Concentration camp survivor: 'It was like something out of hell'

Bergen-Belsen survivor speaks ahead of Queen's visit
Bergen-Belsen survivor speaks ahead of Queen's visit

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Story highlights

  • Even other concentration camps could not prepare Mala Tribich, 14, for the hell of Bergen-Belsen
  • She describes the horror of starvation, piles of bodies and rampant spread of disease

Queen Elizabeth II is slated to visit the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany on Friday. CNN speaks with camp survivor Mala Tribich ahead of the visit.
This article was amended on July 1 to make clear that the ghetto in Poland was established by the Nazis.

London (CNN)Mala Tribich was 14 when she was transported to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945. She had already spent years living in a ghetto established by the Nazis in Poland. Most of her immediate family members were now dead.

She had already survived two other concentration camps but even that could not prepared her for what lay ahead. Tribich says: "It was like something out of hell."
    Bergen-Belsen was established in 1940 as a prisoner of war camp. In 1943, it also became part of the "Final Solution," a concentration camp for Jews.
    Tribich says, "There were people, but they were skeletons. They were just shuffling along aimlessly, like zombies, looking into space. They would shuffle along and just collapse and die. You could be speaking to someone, and they could just die in front of your eyes.

    'Piles of naked, decaying, twisted bodies'

    "People were dying in such numbers that there were dead bodies everywhere. There were piles of bodies, piles of naked, decaying, twisted bodies. What a most terrible sight!"
    An estimated 52,000 Jewish men, women and children died there between 1943 and 1945. Another 53,000 people were liberated by British troops.
    Queen Elizabeth on state visit to Germany
    Queen Elizabeth on state visit to Germany

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    When Tribich arrived in February 1945, the camp's Nazi administration was a mess. The Germans were being pushed back in the East, and it was clear to them that defeat was imminent.
    "The camp was really at an end because people were just dying in such numbers and the food was coming to an end and it was nearing the end of the war, not that I knew that. There was no roll call. I don't think anybody was working there except for in the kitchens."
    Tribich and her young cousin were taken to the children's part of the camp where they shared a bed by the window.
    Tribich says: "Opposite us was a shed. You could call it a mortuary, but it was actually an old shed. They were bringing bodies there all day long. They started off in carts. They would push the cart with a body on it, throw it in the shed and collect the next one.
    "But as the carts wore out, then they would pull a body along in a blanket along the ground but in the end, they were pulling the bodies just on the ground. Even the blankets wore out. Then it was just pulling a body by a limb.
    "The terrible thing was that the people who were doing it were only half alive themselves."

    The scourge of typhus

    The lack of food, the stench of death and the ever growing piles of dead corpses meant that Bergen-Belsen was rife with disease. Typhus was the most deadly, and in 1945, it killed more than 17,000 people in the camp.
    It's believed that typhus was the disease that killed the diarist Anne Frank, who was also at the camp at the same time as Tribich although the two never met. Tribich, too, got the disease.
    "You have the most terrible headaches as there are no medicines. You're burning up with temperature and you just go into unconsciousness. I don't know how long I was like this," she says.
    It could have been days or weeks, but slowly Mala began to regain consciousness and become aware of her surroundings. Still weak, one day she was lying on her top bunk next to the window when she witnessed something that shocked her much more than the scenes of death she was so accustomed to.

    'I was very, very lucky'

    "Suddenly I saw people running. They weren't running fast, but they were running. I didn't know where they were running to but all that intrigued me was how did they have the strength to run?
    "That was April 15, 1945, the liberation. This is a scene which has stayed with me, but thankfully it's one of the happy scenes."
    She had survived and was evacuated to a hospital set up by British forces. She left three months later.
    Seventy-five years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Tribich lives in the United Kingdom. She's a mother, a grandmother and most importantly of all, a survivor.
    She says: "Have these experiences affected me in anyway? For the good? For the bad? For the better? I have had to contend with those memories and with what I have been through. But I have to say I have never labored that period of my life. I was very, very lucky."