REMEMBERING BELSEN: “BELSEN WILL ALWAYS REMAIN PART OF US”

Josef Rosensaft was a Holocaust survivor from Poland who was elected as chair of the committee which represented the survivors in the Belsen Displaced Persons camp. He is shown on the left of the photograph, leading the dedication of a memorial on the first anniversary of the liberation. Looking back in the 1950s, when there were already people claiming that it was time to forget about the Holocaust, he explained why survivors could not fail to remember. At the same time, he rejected the condescension to which survivors of the Holocaust were sometimes subjected.    


We are often told on all sides that it is time to forget Belsen. True, we cannot remember every hour of the day. We are only human and tend to forget from time to time. But we cannot accept the advice to cut Belsen out of our memory. Belsen will always remain part of us...

They looked on us as objects of pity... They had forgotten that we were not brought up in Belsen, Auschwitz and other concentration camps, but had, once upon a time, a home and a background and motherly love and kindness; that before the calamity we, too, had our schools and universities and Yeshivot.

70 years have now passed since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps but Josef Rosensaft’s injunctions remain as important today as they did then.


Photo: Josef Rosensaft presides over the dedication of a memorial to the Jewish victims of Bergen-Belsen, 1946; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jacob Begun

Testimony: Testimony: Irgun Sheerit Hapleita Me'Haezor Habriti, Belsen (Irgun Sheerit Hapleita Me'Haezor Habriti)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “AS LONG AS HUMAN NATURE REMAINS WHAT IT IS”

In September 1945, the trial began in Lüneberg, in the courtroom shown in the photograph, of 45 former SS personnel and kapos [prisoner functionaries] who had served in Bergen-Belsen. Several of them, including the commandant Josef Kramer, were charged with offences committed at both Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau where they had previously served. This was the first significant attempt to bring the perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice. S.J. Goldsmith, a journalist who covered the trial for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, later reflected on its importance.  


This, the first of the war crime trials, was regarded not only as an attempt to have justice done, but also as a reminder of what Nazism meant, and as a warning for the future that crimes against humanity, even in war time, will not go unpunished if ever a group of men and women should again sink so low as to commit them...

And who would conscientiously say today that no man or woman could perpetrate such atrocities again?

There is no doubt, however, that the Belsen trial and other war crime trials are a deterrent and will remain so in the future.

As long as human nature remains what it is, deterrents are indispensable. And this is perhaps even a more important aspect of the Belsen trial than the punishment administered to the accused.

11 defendants, including Kramer, were sentenced to death; 19 were given prison sentences and 15 acquitted. These sentences were delivered two days before the opening of the now better known Nuremberg Trials of major war criminals. Both of these judicial proceedings, as Goldsmith noted, played a major role in establishing the post-war international legal framework which, however imperfectly, attempted to prevent a repetition of crimes of the type seen in the Holocaust.


Photo: the interior of the courtroom in Lüneberg; Imperial War Museum (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215643)

Testimony: Testimony: Irgun Sheerit Hapleita Me'Haezor Habriti, Belsen (Irgun Sheerit Hapleita Me'Haezor Habriti)

belsen25_4.jpg

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “THERE WAS A NEED TO PLAY”

The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp became a centre for the renewal of Jewish life after the Holocaust. The thousands of survivors who remained in the DP camp created a system of political self-representation which pushed the British occupying forces to listen to their concerns. They also established a flourishing social and cultural life, including a theatre troupe, which was organised by Samy Feder, a survivor from Poland.  


I was deeply moved when several Jewish girls came to see me and begged me with tears in their eyes to let them join the troupe. They could speak no Yiddish at all, but they were stage struck. When I told them that we were going to produce our plays in Yiddish, they promised to learn Yiddish in a very short time...

How could I send them back?

So we started by teaching the girls Yiddish while rehearsing at the same time. These were no ordinary rehearsals.

We had no book, no piano, no musical scores. But we could not wait for supplies from outside. There was a need to play, and an eager public...

