPs were in very bad conditions and, with sometimes over ten people in one room, did not give them any personal space.  The DPs also lacked personal freedom and were often not allowed to leave a heavily guarded camp. All this contributed to common feeling among the survivors of being ‘liberated but not free’. Despite difficulties the camp community quickly organised thriving community life. The first step was the organisation of an extensive educational system to cater for the needs of growing number of children among the camp’s population. The first elementary school was founded in Belsen as early as June 1945. Less than two years later there was already a nursery, children’s home, kindergarten, the Jacob Edelstein Elementary School, two Beth Jacob Girls School (Polish and Hungarian), Yeshiva ‘She’erit Israel’, Hebrew High School, Beth Jacob Seminar, Popular University, workshops and kibbutzim, youth movements and three Halutzhouses. Children were also provided with a variety of extracurricular activities.The cultural life of the camp was  flourishing with the camp’s newspaper- Unser Shtimme (Our Voice), quickly becoming the most important Jewish newspaper in the British zone.

The Jewish DPs in the camp also organised themselves politically. Within a week after liberation a committee to represent Jewish interests in Belsen was set up by a Jewish Polish survivor Josef Rosensaft. The committee had Zionist goals but represented all political groups active among the camps community. Between 25 and 27 September 1945 the first congress of the Jewish survivors in the British zone was held in Belsen. Its participants founded the Central Committee of Liberated Jews- an institution meant to represent the interests of all Jews in the British Zone of occupation. The congress postulated primarily for the opening of the possibility of immigration to Palestine and immediate segregation of Jewish and non-Jewish DP camps. As a consequence, after November 1945, Belsen became the only exclusively Jewish camp in the British zone of Germany. It also decided on ensuring that all DPs under the age of eighteen were in full time study and  on the need of immediate establishing of the training schools in the camp, which would provide vocational skills for young people wishing to emigrate. As a consequence, in November 1945, Dr. Lvovitch, the chairman of the World ORT Union made an agreement with UNRRA which involved setting up as many vocational schools as possible in order to aid the DPs. Within days, twenty nine cases of tools  and forty sewing machines were sent to Belsen. The aim of the ORTs school in Belsen was to on one hand deal with the growing apathy and idleness’ in the camp and on the other equip the students with skills necessary to start successful life abroad. Like in all other DP camps in the early months of  education and training  it was the combination of various welfare and social agencies working together that made any progress possible in Belsen. The ORT school was cooperating with Joint and had part of its technical equipment supplied by the Canadian army.The school was initially part of the Belsen high school that all DPs under the age of eighteen were to attend. In mid 1946 the ORT school moved to its own premises which included four barracks and a canteen. It continue with afternoon courses for high school students but also ran workshops for adults and specially designed classes for members of the kibbutzim who wanted to immigrate to Israel.


In order to attract students to its course ORT installed a large advertising board in the main square of the camp which encouraged DPs to learn a trade. According to a witness, in order to reach greater numbers of potential students, ORT employees: ‘organised public meetings to discuss ‘the future of the young generation’, they made use of the local cinema for appeals to come to the school, they visited absentees in their lodgings and pleaded with the leaders of the kibbutzim and of the Jewish Committee not to send to camp work young people under eighteen so that they might make use of an opportunity for training.’[1]  There were also exhibitions of school's work organised to induce young people's interest in joining the courses. Like in other camps, ORT in Belsen also struggled with an acute shortage of materials and teaching supplies. The organization reported that: 'in the first few months, adequate teaching could not be achieved for the simple reason that every-day requisites such as pencils, scissors, pins and needles were not available.’ [2]


Despite difficulties encountered, in the end of 1947 ORT vocational courses in Belsen were attended by over 300 DPs. Courses offered included  locksmithing, blacksmithing, technical drawing, mathematics, auto mechanics, carpentry, electro engineering, garment cutting, dressmaking, corset making, shoemaking, underwear garment making, cap making, building construction and plumbing. The school's canteen was used for training in cookery and mass catering. ORT's dental technical school in Belsen was regarded to be the best vocational school in the British zone. In 1946 the school enrolled 90 students. The school received materials and instructors from abroad and was very modern and well-equipped. Its director- Maurice Greenman, was brought over from America with the sole purpose of directing the course. Soon after its establishment the school was able to provide dental care to the entire Belsen population. Similarly, students of other courses were involved in the life of the camp. The carpentry shop produced baby cots for the constantly growing number of camps youngest residents, tailoring shop made children's coats which were distributed in camps schools, while underwear making department produced pyjamas for the patients of the camp's hospital. After graduation, many of the former students set up businesses in the camp, serving the needs of the DP population.

The last DPs left Belsen by August 1951. The majority of them immigrated to Israel.


[1] World ORT Archive d06a079: World ORT Union, ORT Vocational School Bergen-Belsen, 1945-1947 (Geneva: World ORT Union, 1947) p.7

[2] World ORT Archive d06a079: World ORT Union, ORT Vocational School Bergen-Belsen, 1945-1947 (Geneva: World ORT Union, 1947) p.10