Guest Blogger Karianne Hansen: 'Describing Concentration Camps' (Part Two)


Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in Lower Saxony, received world-wide attention as Allied footage revealed its dreadful and inhumane conditions, as well as being the place in which young Anne Frank perished together with her sister Margot. First and foremost, there is close to nothing left of the original camp structure, so what we are faced with is a mammoth area surrounded by woods, open fields and mass graves. This is the ‘space’ in which the exhibitions are to prepare us for.

All photographs with permission of Karianne Hansen

The documentation centre is divided into three sections, two of which we visited: ‘The Wehrmacht POW Camps 1939-1945’ and ‘The Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp 1943-1945’. The exhibition is split into different sections dealing with daily life, Belsen’s evolution from an exchange and prisoner of war camp to a literal death camp in the closing year of the war and liberation, the period where a substantial amount of prisoners lost their life to typhus. This gruesome fate is also documented in ‘The Film Tower’, where Allied footage filmed shortly after liberation is shown. The appalling state of the camp was a result of the so-called death marches – the ordered evacuation of all prison camps in the East as the advancing Red Army pushed through German lines. These marches resulted in hundreds of thousands of prisoners pouring into camps in Germany, which in due course led to the complete breakdown of the concentration camp system. There are interviews of former prisoners, sometimes in independent sections, or as a part of an explanation of everyday life or a certain theme. Some items are placed in see-through floor exhibitions. The architecture of the building plays a central role in amplifying the exhibitions through large windows installed at the very end of the room, creating a small panoramic view of the former camp area, instantly connecting the museum to the historical site. In a sense, I experienced the feeling of realness; it all happened out there.

As we moved through the vast area of the former camp site, moving in the direction of the monuments and graves I noticed a rather peculiar shiny construction to the left of the road – the ‘House of Silence’. As the name implies, it is a building in which one can sit down and reflect, or maybe just feel. All that is in there are a couple of chairs and a big triangle rock covered in stones, written messages and other symbolic elements left behind by visitors. I found this to be extremely touching and a superb idea; it forces people to re-think why they are here thus elevating the experience to something more personal. Among some of the messages someone had written “You changed my life!” It goes to show that there are constructive meanings behind such a visit.