Our first show took place three months after liberation. Despite all the difficulties and improvisations, it was all right on the night, as it always is with good actors...

I have never played to such a grateful audience. They clapped and laughed and cried. When we gave, as our last item, the famous song ‘Think not you travel to despair again,’ the thousand people in the hall rose to their feet and sang with us. Then Hatikvah [now the Israeli national anthem]. Never was Hatikvah rendered with such verve as on that first night.

The theatre was only one manifestation of the extraordinary creativity which existed in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. Most of the survivors eventually found homes overseas, primarily in Israel, although the last survivor only left Belsen in September 1950.


Image: membership card for the Jewish theatre in Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Norbert Wollheim

Testimony: Irgun Sheerit Hapleita Me'Haezor Habriti, Belsen (Irgun Sheerit Hapleita Me'Haezor Habriti)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “IT WAS THE BEST OF DAYS, AND THE WORST OF DAYS”

As survivors of Bergen-Belsen began to recover, some returned to their home countries whilst 6,000 were taken by the Red Cross to Sweden to recuperate in July 1945. However, many Jewish and Polish survivors did not want or were not able to return home so a Displaced Persons (DP) camp was established in the army barracks at Bergen-Belsen in the summer of 1945. Sadie Rurka (later Sadie Hofstein) was a welfare officer for the Jewish Relief Unit, a British Jewish charitable organisation, and worked with the survivors in the DP camp.    


By the time I arrived at Bergen-Belsen which was several weeks after its liberation, the Jewish community and its leadership had begun to have some sense of an organisation. They had already identified 83 children under the age of 16 who had absolutely no relatives… Since I was the Child Welfare Officer, I was put in charge of them. We located a building and decided to house all those children together, in what became known as the ‘Kinderheim’ – The House of Children…

Bergen-Belsen children – the children of the Children’s House – began to settle into some kind of normal life. The began to fight each other, they had puppy-love romances, there was plenty of acting out, they objected to the rules, and night after night, more than one of these children cried themselves to sleep. One day when we were working in the Children’s House there was a terrific shout, and I went out to see what was going on. And in the yard was Pola and Bella’s father. In all that time that I was in Europe, and certainly in Bergen-Belsen, that was the only intact family I ever knew: the mother was in hospital, and now, their father had arrived from Poland. It was the best of days, and the worst of days. Can you imagine what it was like for the other children whose families had perished?

For those children and adults in the DP camp who had no families or home to return to, the question of where to go next remained unresolved for months or even years as Allied governments were generally reluctant to admit them. In the meantime, the survivors set about forging their own unique Jewish community which would play a leading role in the rebirth of Jewish life and culture after the Holocaust. 


Photo: young girls recover after liberation; Imperial War Museum (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215292)

Testimony: Ben Flanagan & Donald Bloxham (eds.), Remembering Belsen: Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation (Holocaust Educational Trust/Vallentine Mitchell)

belsen23_4.jpg

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “AT THIS MOMENT, WE BOTH REALISED THAT WE WERE FREE”

Despite the gradual recovery of most survivors in the weeks after liberation, life remained challenging. Edith Fuchs (later Edith Baneth) recalled how apparent joy at the realisation of freedom could quickly turn sour.    


I remember the first time I went out with my mother after liberation. There is a beautiful forest in Belsen – it is still there today – and we walked on the main road and crossed into the forest. It was the first time I had felt a little better from the typhoid I’d had for three weeks. I was sitting down with mother in a meadow, and then we saw all the nature and lots of marguerites around us; my mother took one and did ‘I love you, I love you not’ with it.

And suddenly, at this moment, we both realised that we were free: sitting in a meadow on our own, seeing flowers and doing what pleased us. It was then that it hit us and we hugged each other and said, ‘We made it, we are here, we have survived, we are alive and soon we’ll go home.’ I had survived the typhoid, my mother didn’t get it, and we were hopeful that it’s all over. The next day my mother did suddenly get a temperature and she was one of the last cases of typhoid and she was taken to the hospital.

She died on the 15th June 1945, two months after having been freed. In two or three weeks we were supposed to go home and start a new life together. Going through all that had happened, it was the worst thing. She was forty then, she still had another thirty years of normal life to live.

The effects of years of starvation and maltreatment meant that disease remained a threat for months after liberation. An equal challenge was restoring the psychological health of the survivors, a task in which survivors' self-help initiatives played an important role.    


Photo: a post-war memorial by a mass grave, Bergen-Belsen; Holocuast Educational Trust

Testimony: Lyn Smith (ed.), Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust (Ebury Press)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “AT LAST SOMEONE HAD DONE SOMETHING TO MAKE THEM INDIVIDUALS AGAIN”

The process of saving and then rebuilding lives in Bergen-Belsen proved a long and arduous one. However, it was helped in late April 1945 in a rather unexpected way, as recalled by Lieutenant-Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin, commanding officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps at Bergen-Belsen.  


It was shortly after the BRCS [British Red Cross Section] teams arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick... arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted. We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips. You saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips...

At last someone had done something to make them individuals again. They were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Recognition of the survivors’ humanity and individuality was a vital step in the road for recovery for many.


Photo: female survivors of Bergen-Belsen eating after liberation; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Testimony: Ben Flanagan & Donald Bloxham (eds.), Remembering Belsen: Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation (Holocaust Educational Trust/Vallentine Mitchell)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “I WAS TOO ILL TO SWALLOW A CRUMB”

The struggle to begin to rebuild survivors’ physical and mental wellbeing proved a difficult and often painful one, despite the best efforts of British medics, such as those shown in the photograph. Esther Zylberberg (later Esther Brunstein) was a teenage survivor of the Łódź Ghetto and Auschwitz-Birkenau who had been imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen since January 1945. Like thousands of others she had fallen victims to typhus, which left her unconscious at the time of liberation on 15th April. She recalled what happened when she finally awoke, some days later.  


When I awoke from a dreadful nightmare there were friendly, smiling faces around me telling me it was all over. I was too numb and too confused to make sense of what they were saying. However, on seeing four chunks of black bread and four tins of Nestlés condensed milk on my bunk it dawned on me that the longed for moment had come and we were free at last. I remember looking at the bread and bursting into uncontrollable tears.

For five-and-a-half years I had dreamt of one day being given the opportunity to eat and eat without the limit of time until I burst. I was robbed of that satisfaction for I was too ill to swallow a crumb. It most likely saved my life for it is well known that many people died after liberation due to eating the wrong foods after years of starvation. I also felt cheated for not having the memory of the experiencing the initial exhilarating moment of liberation.

The first few days were joyous and yet sad, confusing and bewildering. I did not know how to cope with freedom after years of painful imprisonment!

Several thousand survivors died in the days and weeks immediately after the liberation. Between 21st April and 19th May, all survivors were relocated from the camp to nearby army barracks. However, the daily death rate remained in the hundreds for almost a month after liberation; it only fell below 100 on 11th May.


Photo: British medical personnel evacuate a survivor of Bergen-Belsen by ambulance; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Stein

Testimony: Jo Reilly et al. (eds.), Belsen in History and Memory (Routledge)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “WE KNEW THE USELESSNESS OF WORDS”

Army medical personnel were soon followed by staff from other organisations. Molly Silva Jones was one of the first Red Cross nurses to enter Bergen-Belsen. On 19th April 1945, 70 years ago today, she left the following entries in her diary (with later additions).    


Who could imagine that a Concentration Camp could be hidden in such country? It seemed fantastic, the peace of the pine woods becoming sombre and sinister. On the left we caught the first glimpse of barbed wire through which people peered at us, strange figures clad in blue striped pyjamas. Increasing gradually was an indescribable stench that pervaded everything…

Possibly none of us had ever been so stirred – with pity – shame – remorse – yes, because even in 1934 we had heard of these camps and had not realised, not wanted to realise, that such things could happen. And lastly but not least we were stirred with a cold anger against those primarily responsible, the Germans, an anger which grew daily at Belsen. Stirred also an increased desire to help; nothing we could do was enough to restore… some measure of mental and physical health. We went back to the road without speaking. We knew the uselessness of words, not for the last time at Belsen.

In the weeks and months that followed, soldiers, medical personnel, and relief workers all struggled to restore some semblance of normal life. However, it is also important to realise that the rebuilding of lives and even communities was also initiated by survivors themselves, highlighting the need to avoid seeing them as passive victims. Join us for next week’s content where we will explore the developments of the months after liberation. 


Photo: female survivors of Bergen-Belsen after liberation; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lev Sviridov

Diary extracts: Suzanne Bardgett & David Cesarani (eds.), Belsen 1945: New Historical Perspectives (Vallentine Mitchell)

belsen19_4.jpg

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “THE PEOPLE AT HOME MUST KNOW OF THIS”

The first units of the Royal Army Medical Corps entered Bergen-Belsen on 17th April 1945, in an attempt to stem the disastrous situation. One of their officers was Captain J. Gant, who described the conditions in a letter written on 18th April, 70 years ago today.   


There are no latrines – there never have been any. You come out of your hut and squat down by the side of the wall – no one pays any attention to you – man or woman… If you are ‘fit’, you sleep in one of the ordinary bunks. There is no room to lie down. You sit with your knees apart, the person in front sits between them, and leans back on you, you do the same to the person behind; and the one at the back, leans on the wall…

If only for this camp alone (to free it) – the war has been just and worthwhile; but there must be others like it and worse.

Sorry this has been such a fearful letter, but you can’t smell the place, if it’s any consolation – I still can.  You do realise that the people at home must know of this and what they’ve missed.  I heard the average life of any person over 40 in the camp was one month.

Shall be much more cheerful after a night’s sleep, but to-day has been like a mad house.

Captain Gant’s belief that the discovery of Bergen-Belsen was a vindication of the morality of Britain’s cause was a common one. This feeling was increasingly shared back home as newsreels, radio broadcasts and letters like Captain Gant’s brought home the reality. At the same time, his letter indicated that outrage was not enough and that it would be no easy task for the British to restore the survivors’ health.


Photo: a barrack in Bergen-Belsen after liberation; public domain (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

Letter: Ben Flanagan & Donald Bloxham (eds.), Remembering Belsen: Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation (Holocaust Educational Trust/Vallentine Mitchell)

belsen18_4.jpg

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “HERE, UNADORNED, ARE THE FACTS”

The first broadcaster to enter Bergen-Belsen was Richard Dimbleby, the most famous reporter of his generation. On 17th April 1945, 70 years ago today, he recorded an account of what he had witnessed, including the piles of victims’ shoes shown in the photograph, for BBC radio. The following extract formed the opening section of his report.  


I have just returned from the Belsen concentration camp where for two hours I drove slowly about the place in a jeep with the chief doctor of Second Army. I had waited a day before going to the camp so I could be absolutely sure of the facts available. I find it hard to describe adequately the horrible things I have seen and heard, but here, unadorned, are the facts.

There are forty thousand men, women and children in the camp. German and half a dozen other nationalities, thousands of them Jews. Of this total of 40,000, 4,250 are acutely ill or are dying of virulent disease. Typhus, typhoid, diphtheria, dysentery, pneumonia and childbirth fever are rife. 25,600, three quarters of them women, are either ill through lack of food or are actually dying of starvation. In the last few months alone, 30,000 prisoners have been killed off or allowed to die.

Those are the simple, horrible facts of Belsen. But horrible as they are, they can convey little or nothing in themselves. I wish with all my heart that everyone fighting in this war, and above all those whose duty it is to direct the war from Britain and America, could have come with me through the barbed-wire fence that leads to the inner compound of the camp…

Dimbleby’s superiors at the BBC in London initially refused to believe the report. It was only when Dimbleby threatened to resign that it was broadcast, two days later on 19th April. The report brought home to the British public for the first time the horror of what had occurred at Belsen, although the broadcast version was heavily edited.


Photo: survivors with a pile of victims' shoes in the background; Yad Vashem

Broadcast: BBC archive (http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/holocaust/5115.shtml)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “WE’LL ALL BE DEAD IF HELP DOESN’T COME QUICKLY”

If the principal reaction of survivors to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was confusion, that of the British liberators was one of shock. Leslie Hardman was a rabbi who served as the Senior Jewish Chaplain with the British Army. On 16th April 1945, 70 years ago today, he became the first British rabbi to enter Bergen-Belsen.    


I went to the gates… There was a young woman at the gates.  She saw the Mogen David [Star of David] on my uniform and knew I was Jewish and wanted to rush forward and hug me.  She looked so repulsive, but I knew that if I moved backwards as she moved forwards, she was liable to fall. I managed to control myself and kept her on her feet.

A few yards further on there was a group of about eight or ten people lying on the ground.

I said, ‘Why aren’t they in the huts?’

She said, ‘They’re dead and we’ll all be dead if help doesn’t come quickly.’

Then I started to learn about the gruesome things the Nazis did…

Rabbi Hardman’s feelings of disgust were expressed in the testimonies of many other British liberators: the usually young soldiers and accompanying personnel were completely unprepared for the scenes which greeted them. However, as Rabbi Hardman implied, the greatest challenge facing the British in the days immediately after liberation was stemming the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe which had engulfed Bergen-Belsen. To accomplish this, the British personnel would need to follow Hardman’s example and overcome their initial repulsion to see the survivors as individual human beings. It was also important to honour the dead; the photograph shows Hardman and Catholic chaplain M.C. Morrison leading a memorial service by a mass grave some days later.


Photo: Leslie Hardman and M.C. Morrison leading a memorial service by a mass grave at Bergen-Belsen; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Lyn Smith (ed.), Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust (Ebury Press)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “WE HAD HAD NO IDEA WHAT WAS HAPPENING TO US”

British troops reached Bergen-Belsen concentration camp 70 years ago today, in the afternoon of 15th April 1945. Renate Lasker (later Renate Lasker-Harpprecht), a Jewish woman from Breslau in Germany who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau before being sent to Belsen, recalled the mood amongst the inmates of the camp.  


It must have been midday. For days we had heard the rumbling noises of heavy artillery, but we hadn’t known who was firing. We had had no idea what was happening to us. The noise came closer… and then… a voice through a loud-hailer… first in English and then in German. At the beginning we were too confused and excited to take anything in. But the announcements kept being repeated, again and again. At last we understood: BRITISH TROOPS ARE STANDING BY THE CAMP GATES… PLEASE KEEP CALM… YOU ARE LIBERATED…We were also told – and this was not news to us – that there was typhus in the camp, and that we should wait for the troops to come. We should be patient… medical help was on its way. It took a while for the significance of the announcements to sink in.

When the first tank finally rolled into the camp, we looked at our liberators in silence. We were deeply suspicious. We simply could not believe that we had not been blown up before the Allies could get to us.

Although some prisoners greeted the British with displays of joy, the bewilderment and uncertainty described by Renate were perhaps the more common reactions. This was hardly surprising given the catastrophic conditions in the camp. Renate’s main concern was caring for her sister Anita, who was seriously ill. Although the two sisters survived, thousands of other prisoners experienced freedom for only a few days or even hours before they succumbed to disease or malnutrition.


Photo: Female survivors at Bergen-Belsen; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lev Sviridov

Testimony: Ben Flanagan & Donald Bloxham (eds.), Remembering Belsen: Eyewitnesses Record the Liberation (Holocaust Educational Trust/Vallentine Mitchell)

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “HIDEOUS AND INCREDIBLE SCENES”

Rudolf Küstermeier was a German socialist politician who had spent more than a decade in Nazi concentration camps by the time he was transferred to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945. He later described the atmosphere in the camp on the eve of liberation – 14th April 1945, 70 years ago today.  


It had become known shortly beforehand that an agreement had been made between British and German officers declaring the camp neutral territory. This was not announced officially, but the changes which occurred seemed to corroborate the rumours. Most of the SS men disappeared, and in their stead Hungarian troops and soldiers of the German Wehrmacht appeared. The remaining SS had the special task of repairing the camp and especially of taking the dead to the mass graves. But how could they manage this? The SS, vigorous and brutal as never before, found a way. And thus we saw and staged the last one of those hideous and incredible scenes which will never vanish from our memories… There were not only hundreds but thousands of bodies, and everyone in the camp who could walk had to help...

One of the strangest features of those days was the fact that the most extreme oppression and the most extreme misery were mixed with a kind of wild joy. In the midst of the deepest suffering new hope was born. Two bands played dancing music the whole day while two thousand men dragged bodies to mass graves…

The majority of the prisoners – guarded mainly by Hungarian sentries such as the one shown in the photograph – were too sick to participate in the gruesome task of disposing of the bodies of the camp’s victims. They awaited an uncertain fate.


Photo: a Hungarian sentry at Bergen-Belsen; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Arnold Bauer Barach

Testimony: Eberhard Kolb, Bergen-Belsen: From "Detention Camp" to Concentration Camp, 1943-1945 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht)

belsen14_4.jpg

REMEMBERING BELSEN: “I AM WORN OUT AND CAN HARDLY MOVE”

Bergen-Belsen, in north-western Germany, had originally been established as a prisoner of war camp in 1940. It was only in 1943 that Jewish inmates were transferred there and, even then, these were supposedly ‘privileged’ prisoners who either held documents from neutral countries or who were so-called ‘exchange Jews’ who the Nazis hoped to trade with the Allies for money or the release of German POWs. However, the camp was transformed from late 1944 onwards as thousands, and then tens of thousands, of mainly Jewish prisoners were brought there from evacuated camps in the East, in particular Auschwitz-Birkenau. One of the ‘exchange Jews’ was Abel Herzberg from the Netherlands. In a diary entry for 16th March 1945, he reported on the impact of the influx. 


Every day now transports of thousands of people are arriving from the concentration camps. Men and women, including Dutch people, acquaintances, friends. Twenty to twenty-five per cent are dead, sometimes more. On the way to our latrines… there is a field full of corpses. And every day the carts trundle past filled with corpses and more corpses. It is a gruesome sight…The crematorium can no longer cope with the volume…I am worn out and can hardly move. Almost the entire day I lie on the bed (if one can call it such). The filth is increasing. We are sick of it.

As tens of thousands of people were sent to the camp, the catastrophic overcrowding brought spiralling death rates. Lack of food, shelter and sanitation and a consequent typhus epidemic caused the deaths of 18,000 people in March 1945 alone. By the time of liberation in April 1945, there were an estimated 53,000 people held in the camp, most of them seriously ill. For the remainder of the first week of this two week supplement, we will explore the liberation of Bergen-Belsen as it unfolded day-by-day.


Photo: a sign erected by the British at the site of Bergen-Belsen in 1945; Yad Vashem

Diary extract: Abel Herzberg, Between Two Streams: A Diary from Bergen-Belsen (I. B. Tauris)

belsen13_4.jpg

REMEMBERING BELSEN

Next week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by troops from the British Army’s 11th Armoured Division. This was only one of dozens of camps liberated by the Allied armies in the spring of 1945, yet it was the event which left the deepest impact on British consciousness. To understand why, Remembering Belsen, a special two-week supplement to 70 Voices, will explore the impact of the liberation on the camp’s survivors, its liberators, and the British people.


Photo: Modern view of a memorial erected at the site of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on the first anniversary of its liberation; Holocaust Educational Trust.

belsen12_2a.jpg

70 VOICES: THE STORIES CONTINUE

Thank you for having followed 70 Voices as it has unfolded. Please rejoin us tomorrow for details of a special supplement to 70 Voices, which will explore the stories behind one of 2015’s most significant anniversaries.

 


70 VOICES PODCAST: THE LEGACY AND MEMORY OF THE HOLOCAUST

 

In our final 70 Voices podcast, the Trust's Head of Education Alex Maws welcomes Jeremy Leigh of Hebrew Union College and author of Jewish Journeys for a discussion about the impact of the Holocaust on the post-war world.

Click here to read a transcript of the podcast.

 

"WHY?"

One of the victims of the Holocaust whose voice has been preserved is Elsa Binder, a young woman who lived in the Polish city of Stanisławów. In a diary entry in January 1942, she reflected on the massacre of more than 10,000 Jews in Stanisławów three months earlier. She lamented her many friends, providing posterity with some memory of their lives, an opportunity denied to so many victims of the Holocaust. Elsa also confronted perhaps the greatest question raised by their fate.


Cip. This is probably the most painful. With open arms, lightly like a bird, you flew into the grave after your family. After the shot, you fluttered your arms gently and your face fell on the chest of your father, mother or sister... You loved life so passionately...  The worst is that you’ll never know what you meant to me...

Estera. The owner of nice hands and legs that whirled so lightly and proudly to the rhythm of the lively polka. She also had a useless high school diploma and an even more useless pride.

With them departed Sabra with her sister, ideal Gosia, Ida, Tuśka with her baby, Salka with her baby, Gucia with her mother…

What remained were orphaned children, mothers, entire homes and houses. What remained were hearts full of pain, hatred and helplessness.

In my heart, strange to say, there is no hatred, only immense pain, astonishment, and a pervasive “Why?”.  Why did mothers’ sons and children’s fathers drive old people, whimpering infants, youths full of life, and pregnant women to the cemetery where fresh common graves awaited them?

Elsa was murdered later in 1942; her question continues to resonate today.


Photo: a post-war memorial to the Jews of Stanisławów in the city’s Jewish cemetery, 1946; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Norman Salsitz

Diary extract: Elsa Binder & Juliusz Feuerman, Dwa pamiętniki świadków i ofiar zagłady Żydów Stanisławowa (Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada, 2008)

"BUT SHE WAS"

Perhaps the most important reason to continue to remember the Holocaust is to honour the memory of the millions of innocent people whose lives were cut short. In this poem, written in August 1942 in response to deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp, Władysław Szlengel encouraged readers to remember the humanity of the victims by focussing on the fate of an apparently unremarkable Jewish mother.


Monument

For heroes – poems, rhapsodies!!!
For heroes the homage of posterity,
their names engraved on plinths
and a monument of marble.

For valiant soldiers – medals!
For soldiers’ deaths a cross! 
Conjure the glory and suffering
into steel, granite and bronze.

Legends will remain after the great,
that they were colossal,
The myth will congeal and – become
The Monument.

But who will tell you, future generations,
not about bronze or mythic themes –
but that they took her – killed her,
and that she is no more …

Was she good? Not really –
she often quarrelled after all,
slammed the door, scolded…
but she was.

Pretty? She was never pretty,
even before her hair silvered.
Wise? Well, quite ordinary, not stupid…
But… she was. 

Understand – she was, and now when she is not,
every corner here has evil eyes
and immediately sees that she is no more.
 

Władysław Szlengel was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.


Photo: a Jewish woman during a deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection

Poem: Michał M. Borwicz (ed.), Pieśń ujdzie cało... Antologia wierszy o Żydach pod okupacją niemiecką (Centralna Żydowska Komisja, 1947)