This week in 1945, the Durham Light Infantry were among the first to reach one of the most appalling scenes of the Nazis' inhumanity: Bergen-Belsen. Flaminia Luck tells of the sights that greeted them and why we must never forget the Holocaust

SEVENTY-THREE years ago this week, members of the Durham Light Infantry were liberating one of the most infamous and deadly concentration camps of the Second World War: Bergen-Belsen.

The camp was the final stop for approximately 50,000 people, including 15-year-old Anne Frank, and so Bergen-Belsen has become synonymous with the sufferings of the victims of the Third Reich.

Known as one of the most notorious chapters of the Holocaust, few people know of the role of the DLI in the liberation of the camp and how a force that included local men played a part in such a historic event.

Situated near Hanover in north-western Germany, Bergen-Belsen was the first of the main concentration camps to fall into British hands. As a result of this, the reports that were broadcast from within Bergen-Belsen were some of the first to demonstrate to the world the extent of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity. The details of the accounts exhibit the reality of the industrialized mass murder of more than six million people and the lengths the Nazi leadership went to in order to create their New Order. Memories of this exposure still haunt the psyche of the British people and form a part of our collective consciousness as a nation. Bergen-Belsen’s liberation confirmed to those back home that Allied involvement in the Second World War had been justified as a war of the triumph of good over evil.

It is 73 years since the first members of the Allies’ 11th Armoured Division occupied the Bergen-Belsen camp complex on April 15, 1945. They were completely overwhelmed with the magnitude of the situation they discovered and called for extra help. The 5th Battalion of the DLI responded, travelling 230 miles in less than 24 hours to reach Bergen-Belsen on April 18. This collection of men from across the North-East, formerly ordinary civilians who had worked as miners, shipyard workers, steel workers, office staff, could never have imagined the horrors they were about to witness.

Established in 1940, Bergen-Belsen was a detention camp turned into a concentration camp. Its prisoners were held in one of five sub-camps, depending on their background. For example, the Star camp housed Jews, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who perished there in March 1945.

At its peak, the camp complex interned approximately 60,000 Jews, homosexuals, Roma, prisoners of war, political prisoners, “asocials”, Jehovah’s Witnesses and criminals. Estimates record approximately 500 deaths per day in the days preceding and following liberation. Liberating forces discovered approximately 13,000 corpses scattered across the complex with soldiers finding it difficult to distinguish between the living and the dead.

Conditions within the camp were deliberately merciless with the extreme density of people providing the perfect breeding ground for diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, typhus and dysentery. Sanitation was virtually non-existent providing an accelerant for these diseases. Lack of basic food and water supply created widespread malnutrition and starvation.

Between May 1943 and April 1945, roughly 37,000 prisoners died inside the camp’s walls, and as the course of the war worsened for the Axis powers, so their desperation heightened and March 1945 – the last full month –18,000 prisoners lost their lives.

Liberating forces had the responsibility of saving anyone physically strong enough to survive. They also had the sickening task of moving and burying the bodies of the dead.

The DLI members were praised for their restraint. They carried out their appalling job with great dignity, and there are no reports, unlike from other camps, of them exacting revenge on the guards, or allowing guns to fall into the hands of the prisoners for them to settle scores.

Once the liberators had done enough to assist the living and deal with the dead, the forces burnt the camp to prevent it being the seat of a typhus epidemic and also as a symbolic gesture of liberation.

The tragedy of Bergen-Belsen cannot be accurately described and we will never be able to fully comprehend the horrors that the men of the DLI witnessed.

We will never be able to understand the monstrosities that ordinary men from the North-East found upon arrival at the camp and how those experiences stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

Often we might feel distanced from the events of the Holocaust as it happened in a different time and in a different country. Knowing that local lads from our region were some of the first to personally witness some of its worst monstrosities is a sobering reminder of what people are capable of.

I work as an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, a charity committed to remembering the victims of the Holocaust and how their memory should influence society today. I am also from County Durham and I am proud of the region’s role in liberating Bergen-Belsen. The resilience, resolve and sheer bravery of the soldiers who witnessed the unthinkable reminds us of the power of ordinary people and what they are capable of in the most desperate of times.

In a time of racial tension and divisive rhetoric in which immigrants, refugees or simply people who look differently to us are demonised, we should think of what happened during the Holocaust and what we, as ordinary people, are equally capable of achieving when our fellow brothers and sisters are in need.

Flaminia Luck is 19. A former pupil at Durham High, she is from Gainford and is now a history student at King’s College London. Her work as an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust has taken her to places such the Jewish Quarter in Budapest, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem and the Cabinet Office in Whitehall where she addressed MPs on the work of the Trust and contemporary relevance of remembering the Holocaust.