Bergen-Belsen’s Information Centre
Suzanne Bardgett, director of the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, reports on this ambitious new facility which opened in October.
Bergen-Belsen was a prisoner of war camp for Russian POWs; an ‘exchange camp’ where privileged Jews were held pending possible exchanges; a reception camp for thousands of concentration camp prisoners from the East who were force-marched or transported out of the path of the Russian troops in 1945; and finally a DP (Displaced Persons) Camp in the German Wehrmacht barracks in the immediate vicinity for Jewish survivors from 1945 until 1950.
The project team’s aim was to explain the history of the site and to restore to it the memory of those who had suffered there. The finished product suggests that in the creative tussle which often accompanies such endeavours, it was the historians, rather than the designers, who retained the upper hand. The display is austere in the extreme – almost clinical – but somehow right for the situation: at the very place where so many died, anything overly didactic or ‘design-heavy’ would not have been right.
A long, narrow concrete-faced building takes the visitor on a journey through the experiences of the different prisoner-groups. Showcases sunk in the floor display a variety of archaeological finds – shoes, mugs, forks – reminding us from the outset that this now mainly wooded area was once a place of intense human activity. A row of monitors with testimony from former prisoners provides an introduction which culminates in two huge windows looking onto the former Appellplatz. On the return route a series of three-sided alcoves lined with showcases offers a vast amount of documentation – letters, drawings, official camp memoranda and registration papers, photographs, and tiny mementoes. An overarching storyline is there, but – far from the ‘thumping narrative’ of many exhibitions – it is a quiet, intense voice which draws the visitor right into the impressive range of documentation that the organizers have found.