The Holocaust

Student activity
Task No. 1

Background Information for Students

Muriel Knox Doherty was born in Melbourne in 1896. During World War II she was matron of No. 3 RAAF Hospital Richmond New South Wales. She left active service in the RAAF at her own request on 22 May 1945 to enable her to join the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and participate in its efforts to provide aid to war-ravaged Europe.

She was appointed matron to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany which had just been liberated from the Nazis by the British on 15 April 1945. She arrived on 11 July 1945.

Doherty worked at Belsen for a year, organising the hospital and providing care to the thousands of starved, tubercular and typhoid-ridden internees. She wrote 'Community Letters' from Belsen, to groups of family and friends in the early morning or late at night, often by candlelight, recording her personal insights into Belsen. Her letters record the extraordinary suffering of the inmates and the plight of Displaced Persons tormented by the hopelessness of their situation, many unable or unwilling to return home.

in 1945 Doherty was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal (1st Class) for her work at the camp. During 1946 she worked in nurse education in Poland before returning to Australia where she was active in the advancement of nursing affairs. Muriel Knox Doherty died in 1988 aged 92.


The word 'holocaust' is now used principally to refer to the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis in World War II. The persecution had its roots in centuries of racially based anti-Semitic hatred and propaganda. After Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 it increased into state regulated brutality and eventually an industrialised form of mass slaughter with the intention of completely eradicating certain racial types, especially the Jews, in occupied Europe.


Belsen Concentration Camp was near the village of Bergen in northern Germany, so it is often called Bergen-Belsen. It was originally a military complex, then later a Prisoner of War camp. In April 1943 part of it officially came under the jurisdiction of the concentration camp system run by the SS (Schutzstaffel) but initially it was used only as a holding and transit camp (not a concentration camp).

There is often confusion about the differences between a concentration camp, and an extermination camp, and sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably, which is incorrect. Belsen was never an extermination camp; these were only established in Poland to the East of Germany and are known as Auschwitz/Birkenau, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Treblinka. There were never any gas chamers at Belsen.

Belsen consisted of five satellite camps outside a main camp, each camp used for a different category of internee. The camps were originally used to contain people who might be useful as an exchange for German nationals held by the Allies, as well as to temporarily house people on their way to extermination camps like Auschwitz.

Gradually after March 1944 Belsen became a 'standard' concentration camp. It started receiving the ill and unfit from other labour and concentration camps. Between September and October 1944 Anne Frank and her sister margot were transferred to Belsen.

Towards the end of the war, as the Russians advanced in the East, tens of thousands of prisoners began streaming into Belsen, sent from Auschwitz-Birkenau, Gross-Rosen, Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald. Many more than Belsen could accommodate.

The camp administration did nothing to provide extra housing or food for the prisoners. People were just jammed into existing camp facilities. A typhoid epidemic broke out which killed possibly thiry thousand people in the first months of 1945. Both Anne and her sister died during this outbreak in March 1945.

On 15 April 1945 the British arrived outside the camp and liberated it. At the time there were estimated to be about 60, 000 barely living internees and 10, 000 unburied dead inside. However Belsen, though taken over by the British, was still behind the front lines, and fighting continued in areas around it for three weeks. The Allies had not anticipated having to provide immediate urgent medical aid for tens of thousandsof people and were completely shocked and unprepared; they did what they could with the little they had.

The British formed another camp out of a nearby former Tank Training Ground and set up a hospital there for survivors. It was called Camp II. Gradually they moved the internees from what they called Camp I over to Camp II. Finally, in late May 1945 Camp I was burned to the ground to prevent the further spread of infectious diseases. The Belsen camp referred to after this time is the Belsen Displaced Persons (DP) camp set up by the British because the original Belsen concentration camp was destroyed. The Belsen DP camp continued to be inhabited by Jewish internees until 1951, by which time, unable or unwilling to return to their countries of origin in which they still faced hostility and discrimination, most had immigrated to Israel, the USA or Canada.

Task No. 2

Letters by Muriel Knox Doherty

Folder 1: Letters by Muriel Knox Doherty, May-July 1945 - p7

Transcript: Selection from the Letters of Muriel Knox Doherty sent from Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp MLMSS 442 / Box 11 / Folder11 Community Letter 5 Belsen No. 1 Belsen Camp

... The starving and disease ridden inmates including a number of children had received no food or water for about 7 days after a long period of semi-starvation. Their food had consisted of watery soup, potato and dry bread in very small quantities. The lack of water resulted from the act of sabotage carried out by the Germans during the truce which they had requested for handing over the camp. All camp records were destroyed by the SS Guards during this time. A pump in the yard was found surrounded by 300-400 bodies, piled up where they had fallen in their vain effort to obtain water and whose end was hastened by the rifle butts and lashings of the SS Guards and the sniping of the Hungarian troops.

There were some 25,000 living sick who were dying at the rate of 4% (about 1000) per day. In many huts the living were packed on the floor amongst the dead, often times naked. Owing to illness and despair corpses were often not moved from the bunks which were shared by the living. Louse bourne typhus, diarrhoea and pulmonary tuberculosis in advanced stages were rampant. Excreta was everywhere. Faeces were 6 inches deep on the floors of the huts.

