Cannibalism, drowning, and crucifixion: just some of the horrors described in first-hand accounts of British people’s experiences at the hands of the Nazis during World War Two which were released on Thursday in the UK.
The long-sealed testimonies — contained in applications that UK nationals made to a Anglo-German Nazi Persecution Compensation scheme between 1964 and 1965 — also reveal the struggle of many of those who suffered to meet the strict criteria necessary to get renumeration.
Out of 4,206 people who applied for compensation, only 1,015 were successful. Many were subjected to months or even years of questioning about their experiences or backgrounds before being refused.
The accounts given included one from Harold Le Druillenec, who was the only British survivor of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for 10 months. Le Druillenec went on to give evidence at the Belsen Trials.
He wrote: “All my time here was spent in heaving dead bodies into the mass graves kindly dug for us by ‘outside workers’ for we no longer had the strength for that type of work which, fortunately, must have been observed by the camp authorities.
“Jungle law reigned among the prisoners; at night you killed or were killed; by day cannibalism was rampant.
“The bulk of Auschwitz had been transferred to Belsen when I arrived and it was here that I heard the expression: ‘There is only one way out of here — through the chimney,'” he said, referring to the crematorium and gas chambers.
He recalled different “means of putting inmates to death includ[ing] beating, drowning, crucifixion, hanging in various stances etc,” and said attempted suicide “was a major crime for the choice of means of death was not ours, and as there was no privacy at all I cannot recall a single successful suicide.” More than 70,000 people died at the Bergen-Belsen camp between 1941 and 1945.
Le Druillenec lost half his body weight during his imprisonment and suffered the after effects of dysentery, scabies, malnutrition, and septicaemia for alsmost a year after his release. He eventually awarded compensation to the value of £1,835 ($2,637, around £30,000/$43,000 today) by the Foreign Office.
One applicant, Albert Slack was a private in the 4th Royal Berkshire regiment when he was taken prisoner in May 1940 and imprisoned in various camps, including the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp where he was forced to dig graves. After being freed and returning home he was “hard to get on with” and his family did not want anything to do with him, according to his file. He was awarded £340 ($488, worth around £6,000/$8,625 today) in compensation for the loss of a finger.
Those who were refused compensation included Lieutenant Bertram James, a British officer who was involved in the celebrated “great escape” from the Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war campStalag Luft III. James was told by UK officials that he did not suffer “the inhuman and degrading treatment of a concentration camp proper.” His case was later picked up by the British parliament and press, and eventually he received £1,192 ($1,713, worth around £21,600/$31,000 today).
Another person refused compensation was naturalized Briton Elizabeth Spira, who was imprisoned at a Czech camp at Theresienstadt. She described horrible scenes at that camp, where she said children “could not eat for fear [of] what we will do with them, as they had seen their parents never came out any more.”
She said: “We tried to clean [the children] in the bathhouse. They refused to go in and they held on to the door handle, when we tried to carry them in. In the end, I took the smallest child, we went into the bathhouse, gave [the child] a good hot bath… soon [the children] recovered completely only to be sent back… to be gassed.”
The money was awarded from a pot of £1 million ($1.44 million) given to the UK by the German government for victims of Nazi persecution — which was defined by the UK Foreign Office as “illegal detention in a concentration camp or comparable place for the purpose of the infliction of deliberate and organised suffering, torture, or extermination in furtherance of Nazi ideology.”
Criteria used included physical disability resulting from the detention and how long the person had been held.
Many applicants were refused because they were either not British citizens at the time of the persecution or held dual nationality. Others were refused because they were soldiers and thus legally interned as prisoners of war, or because the Foreign Office deemed them to have experienced a case of suffering, but not persecution.