New Jersey Jewish News
Liberator and liberated
After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen 1945
Yesterday: My Story
Ben Shephard, a producer of Thames TVs World at War, has written a clear and concise history of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops. Of all the concentration camps scattered throughout Europe and there were more than 15,000 of them Bergen-Belsen was unusual for a number of reasons. First, it was a transit camp. Established in May 1943 after the Battle of Stalingrad, when most Germans understood that they had, in all probability, lost the war, it was intended as a civilian internment camp for those who were privileged to have important foreign connections.
The earliest arrivals in July 1943 were not slated for immediate murder by gassing or shooting or for death by attrition. These special inmates were to be kept healthy and alive solely as instruments for prisoner exchanges.
Families, even Jewish families, were permitted to remain together, not forced to endure the depersonalization their hapless brethren in other camps suffered. Their hair was not shaved, nor were their arms tattooed. Inmates did not have to wear uniforms. Starvation and fatal diseases were not an ever present danger, at least not for most of the camps existence.
However, the camp did not retain its unusual status for long. By the time Anne and Margot Frank arrived there in late autumn 1944, the camp had become unbearably crowded. Within a few months the two sisters, like so many others, contracted typhus and died a tortured death. By the time the camp was liberated by British troops on April 14, 1945, Bergen-Belsen had become a scene of such unmitigated horror that seasoned soldiers were literally sickened by its hellish sights and smells.
In After Daybreak, the author writes that the terrible scenes we associate with the Holocaust were shockingly new to the British soldiers. Nothing had prepared them for what they encountered when they arrived at Bergen-Belsen: skeletal creatures who could barely move or speak, fields of human excrement, hills of corpses. The soldiers quickly set about burying the dead with the forced assistance of German civilians and aided by the Hungarian guards who had previously terrorized the prisoners. And these soldiers attempted to restore the near-dead to life.
According to Shephard, alcohol helped them cope, If we were not to drink we would go stark, staring mad, soldiers told their chaplain. We are doctors, and we are supposed to heal, but this task is hopeless. They die on us as soon as we touch them. Indeed, nearly 14,000 prisoners died in the first five weeks after liberation. Much of it was the result of their eager ingestion of food, particularly the tinned meats heavy with animal fat that the unknowing soldiers supplied. The starved prisoners severely compromised digestive systems simply could not sustain such bounty, and many died. Nor was there enough medicine to treat the diseases that the abominable conditions of the camp had caused. Nevertheless, the soldiers whose training had been in killing, not caring for dying civilians, did make a noble effort, as did other volunteers from many lands, including Sweden, whose neutrality had been such a boon to Hitler, enabling his war machine to prosper.
Like other concentration camps, Bergen-Belsen eventually became a displaced persons camp and remained one of the largest such facilities until 1952. There were numerous weddings and births, religious services and theatricals. But life there, as in the other camps, was hardly paradise. As Earl Harrison, a member of Trumans cabinet, noted, We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.
One of Belsens leaders was Hadassah Bimko, a Jewish woman from Poland as she calls herself in Yesterday: My Story. Before the war, she studied dental surgery in Paris. Her young son and husband were killed after the familys arrival in Auschwitz. Her profession saved her; she wound up working under the infamous doctor Josef Mengele.
Bimko was later deported to Bergen-Belsen. After the war, she became the administrator of the camp hospital and married another camp leader, Yossel Rosensaft. Her memoir, which includes her personal perspective of the liberation of the camp, was published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the institution she and her husband helped found.
Of May 8, 1945, she writes, I have often been asked how we felt on that day. I do not remember we were so busy with the sick and the dying. Of course, we were glad to hear of the Allied victory, but we in Belsen did not celebrate on that day. The physically and emotionally demanding preoccupation with shedding the subhuman status Germany conferred on them to become self-governing individuals was shared by all survivors striving to reenter the world of the living.
The yearning for self-governance, which some associated with Zionism, became more intense after the Holocaust. Jews no longer had homes or felt safe in Europe, particularly after the infamous July 1946 Kielce pogrom. Immigration quotas were still in place. Belsens post-liberation death rate was something some Jews attributed not merely to ignorance and failure on the part of the Allies but to their casual disregard for Jewish lives.
Hadassah Rosensaft was a witness at the Belsen trial, the first of the war crime trials of Nazis in Germany. Of that event, she writes, My personal feelings were a mixture of pain, anger, and satisfaction. Although identifying the accused and looking at their faces caused her suffering as she relived the horrors of the war, she also felt satisfied that some of us had survived to see them brought to justice, and for the first time the world learned about the crimes and atrocities they had committed.
This sense of satisfaction was instrumental in shoring up courage and energy that was necessary, not only in the immediate aftermath of the war but in ensuring a more secure future. Three fields of activity engaged our energy from the very beginning until the final hours of our stay in Belsen, writes Rosensaft: (1) our physical and spiritual rehabilitation, (2) the search for our families, and (3) political activities. We were determined to be recognized not as displaced persons but as Jews, and we were committed to support the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, in its struggle for independence.
Although Rosensaft writes here of her fellow Belsen survivors, she could be speaking for all European Jews in the years following the Holocaust. Whether they served as Sonderkommandos in death camps or spent the war years in relative safety under the wings of rescuers, all survivors faced the same challenges, personally and communally. That so many were able to meet these challenges, flourish, and, in recent years, create institutions that goad the worlds conscience to fight current genocides is amazing even miraculous.
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