More than 65 years ago, one of the darkest periods in human history came to a close

when Allied Forces liberated Fascist Germany to end World War II in Europe. Behind Nazi lines the world discovered an almost unbelievable aftermath: over 1,200 concentration camps — possibly many more — in which innocent civilians, most notoriously Jews, had suffered and died by the millions. One individual who experienced this horror first hand was 18-year-old Bayard (Barney) Clarkson, a volunteer ambulance driver with British soldiers. Speaking to a hushed audience on campus in October, Dr. Clarkson, now a renowned oncologist and Clarkson trustee, shared sobering memories of that wartime experience and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

President Tony Collins observed in his introduction of Dr. Clarkson the rare opportunity for students to hear first hand about these sad but instructive events from someone who was younger than most of them when he served his country. 

With assistance from Clarkson Board Chair Thomas E. Holliday, Professors Stephen Bird and Christopher Robinson of Humanities and Social Sciences organized the presentation to illustrate why constitutional democracy demands citizen engagement. Prof. Bird began by warning the audience that this was not a cheery subject. “Americans tend to take their Constitution and system of government for granted,” he said. “But they must never forget that Adolph Hitler was democratically elected and German citizens turned a blind eye. People think our governing system is imperishable,” he observed. “But it’s not. If we don’t pay attention, we can lose it.”

bergen_belsen_clarkson1Located in northwestern Germany, Bergen-Belsen was first used by Nazis to incarcerate military prisoners. In 1943 they began to fill it with civilian Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Fascist Christians, and Gypsies. On April 15, 1945, the liberating British 11th Armoured Division found an estimated 60,000 prisoners. At least 13,000 were dead but unburied, many were sick, and almost all were emaciated and starving. The Clarkson audience watched a grim Frontline documentary excerpt that incorporated photos and newsreels taken at Bergen-Belsen by arriving liberators. Naked, decaying bodies were piled in heaps. Others were strewn across an acre, living and dead together, immobile or moving slowly. Prisoners had been without water for six days. 

In a low-key, self-effacing presentation, Dr. Clarkson included photos of his own from the Italian front and the camp. He emphasized that he did nothing unusual for an American teenager at the time. His entire 1944 high school graduating class had enlisted. A medical condition kept him out of fighting units, so he volunteered as an American Field Service ambulance driver. By late July he had joined the British 8th Army in Italy.

Living with Italian villagers, he drove the wounded from front lines to British-occupied aid stations. He saw not only military casualties, but also children and other noncombatants maimed and killed. Once he survived an attack only by parking in a tunnel. (Friends who chose to remain outside died.) “We just did what was expected,” said Dr. Clarkson. “Nobody complained. That was the way it was.”

bergen_belsen_groupEarly in 1945, after accompanying troops northward, he volunteered as a stretcher bearer at the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen prison camp — despite being warned about its typhus epidemic and heaps of dead. His convoy arrived two days after the first Allied rescuers. Miles from the prison they began to smell the putrid odor of rotting human flesh. Almost everyone vomited. He was completely surprised by the conditions in the camp, but doubted neighboring German civilians who later claimed ignorance of the death and suffering inside.

Day after day for weeks they carried thousands of gaunt survivors outside to a former S.S. barracks. The liberated prisoners continued to die at the rate of 500 a day. Soon Dr. Clarkson no longer noticed the stench. Rescuers were sprayed each morning with DDT to combat lice-borne typhus (then untreatable), but it kept killing many — medical workers among them. The former inmates were deloused in mass showers. Once the prisoners were removed, everything was burned. 

Fifty years later, finding himself nearby for a medical conference, Dr. Clarkson drove to the site of Bergen-Belsen. It was commemorated by a small museum. Standing alone inside, he burst into tears.

Asked how he could remain positive after witnessing the inhumanity of the concentration camp, he replied, “We thought we were fighting the war to end all wars.” By the fall of 1945, he had begun studies that would lead to his distinguished medical career. “People adapt,” he told the students. “You guys would all have adapted.”

Acknowledging that the vigilance of citizens is critical in protecting democratic rights and freedoms, he is optimistic that America’s diversity and free press will keep its people from allowing the kinds of abuses Germans ignored.

Students were visibly moved by the presentation.

Typical was Ben Coe of The Clarkson School, who said Dr. Clarkson provided “a very interesting view that comes from witnessing these events first hand and from living in the world with those memories.” 

As she left the event, Natalie Underwood ’11 said she had previously heard war stories from both of her grandfathers who were veterans, but Dr. Clarkson “was facing something very different — the mess left behind.” She found his presentation poignant and worthwhile. “Clarkson students tend to be in a hurry and focus on the future,” she said. “Normally, we don’t think very much about the past. But I watched the faces in the audience. Time seemed to slow down. I saw a lot of thoughtfulness.”