The Holocaust did not end at liberation

This article was adapted from remarks at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.

A memorial stone is pictured at the former Bergen-Belsen Nazi death camp (photo credit: REUTERS)
A memorial stone is pictured at the former Bergen-Belsen Nazi death camp
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This coming Friday, May 1, it will be 67 years since I was born at the Glyn Hughes Hospital in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen. It is, therefore, a unique and most profound privilege for me to stand here today at the cemetery inside the former DP camp where approximately 4,500 victims of the Holocaust who died in the weeks and months after their liberation lie buried.
“Hush, hush, let’s be silent, graves are growing here,” the Yiddish poet Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote in the Vilna Ghetto about the killing fields at nearby Ponary where more than 75,000 human beings – mostly Jews but also Soviet prisoners of war and others – were murdered by the SS and their accomplices between 1941 and 1944.
These words are equally applicable not just to the main mass-graves of Bergen-Belsen but also to this all-too-often overlooked cemetery where we find ourselves now.
This cemetery is proof – if proof is needed – that the Holocaust did not end at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. When British troops entered the camp that day, they found, in the words of Lieutenant Colonel M. W.
Gonin, the commanding officer of the 11th Light Field Ambulance, “at least 20,000 sick suffering from the most virulent diseases known to man, all of whom required urgent hospital treatment and 30,000 men and women who might die if they were not treated, but who certainly would die if they were not fed and removed from the horror camp.”
Within a few days following the liberation, Brigadier H.
L. Glyn-Hughes, the deputy director of medical services of the British Army of the Rhine, appointed my mother, a not yet 33-year-old Jewish dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, to organize and head a group of volunteers from among the survivors to help care for the camp’s thousands of critically ill inmates. For weeks on end, my mother and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other female and male volunteers, only a few of whom were trained nurses, worked round the clock with the British military medical personnel to try to save as many of the survivors as possible. Despite their desperate efforts, however, the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims at Bergen-Belsen during the two months after the liberation.
Many of these 13,944 men, women and children did not die in what Lt. Colonel Gonin referred to as the “horror camp,” but perished here, inside what had been a German military base and would shortly become the largest DP camp in Germany.
In order to contain a raging typhus epidemic, Brigadier Glyn Hughes and Lt. Colonel James Johnston decided to transfer all the survivors of Belsen to this erstwhile Wehrmacht base where they could be treated in cleaner, relatively more hygienic surroundings. The central building of the base – the Roundhouse – became the core of a 7,000 bed emergency hospital.
This transfer of the survivors was completed by May 19, and the entire concentration camp was burned to the ground by May 21. Here, in their new surroundings, the healthier among the former inmates of Belsen returned to life and the stronger and more fortunate of the patients in the emergency hospital began what was often a slow, difficult recuperation. But tragically, far too many of those who heard British officers and soldiers tell them on April 15 that they were free did not live to enjoy their freedom.
This cemetery and other graves is where they were laid to rest.
The buildings and barracks of what was the DP camp of Bergen-Belsen from May 1945 until the summer of 1950, and that have made up the British military base that has been here since 1950, were also where the final vestiges of the Shoah and the physical and spiritual rebirth of the She’erit Hapletah, the surviving remnant of European Jewry as the survivors referred to themselves, coexisted in separate yet overlapping surreal universes.
That is – for me at least – the principal reason why it is essential that when British troops leave this base in the near future, at least some of the barracks and definitely the Roundhouse must be placed under the care of and incorporated into the Memorial Site of Bergen-Belsen.
Future generations must be able to see for themselves where the last victims of Bergen-Belsen perished.
But as we stand here today, we must also try to imagine the thoughts, fears and hopes of the survivors who, as they left Belsen for new homes in Israel, the United States, Canada and elsewhere, came here one last time to pray, to cry, or just to say farewell to those who would remain here forever.
And so allow me to conclude with the beginning of a poem by another poet of the Holocaust, Yosef Papiernikov – a song, incidentally, that my father, the leader of the survivors of Bergen-Belsen, loved to sing. It is a sentiment that, I think, reflects how many of the Jews who went through the Shoah were able to find the strength not to surrender to despair or allow themselves to be dehumanized, and how we, today, may be able to find some solace as we in turn must say good-bye – at least for now – to the dead of Belsen: “It may be that I build my castles in the air It may be that my God does not exist at all In my dreams it is brighter, in my dreams I feel better In my dreams the sky is even bluer than blue.”
The author is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and lectures on the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities. He is the editor of God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015). This article was adapted from his remarks at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen.