At 23, Edmond Boyd was a privileged, upper-class Cambridge medical student who wanted to be a journalist, but was bullied into medicine by his embittered, imperious father.
When he wasn’t hitting the books, the young man’s life consisted of lounging by the fire with a glass of port, rowing along the Cam River, and courting pretty girls from the right sort of families.
He was a bon vivant without a care in the world. He even scoffed at wartime air raids.
But in April, 1945, as though on a lark with a handful of his buddies, he joined the first wave of liberators at Bergen-Belsen, volunteering around the clock with the Red Cross to save hundreds of sick and dying internees at the notorious Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany.
In many ways, Edmond Boyd’s story begins, and very nearly ends, here.
Over the previous winter, prisoners on death marches from camps in the east, threatened by advancing Soviet troops, were dumped at Belsen. Huts normally accommodating 60 people were suddenly housing 600.
There were 10,000 dead and diseased bodies, many naked and in advanced states of decomposition, lying around the camp, both inside and outside the huts, and requiring immediate burial. The daily death rate was 500.
Belsen was a place of total organizational collapse. The electricity and water supply had failed. Internees were fed a Bengal Famine Diet consisting of powdered milk dissolved in boiling water.
Dr. Boyd arrived a month after Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, had died there of typhus.
He left Belsen after four weeks in an advanced state of typhus himself, reduced to a mere 75 pounds, and spent the next six months convalescing in a London hospital.
While there he wrote The Belsen Diary – a memoir describing the shockingly depraved conditions to which the world was only just awakening.
Although writing became his second vocation, after medicine, and the one into which he poured his passions, he never tried to publish this diary and the bulk of it was discovered only after his death.
After being sprayed with DDT at the gates to the camp – Belsen was rife with typhus, tuberculosis and a wicked brew of other diseases – young Dr. Boyd headed toward his assignment.
“As we swarmed on to the trucks outside the mess and rattled down the road … we seemed like a phalanx of warriors whose efforts would be sure to win the day,” he wrote.
But his first 10 seconds in Hut 14 were enough to banish these thoughts.
“There was something of the dead valley in it, something of the vulture, but it was too full of activity for that. It was something of the spirit of a colony of ants where living insects climb unheeding over the bodies of the dead.”
He describes riveting scenes of compassion and empathy, and his own attempts to take charge in what was an uncharacteristic way for such a young, inexperienced man.
Was it due to a spoiled upbringing and sense of entitlement – an expectation that his demands be met as though they were an inherited right – or was it necessity?
In one such take-charge moment, Dr. Boyd realized there was a desperate need for more bedpans. He organized a road trip into bombed-out Hamburg, 80 kilometres away, in order to commandeer several hundred of them.
His coterie consisted of a fellow medical student named Michael and a 16-year-old female Polish Jewish internee, Anita, who acted as their interpreter.
After a frustrating search, they arrived at a warehouse with an official chit to pick up the articles, only to be met by a German police officer who said the warehouse was closed for the day.
Dr. Boyd forced his way into the building at gunpoint and packaged up the booty.
“The sound of tin bedpans bouncing about in the back [of the truck] was music to my ears.”
The diary also includes harrowing passages in which he expresses a powerful contempt for the survivors at the camp.