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)