The walls were heavily coated also. Thousands were too ill to move. Those living in the lower of the two-tiered bunks had no protection from the excreta dripping from above. Lice were everywhere. Filth, stench, decomposition and corruption almost beyond comprehension prevailed.

The air was heavily polluted. The weather was hot and the temperature at times was 95° Fahrenheit. Flies abounded.

The work facing the liberators must have at first appeared insurmountable and no praise is too high for those men and women who by their courage, energy, initiative and enthusiasm brought to the survivors of this horror, tragedy and suffering, food and drink, cleanliness and sympathy and some glimmer of hope for the future.

The immediate task on liberation was to provide water and food for the starving. The first small units of British troops who arrived were only able to deliver food from the cookhouses to the doors of the huts, leaving distribution to the inmates. Those who were able to stagger seized what they could. So broken was the morale and so long had existence in the camp depended on 'every man for himself' and the ability of the strongest to secure as much food as he could that many became extremely ill from overeating and numbers died because of this, while large numbers of helpless patients died because there was no-one to feed them. The cries of 'essen, essen' were heart-rending.

The liberators cleared out a large barracks of German Panzer Training School in the neighbourhood - the present Belsen Camp - Parties of armed troops collected from the surrounding country all the equipment necessary for a 7,000 bedded emergency hospital. Col. Johnston's anaesthetist of the 32nd BCC Station was in charge of the collection and distribution of supplies. On the day that this hospital was ready for use the Germans again sabotaged the water supply and delayed transfer.

Before leaving Camp I, all patients who were considered fit to walk were taken to a large building, all clothing removed and burnt - and their bodies cleansed of the gross filth and deloused. As fast as possible women and children were evacuated first and the sick were transported direct from camp to the Human Laundry. I have been told that many internees were horrified on hearing that they were to be taken to the bath, for in the camp of Auschwitz where so many had been before coming to Belsen, those marked for incineration were first given soap and towel, marched to the showers, from which they never returned, for instead of water came lethal gas.

Ambulances conveyed the sick direct from the huts and the 'walking' cases who had received the preliminary cleansing and delousing to the Human Laundry in Camp 3 in the German Barracks area - German nurses supervised by the British were obliged to scrub and cleanse and dust with DDT each one - From 500-900 persons were treated per day -

These poor creatures, some of whom were but skeletons, with only a spark of life within them, were then wrapped in a clean blanket and conveyed in a 'Decontaminated' ambulance to the 'Blocks' as they are called. Here they were placed naked in a clean blanket (there were at this time no clothes) on a straw palliasse on a barracks stretcher where the Sisters and other workers fed them and gave them nursing care.

By May 1st 1945 7,000 sick had been evacuated to the Hospital area, but there were still approxiametly 10,000 persons in Camp 1 requiring urgent medical attention and for whom no hospital accommodation could be provided for some days. The male members of the BRC, RAMC Doctors and British troops and doctors and nurses from among the (Displaced Persons) D.P.s who were fit to work carried on in the intense squalor of the [Main?] Camp, feeding and nursing patients, cleansing huts, rendering first aid and performing minor operations. SS Guards, under close supervision and pressure where necessary from the British troops and assisted by bulldozers, dug enormous graves and buried the dead.


Muriel Knox Doherty was not the only Australian to record the horrors of Belsen. Australian Official War Artist, Lieutenant Alan Moore was travelling with British troops when he witnessed the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945. He drew, painted and photographed a record of these Nazis atrocities of World War 2.
Link to Australian War Memorial reference on Lieutenant Alan Moore.

  1. Research Lieutenant Alan Moore's work. How do his images of Bergen-Belsen compare with the excerpt from the letters of Muriel Doherty?
  2. In the excerpt from her letter, Muriel Doherty describes the conditions in Belsen at the time of liberation, but she arrived there several months later.
    1. How would she have obtained this information?
    2. Why did she record it in her letters home?
    3. Should it be considered a primary or a secondary source?
    4. How reliable do you consider her account?
  3. Use books and the Internet to research the fate of the camp commandant, Josef Kramer and the other SS guards.
  4. The journalist of an article published in Worker on 21 May 1945 quotes a Jewish Rabbi he met at Belsen camp as stating, 'If all the heavens were paper, and all the water in the world were ink, and all the trees were turned into pens, you couldn't even then record the sufferings and horrors of Belsen.'
    1. How important is writing and recording the history of the holocaust?
    2. What purpose(s) does it serve for future generations?
  5. Compare the account of one of the Trove articles up to 21 May 1945, with Muriel Doherty's account of the events at Belsen soon after liberation.
    1. What are the similarities and what are the differences?
    2. Why would there be differences?
  6. Pick any Trove article below and read it. What does it add to your understanding of the situation of the individuals involved, Belsen itself, and of the world at this time?
  7. Explain why all the extermination camps were located outside Germany.
  8. The Belsen Displaced Persons (DP) Camp continued to be home for thousands of Jews until 1951. Investigate and detail the issues that made their return to their country of origin difficult or impossible.
  9. Who was Anne Frank and why was she in Belsen Concentration Camp?

TROVE ARTICLES (for Questions 5 and 6)