January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to reflect upon the terrible injustices of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, and to remember the millions of people whose lives were taken from them.
In 1986, Norwich born James Gosling was interviewed as part of an oral history project that aimed to capture the memories of Norwich residents. During his interviews, Mr Gosling shared his first-hand experiences of assisting with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northern Germany.
The Holocaust was a mass genocide that occurred during the Second World War, under the leadership of the German Nazi party. With antisemitism at the core of their beliefs, when the Nazi party assumed power in 1933, they began a systematic attempt to expel Jews from German society. The leader of the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler viewed the world as being separated into high and low races. In his view, German people belonged to the higher race, while Jews, along with Slavic people, people with physical or mental disabilities, and many others were cast as inferior.
Beginning with antisemitic propaganda, the persecution increased radically. It progressed into far more extreme measures at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and approximately two million Polish Jews were subjected to forced labour and violence. Shortly after the occupation, Polish Jews were confined to ‘ghettos’, where poor living conditions were part of the deliberate attempts by the Nazi party to cause deaths amongst the Jewish population. In 1941, the Nazi party began to systematically mass murder people, establishing more than 1,000 extermination camps and concentrations camps. Nearly six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust.
On 15 April 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen. Originally established as an ‘exchange camp’, where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas, Bergen-Belsen developed into a concentration camp and was used as a collection centre for survivors of death marches. Horrendous overcrowding, disease, and a lack of food, water, or basic sanitation led to mass death. When British forces arrived, they were faced with thousands of unburied bodies, and some 60,000 people who were starving and mortally ill.
In 1945 James Gosling was stationed in northern Germany, in the town of Lüneburg, and in the Harz mountains. He assisted with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and describes his experiences of witnessing the camp itself, as well as the subsequent relief efforts.
Until their liberation in 1945, the existence of concentration and extermination camps was not widely known amongst allied troops. In this clip, Mr Gosling describes the first instance in which he heard about the existence of the camps, and the disbelief that he and his fellow soldiers felt about the claims.
He describes visiting the camp itself, recalling how he was not permitted to enter but only work from the perimeter due to the diseases, primarily typhus, that were rife within the grounds.
Following the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Mr Gosling describes assisting with the continued relief worked led by the allied forces from within the surrounding districts. With the end of the war still a fresh wound to Germany, and perhaps due to a shortage of supplies, Mr Gosling recounts a level of resistance from German civilians to cooperate with the allied forces during this period. He describes enforcing civilian support for the relief effort, for the donation of food, clothing, and shelter.
In this clip, he describes an incident when he encountered a broken-down coach that was supposed to be transporting liberated prisoners. He describes the efforts of his unit to ensure that the liberated prisoners were fed and given shelter within the town while the coach was repaired.
The liberation of Bergen-Belsen was documented in both film and photographs, and in this clip, Mr Gosling describes how allied forces held screenings of the footage to be watched by German civilians. The initial lack of voluntary interest to attend these screenings, and the levels of disbelief amongst German civilians at the existence of the camps, led the allied troops to hold further screenings of the footage, enforcing mandatory viewings.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a time to reflect upon the horrors of the Holocaust, ensuring that the suffering and loss of life continues to be commemorated by current and new generations. It seeks to encourage us to learn from the past, and recognise the foundations of discrimination, racism, and hatred which fuelled the powers behind the Holocaust to grow. First-hand accounts of the Holocaust are particularly important in conveying this message.
The interviews of James Gosling are archived at the Norfolk Record Office and have been digitally preserved and catalogued by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the project is a collaboration between the British Library, the Norfolk Record Office and nine other regional hubs throughout the United Kingdom.
For more information about Holocaust Memorial Day, please visit: