Former Wehrmacht barracks in Belsen: Open-air emergency hospital, 27 April 1945. Photo by Sgt. Oakes. Imperial War Museum, London, Photograph Archive, BU 4844.
The Polish DP Camp
In early September 1945, there were still over 10,000 gentile Poles living in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Prior to the liberation, they had been forced labourers, POWs or concentration camp prisoners. These DPs refused to go back to Poland because they opposed the communist regime that the Soviet Union had imposed in Warsaw. Though the government in Warsaw wanted to encourage the DPs to return quickly, the Polish Government-in-Exile in London warned the DPs against this.
Everyday life in the Polish DP camp was largely self-governed by a camp committee. A vibrant social, cultural and religious life developed. Nursery schools, schools and professional training courses were set up, and a daily Polish information bulletin was soon replaced by the DP camp’s own weekly paper. The cultural and athletic activities in the camp included choirs and orchestras, art exhibitions, a cabaret troupe, football teams and track-and-field competitions.
Nonetheless, the DPs’ memories of their persecution were ever present. The Polish camp committee established a department for documenting Nazi crimes, and in November 1945, during a Catholic Mass attended by thousands of DPs, it had a large wooden cross erected in the grounds of the former concentration camp.
In September 1946, the British military authorities dissolved the Polish DP camp at Bergen-Belsen and transferred its remaining inhabitants to other DP camps in the British Zone. Around two thirds of the Polish DPs in the British Zone returned to Poland, while the rest tried to emigrate primarily to the USA or Canada.