Belsen burning

Every month, we dust off a piece of art from the British Red Cross collection to give it the attention it deserves. This painting takes on a terrible moment in history: the discovery of the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen.

When Doris Zinkeisen signed up as a war artist at the end of the Second World War, she probably knew some sights and scenes would test her extraordinary talents.

But she may not have known she’d face one of the war’s great horrors.

Victory in sight

In the mid-1940s, Doris was an internationally renowned artist. She had already shown her work in London, Paris and the United States.

A true multi-tasker, she’d also trained as a VAD nurse during the First World War and helped treat wartime Blitz casualties in London.

This might be why, as troops moved into liberated Europe and Allied victory came closer, she decided to lend her painterly skills.

By joining the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross and Order of St John (JWO), Doris’ could record the relief work at this pivotal moment in history.

‘Sick and starving’

On 15 April 1945, British troops surged into Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In fact, it’s the 70th anniversary of the liberation this month.

Up until this point, no one knew very much about life inside the camps. This was the very first one the British had seen – and they’d only found out about it three days earlier.

The conditions were shocking. An estimated 70,000 people had died inside the ring of barbed fence.

Disease and childcare

An urgent call was soon sent to the British Red Cross.

Disease was a major problem. The camp was rife with epidemics of typhus, typhoid and tuberculosis.

The Red Cross quickly tended to people and drove those who had any chance of survival to emergency hospitals. Volunteer medical students had come straight from London to help.

But this wasn’t all. As well as the medical aid, people were needed to care for children, set up canteens, and organise fuel and clothing.

It was a huge operation.

Human laundry line

Doris went along to the camp, to document these scenes. And it must have been hard to keep looking – let alone paint.

'Human laundry' by Doris Zinkeisen.

‘Human laundry’ by Doris Zinkeisen.

Evelyn Bark, of the JWO, remembers seeing Doris at work in the camp: “She arrived at Belsen while I was there, and I watched her start a painting of the saddle-room [where camp survivors were washed and disinfected].

“Just as she was about to make the first brush stroke, a party of young men in a lorry drove past the window. Catching sight of her, they began to wave and call out her name at the top of their voices. They were medical students, whom she had known at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.

“These students were about to learn more about medicine in a few months – in charge of thousands of patients with unusual diseases – than they might otherwise have done in their whole lives…”

Cross on the forehead

MC Carey, a writer for the Red Cross at the time, touched on this test of courage when he visited the camp soon after:

“As you approach both camps, for about three miles or more along the road you come upon notices, ‘DANGER – TYPHUS’.

“This may seem alarming and horrifying in itself, but the dreaded disease of the textbooks, like everything else in this nightmare world in which you find yourself, seems almost commonplace when you are surrounded by it.”

Once inside the camp, Carey saw that many were dying of acute starvation, as well as disease. He witnessed the grim task of marking those who might live if removed at once. A medical officer was doing this by painting a cross on their foreheads.

Carey wrote: “The [drivers] searched for the marked foreheads, stripped off the stinking rags of the patients, rolled them in blankets and carried them out to the waiting ambulances.

“While I was there, three old crone-like women were huddled together against the wall, moaning a little. There were no marks on their foreheads.”

Burned to the ground

The last hut in the camp was burned to the ground on 21 May 1945. Doris was there to paint this moment.

It happened two days after the camp was finally evacuated, to stop the spread of disease.

But there is also something cathartic about these flames – which contrast so strongly with the picture’s gloomy greys, browns and ochres.

This oil painting, The burning of Belsen Camp 1945, now hangs in our collection.

Life after the horror camp

After her role as war artist, Doris focused on theatre and costume design. She worked with Noel Coward and once designed a dress so low-cut that the whole chorus went on strike.

It’s likely that Doris was looking for some light relief. She apparently had nightmares for the rest of her life, and later wrote: “The shock of Belsen was never to be forgotten. First of all, the ghastly smell of typhus. The simply ghastly sight of skeleton bodies just flung out of the huts.”

Today, this gruesome site is a landscaped park, with mounds of pretty heather covering up the mass graves. It’s easy to forget what once happened on this soil.

But Doris’s paintings warn us not to look away.