World War Two

Human Laundry and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen

Museum of the Order of St John Sharda Rozena, Museum Assistant
ALT="painting of emaciated people on tables being examined by nurses"
Human Laundry, Bergen-Belsen Concentration camp- April 1945, by Doris Zinkesen. Public domain image obtained from

In 1945 Doris Zinkeisen was one of the first war artists to depict the human tragedy of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp immediately after its liberation. This haunting painting entitled ‘Human Laundry’ depicts survivors from the camp being washed and deloused before travelling to a makeshift hospital. The former inmates are depicted as emaciated, skeletal figures in contrast to the healthy, full-bodied German women that are attending them. Zinkeisen wrote ‘the stable was used to wash any living creature down before sending them into hospital to be treated. Each stall had a table on which to lay the patient – the German prisoners did the washing. The church was used as a hospital for those that were alive.’ Zinkeisen was one of many St John Ambulance Brigade volunteers who witnessed the horror of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

When St John Ambulance volunteers entered Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, they found 53,000 survivors and 13,000 unburied bodies. Over the next six weeks St John Ambulance, along with the British Red Cross and the British Army, attended to the survivors and buried the dead. Volunteers were also involved in burning the camp to prevent the spread of a typhus epidemic and louse infestation while nurses administered gastric and nasal tubes to gradually feed starving inmates. Zinkeisen described how ‘the horrible cracking of those burning wooden huts seemed to eat into ones brain.’ Although St John Ambulance volunteers had received medical and first aid training, they were not prepared for the enormity of the disease, infestation, injury and starvation that confronted them. Zinkeisen suffered from recurrent nightmares for the rest of her life.

After leaving the camp, Zinkeisen wrote ‘I do hope eventually that I can satisfy myself that I have produced something that will give a semblance of the utter frightfulness, which no photography in the world can ever hope to penetrate.’ ‘Human Laundry’ is a poignant, personal depiction of the Holocaust as well as a visual record of the atrocities that can never be forgotten.

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