Remembering the ‘sailor of Belsen’ on Holocaust Memorial Day

Seventy-six years ago today Russian troops marched into the small Polish town of Oświęcim – and uncovered crimes unparalleled in history.

More than one million human beings were killed in the Nazi death camps on the outskirts of a town better known to the world by its Germanicized name: Auschwitz.

January 27 is now marked worldwide as Holocaust Memorial Day, when the world pauses to remember the victims of genocide and Nazi concentration and death camps: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, forced labourers, political prisoners and intelligentsia, and prisoners of war.

Among the latter, Able Seaman Keith Mayor, held in the camp at Bergen-Belsen between Hannover and Munster.

Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz. Ostensibly it was a concentration camp sanatorium, a place for prisoners held in other camps to recover from illnesses before returning to their hellish lives as slaves of the Nazi regime.

But in the closing months of the war, as the net closed in on Berlin, camps across still-occupied Europe began to empty, their inmates sent to sites in the heart of the Reich in horrific death marches.

Built to accommodate about 10,000 prisoners, the population of Bergen-Belsen swelled to 60,000 by the spring of 1945.

Conditions were horrendous; disease, typhus especially, was rampant, alongside dysentery, hunger and TB.

In April 1945, AB Mayor, a 22-year-old from Preston, Lancashire, was among the camp’s sick.

Illness would not kill him, however. Keith Mayor became victim to the Nazis’ bloodlust and sadism as they killed their enemies and settled scores in the final days of the war.

All my love, and hoping you will not forget your only son. God bless you all, and God save the King.

AB Keith Mayor

Mayor had volunteered for the commandos and was sent on Operation Checkmate – a Norwegian version of the Cockleshell Heroes’ raid, attacking German shipping in the small port of Haugesund, near Stavanger, in April 1943.

The raid succeeded – a German minesweeper, M 5207, was sunk, but the raiders were subsequently captured.

Rather than being treated as regular prisoners of war, under Hitler’s ‘Commando Order’, they were earmarked for interrogation and ultimately execution.

The raiders were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp just outside Berlin, where they endured brutal treatment until most were executed. But not Mayor and a comrade, Alfred Roe.

They were sent to Bergen-Belsen as the Russian Army closed on Berlin. Roe succumbed to typhus, Mayor was also struck down with the disease – and sent to the camp infirmary.

And late on the evening of April 7 1945, that the sick Mayor was hauled before a camp guard. As he left the infirmary, he whispered to a Jewish prisoner: “I know you love England. When you get there, tell them the truth.”

And the truth – as established at a post-war war crimes trial established – was horrific.

Mayor, barely able to stand, was shot in front of a kitchen block some time around midnight by two SS guards, Hauptscharführer [Sergeant] Ernst Balz and Unterscharführer [Corporal] Joachim Wolf.

His body was still there the next morning, arms outstretched, lying on some straw.

Keith Mayor was one of 50,000 people who died at Bergen-Belsen in its two-year life as a concentration camp (other victims include teenage diarist Anne Frank and her sister Margot).

The camp was liberated just eight days after Mayor’s execution. We have survivors, including Austrian Jew Rolf Klink who befriended the sailor, and Frenchman Max Markowicz, who compiled lists of the dead, to thank for his fate being recorded.

Their accounts – plus the testimonies of other prisoners, plus some of the killers – would help bring some of the murderers of Bergen-Belsen to account when a trial of 45 former SS men and women began in September 1945.

The two men who shot Keith Mayor were never prosecuted, however. Ernst Balz spent a couple of years in prison and internment camps before being released, somehow slipping through the net. Joachim Wolf, who had been forced to help bury the dead by British troops when the camp was liberated, died of typhus in May 1945.

Sadly little is known about the sailor they killed, but he did leave a short note which was recovered from the camp and sent to his parents’ home in Preston:

 

Dearest Mother and Father and all,

All my love, and hoping you will not forget your only son.

God bless you all, and God save the King.

Yours ever,

Keith