Death camp

...the greatest, yet most tragic experience of my life.

In 1945, Sister Muriel Doherty resigned as Principal Matron of the RAAFNS to take up a position with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Europe. She was soon appointed Principal Matron of the hospital at the former Belsen Concentration Camp in Germany.

The Belsen labour camp in north-west Germany had been established in 1943, originally to hold prisoners to be used in political exchanges. Administered by the SS, it included five sub-camps where some 50,000 Jews, political hostages, and other prisoners died of starvation, disease, brutality and sadistic medical practices. In 1944, Joseph Kramer known as the 'Beast of Belsen' became the camp commandant. During the next year thousands of prisoners who were too weak to work were shipped to Belsen from other concentration camps. At Belsen, they were left to die off slowly from starvation and typhoid.

British troops entered the camp at Belsen on 15 April 1945. They found 10,000 unburied corpses and approximately 40,000 emaciated and diseased humans huddled together in filthy huts.  The ground was littered with corpses, the Germans had polluted the water supply and the prisoners had been without food and water for more than a week. The Colonel Commander, 102 Control Section, British Second Army described his first impressions of the camp:

The scene which met the first comers beggars description. There were approximately 50,000 people in the camp, of which about 10,000 lay dead in the huts or about the camp. Those still alive had no food or water for about seven days after a long period of semi-starvation. Typhus, amongst other diseases was raging. Corruption and filth was everywhere, the very area was poisoned.

[3DRL/3958 AWM]

Twenty-eight thousand of the prisoners at Belsen died after their liberation.

By the time Matron Doherty arrived at Belsen, all the prisoners had been removed and the huts had been burnt. Survivors were moved to the barracks area of the camp and many were repatriated to other European countries. However, many thousands of starving and traumatised liberated patients from the camp area remained at Belsen. UNRAA was to take over from the 81st British General (Army) Hospital that was needed elsewhere and Muriel Doherty's role was to establish the new hospital.

During her year at Belsen Muriel Doherty found time to record her insights and observations in descriptive 'community letters' to her family and friends. Her accounts are vivid and sometimes critical and they provide us with a unique opportunity to read of the post-war months and the challenges faced by Muriel Doherty, her staff, and former camp inmates.

According to Doherty, the barracks camp stretched over an area of about 5 miles (8 km) and her patients were dispersed in buildings from one end of the camp to the other. Initially she was forced to hitchhike from one end to the other, as she hadn't been supplied with a vehicle. She also had to establish the hospital infrastructure with limited equipment and supplies. Most of Doherty's German staff didn't speak English and they were not keen to work for the Allied victors.

There were continual problems with acquiring and maintaining stores: food and equipment was constantly being stolen. The local German people had been short of food and anything that was not locked up was pilfered, either by local staff or by anyone who just walked in and out of the hospital.

Please note - this gallery contains images of concentration camp victims which may cause distress.

Food played a huge role in their daily lives at Belsen. Not only the staff but the patients too hoarded whatever they could in their bedding. So used to starvation, former camp inmates found it difficult to believe that their meals would continue. Pilfering by the German staff was also a huge problem and so many of their supplies disappeared that Doherty was forced to call in a quartermaster to control the problem. Doherty wrote that much of their food supplies:

...found its way onto the German blackmarket via linen cupboards and other unexpected places. We unearthed basins and basins of sugar, eggs, butter and other scarce foodstuffs which would have shortly disappeared. After months of negotiation, I managed with great difficulty to obtain one pint of raw milk daily for each of our tuberculosis patients. Suddenly, in the women's wards an orgy of cheesemaking broke out. Little bags of dripping curd appeared on every bed rail, door knob and water tap, with trickles of liquid overflowing from the pots below – 'quark' they called it – a favourite national dish.

