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“The Sight That Met Us Was Shocking”

Dianne Timblin

BERGEN-BELSEN 1945: A Medical Student’s Journal. Michael John Hargrave. xxii + 92 pp. Imperial College Press, 2013. $42.00 cloth; $17.00 paper.

Imagine your government has called on you to aid civilian war victims. Most of your friends have been off fighting in this war for years while you necessarily remained home. But now is your chance—you jump at the opportunity to help.

Reaching your destination, you learn the stakes of this endeavor. Every day 500 people die in your new workplace. You lack basic medical equipment and sanitary facilities. Typhus and typhoid fever are running rampant through your patient population; the only drugs available to treat them are opium and aspirin. Even those are in scant supply. Your assistants are Hungarian soldiers with whom you share no common language. Your patients have no blankets, hospital gowns, or pillows. In fact, they have no beds. Most are unimaginably malnourished, but they cannot hold down the food you give them. Those healthy enough to react to your presence either recoil from you or plead in a tongue you don’t understand. You haven’t finished your training as a doctor, and this is your first assignment. You are twenty-one years old.

In the above scenario you are Michael John Hargrave, a senior med student at London’s Westminster Hospital Medical School near the end of World War II. Bergen-Belsen 1945 is the diary Hargrave kept while volunteering as one of 96 medics sent to assist with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Celle, Germany.

Bergen-Belsen was unusual in the Nazi camp system. It served various functions until it was designated a concentration camp late in the war. Even then it also functioned for a time as a holding camp: Many internees were prominent Jews who might be exchanged for German prisoners or traded for ransom. Although it was not an extermination camp, Bergen-Belsen became notorious for horrendous conditions that resulted in staggering loss of life, and it remains infamous as Anne and Margot Frank’s place of death.

2014-03NightstandFp154.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThrough a special truce that took effect on April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen and the surrounding area were handed off to the British as fighting continued nearby. Hargrave and his fellow medical students arrived on May 2. For the next month, the London medics provided critical early care for the internees. Each medic was assigned a prison unit—or hut, as they were called—housing anywhere from 200 to 1,000 patients. In many of the huts, including Hargrave’s, the patients lay on the floor, the living and the dead side by side, the two at times nearly indistinguishable.

Despite the dire circumstances and dearth of supplies, Bergen-Belsen 1945 shows Hargrave and his colleagues moving forward with surprising confidence and pragmatism. They separate the living from the dead, they identify the most urgent cases, they locate patients who are comparatively healthy and can speak some English. Then they get down to the bulk of the work. Hargrave proves a deft problem solver who, amid the chores of scouring his hut and judiciously dispensing the paltry pharmaceutical supply, assembles a group of internees and gives them basic nursing training. One is eager to learn English, and he teaches her enough to perform basic translation. This ad hoc nursing team proves invaluable, especially when Hargrave must convert his hut overnight into a functional hospital for 70 gravely ill patients.

Diligent and focused as he may be, Hargrave’s youthful spirits are evident too in this fascinating journal—one he kept, incidentally, to share with his mother. He delights in “liberating” items like wine glasses and decorative tiles from former German officers’ quarters. Meeting girls at a dance hosted for the medics presents a welcome diversion; however, as women are plainly scarce, he looks forward all the more to the rum and gin. Later, while awaiting transport home, he rows around on a raft constructed from beer barrels and competes with his friends in a version of darts that involves throwing bayonets at trees.

At the same time, Hargrave is frank in depicting the grim relief work at Bergen-Belsen, where nothing is straightforward. Lacking supplies of British antibacterial sulfonamides and penicillin (then a new wonder drug), medical teams at Belsen had to discern how to properly administer unfamiliar German sulfa drugs. Treating malnutrition presented an even bigger problem. Ben Shephard, whose lucid, indispensable After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945 illuminates the difficulties that plagued the camp’s liberation, notes, “In the 1940s there was no established clinical approach to dealing with very thin and starving people.”

Despite the medics’ inexperience, evidence suggests their fresh perspective presented some advantages, causing them to reject certain treatments that clearly weren’t working—and with an alacrity absent among their more experienced superiors. When an experimental gruel developed for famine victims proves sickening to patients, the medical students demand swift alterations to the recipe. They are equally vigilant when plasma transfusions became available for patients with malnutritional swelling. Hargrave intervenes on the first day of treatment: “The transfusion people were going to give them each a third bottle but [I] persuaded them not to… I was frightened that 3 pints would overload the heart.” Those administering the transfusions were accustomed to treating well-nourished patients on the battlefield—not internees with hearts reduced to nearly half their normal size because of starvation.

Hargrave’s wry wit crackles here and there throughout his harrowing narrative, and he proves both an alert chronicler and a talented writer. The flight home, he notes, carries him over a war-scarred landscape until there is “nothing else to see…except the Autobahns pointing like long white fingers to the heart of Germany.” The genuineness of Hargrave’s voice, along with the publisher’s decision to produce the diary in facsimile form, allows readers a profound sense of immersion in the material. Handwritten corrections pepper the typescript, and the young medic’s meticulously labeled sketches capture everything from the layouts of the huts to the nature of his patients’ lesions. The format fosters such an intimacy that it’s easy for readers to imagine they’re leafing through Hargrave’s diary pages hot off the typewriter.

Bergen-Belsen 1945 is a remarkable, unforgettable book. Hargrave’s narrative of his efforts to keep his patients alive is as troubling as it is riveting. Powerful too are his moments of discovery, which at times enable readers to encounter the shock of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” anew. Even a country drive is revealing. After an excursion on the eve of his return home, Hargrave notes that “all the German women and children were fair haired and…a dark head was the exception.” Of Bergen-Belsen he adds, “I do not remember seeing a blonde the whole time I was there.”

Dianne Timblin is interim book review editor for American Scientist and author of the poetry chapbook A History of Fire (Three Count Pour, 2013). Her ongoing series of lo-fi collages may be found at Art of Salvage (

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