- Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp by Mark Celinscak
It is well known that Canadians were among the troops who liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, as well as among the nurses and charity workers who aided in the mammoth undertaking of treating the survivors. But until now, no one has offered an in-depth analysis of who these Canadians were, how they came to be at Belsen, and what they did while there. Mark Celinscak does a valuable service in correcting this oversight. Although the story he tells is in general a familiar one to scholars who have focused on Belsen after its liberation, the detail he provides offers stimulating reading and a great deal of new information. His book is yet again proof that much new material on the Holocaust remains to be discovered, and that even the best-known parts of the history hold secrets yet to be uncovered.
Celinscak’s book is most successful when the author discusses the individuals who were at Belsen, whether as soldiers, nurses, war artists, military chaplains, or photographers. Their stories are deeply researched. The people described in the book do not exist as names only: they all come with full details of their biographies, their writings, and their other activities. The level of research here is impressive: Celinscak has talked with relatives, tracked down family archives, and obtained obscure publications. We learn, for example, of Canadian artist Lieutenant Alex Colville, the only one of the three Canadian war artists officially instructed to depict the camp. Celinscak discusses Colville’s images sensitively and trenchantly, providing plentiful information on the artist’s career trajectory and response to the camp. The author also introduces us to Lyle Creeman, the Canadian who became chief nurse of the British Zone of occupied Germany with UNRRA. Creeman’s thoughts on the necessity of employing German nurses in the camp provide much insight into the exigencies of the situation. The same is true for numerous individuals discussed in the book: Celinscak is a sure guide to their backgrounds and positions as well as to their reactions to what they encountered. [End Page 551]
The book is organized thematically. The first chapter provides a methodological reflection—to which I will return—on the use of narrative and autobiography as sources. The next five chapters, which form the real focus of the book, concern the military occupation of the camp; the first days after liberation; the reinforcements and other visitors who came to Belsen during the following weeks and months; the activities of the war artists and photographers; and the work of medics and military chaplains in offering “relief” to the survivors as they were transformed into Displaced Persons. In addition to discussing well-known figures such as Brigadier Hugh Llewellyn Glynn Hughes or Chaplain Leslie Hardman, the author focuses on a wide range of lesser-known figures whose presence at the camp is less familiar, if equally well documented. His conclusion that the role played by Canadians was indispensable is incontrovertible.
With respect to the military takeover of the camp, for example, Celinscak does a fine job of reconstructing the movements of the various units from several divisions that were present at Belsen at the time of liberation or shortly thereafter. He shows that men from the Special Air Service (SAS) entered the camp before the arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Taylor and the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, and that simultaneously with the latter’s arrival, men from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion also arrived at the scene—the first Canadians to do so. With respect to the war artists, Celinscak provides detailed biographies, explains how they came to be in Belsen, and analyzes the artworks themselves. He writes that the war artists and photographers “operated in a largely conservative, documentary style and avoided embellishment and aggrandizement.” They felt that their work was important, but at...