German military authorities established the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1940, in a location south of the small towns of Bergen and Belsen, about 11 miles north of Celle, Germany. The Bergen-Belsen complex was composed of numerous camps, established at various times during its existence. There were three main camps: the POW camp, the "residence camp," and the "prisoners' camp." Until 1943, Bergen-Belsen was exclusively a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. Over the course of its existence, the Bergen-Belsen camp complex held Jews, POWs, political prisoners, Roma (Gypsies), criminals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
As Allied forces advanced in late 1944 and early 1945, Bergen-Belsen became a collection camp for thousands of Jewish prisoners evacuated from camps closer to the front. The arrival of thousands of new prisoners, many of them survivors of forced evacuations on foot, overwhelmed the meager resources of the camp.
By early 1945, overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and a lack of adequate food, water, and shelter led to an outbreak of diseases such as typhus, tuberculosis, and dysentery. In the first few months of the year, tens of thousands of prisoners died. On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen. The British found around sixty thousand prisoners in the camp, most of them seriously ill. Thousands of corpses lay unburied on the camp grounds. More than 13,000 former prisoners, too ill to recover, died after liberation. After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, British forces burned down the camp to prevent the spread of typhus.
During its existence, approximately 50,000 persons died in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex, including Anne Frank. Most of the dead were Jews. After liberation, British occupation authorities established a displaced persons camp nearby that housed more than 12,000 survivors.