At first I smiled and overlooked it. The smell became so bad I had to make a quick decision. Should I insist they drink the milk or go without; admire the juicy bags, smile encouragingly and ignore the jars of souring milk about the floor or deprive them of much joy and interest and have it made in the kitchen for those who preferred quark to raw milk. I hated having to destroy this bit of home life but the place smelt to high heaven.

[Off the Record – The life and times of Muriel Knox Doherty 1896 - 1988, an autobiography edited by R Lynette Russell, NSW College of Nursing, 1996, p 81.]

Gradually, the 8-10,000 patients who were at Belsen when Doherty arrived had been reduced to five hundred. Many of them had died and others were evacuated at the rate of about 350 a day.

Hospital linen was in great demand, both for the patients and by people who had not had 'decent clothes' for more than five years. Rehabilitation and welfare work was a large part of the patient's recovery. As patients improved, they began to take an interest in their appearance again and their creative instincts came to the fore:

Clever fingers fashioned many a garment as curtains, palliasse covers, blankets, sheets and even a Union Jack were transformed into attractive dresses, smart tailored costumes, pantaloons, handbags and berets. The girl who had made the cleverly gored skirt out of the Union Jack purloined from the platform of a memorial service had to face a severe reprimand by Military Government officials. I did not mind these activities, however, as long as further supplies were available from German sources.

[Off the Record, p 81]

In September 1945, the SS men and women from the Belsen camp were tried and sentenced at the Là¼neburg trials. Matron Doherty arranged for each member of her staff to attend one day of the trials. The most important prisoner was the former Kommandant of the camp, Kommandant Kramer, the 'beast of Belsen'.

Thirty of the forty-five accused were sentenced by the court. Kramer was sentenced to death for his part in exterminating at least four million Allied nationals while he was commandant at Auschwicz and later at Belsen.

[Off the Record: p 81]

Kramer was executed in December 1945.

From Belsen, Matron Doherty was appointed chief nursing administrator to UNRRA's mission in Poland. She spent Christmas 1945 with her patients at Belsen camp and then travelled to Poland where she spent the next few months before returning to Australia later in 1946.

Matron Doherty died on 29 September 1988. She was 92 years old. Many items from her personal collection are held by the NSW College of Nursing in Sydney but some of her letters and scrapbooks can be found in the collections of the State Library of NSW and in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia. There is also a collection of Matron Doherty's memorabilia at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Archives in Israel.

Muriel Knox Doherty

Muriel Knox Doherty was born in Armadale, Victoria, on 19 July 1896, but her family moved to Sydney when she was very young and she grew up in Wollstonecraft. In 1914, 19-year-old Muriel was invited to join the teaching staff at Abbotsleigh Girls School at Wahroonga. Before she joined the school, the headmistress suggested that it would be helpful if she looked a little older.

It would very much easier for you if you put your hair right up, if only for school time. You look very young (I was just 19) and you will not want to do anything that would weaken your standing with the girls and I need not tell you how very critical the little ones can be.

[Off the Record: The Life and Times of Muriel Knox Doherty 1896-1988, edited by R Lynette Russell, NSW College of Nursing, Glebe, 1996 p3]

Muriel spent her spare time during the war years working in the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) for the Red Cross. Realising how much she loved nursing, she decided to start nursing training at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney in 1921. After her graduation, Nurse Doherty was invited to become a charge sister at the hospital. In 1930, Sister Doherty travelled to the UK to train as a Sister Tutor at the Royal College of Nursing in London. Royal Prince Alfred Hospital invited her back as their first Sister Tutor and, in 1937, she set up the inaugural Preliminary Training School at Prince Alfred. She joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) that same year and, in 1939, she was appointed Assistant to the Principal Matron of the AANS.

In 1940, Sister Doherty resigned from the AANS to become a squadron leader in the Royal Australian Air Force where she inaugurated the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS). In 1942, she became Principal Matron of the service and received her promotion to Wing Commander. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross (RRC) in 1945 for her services to the RAAFNS.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Death camp, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 6 December 2023,
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