'Celebrating' Pessah in Bergen-Belsen

The diary of two men trapped in a concentration camp recounts a brave struggle to keep tradition alive.

bergen-belsen 88 (photo credit: )
bergen-belsen 88
(photo credit: )
On Seder night - April 7, 1944 - in Nazi-occupied Europe, "We allowed ourselves to eat a good evening meal. Effie read a suitable passage from the Bible and two poems of Bialik on the subject of Pessah. We also sang and ate several of our self produced shmontzes [Yiddish for nonsense, or "stuff"] that were somewhat reminiscent of matzot. To our sorrow, we did not have a Haggada nor any of the other things pertaining to the Seder night. Despite that, we had a real atmosphere of Pessah." The two young German Jews had been incarcerated by the Germans at the Bergen-Belsen camp two months earlier, where they had been selected by the Germans to serve as as the sole Sonderkommando (special work detail) after stating that they had no family members in the camp. Their job: to search the corpses of murdered inmates for valuables, and then burn the corpses in the camp's crematorium. A month after their arrival at the camp, the two young men, David Arnold Koller, 20, known by his nickname, "Effie," and Hans Horowitz, 19, known as "Honki" - who were separated from the rest of the inmates of the camp - decided to keep a diary in which they described the dreadful conditions of their lives and the horrors that were their daily lot. The diary, which was written in German between March 7 and April 16, 1944, was hidden beneath a stone in the garden beside the shack in which they lived, and was partially uncovered after the war. The diary, which is currently in the archives collection of the the Ghetto Fighters' Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, is the sixth such Holocaust-related diary in the museum's archives which has a connection to Pessah, said archive director Yossi Shavit. "Now we will go to sleep; tomorrow morning they will wake us and we'll wait for whatever will occur. If only we'll be able to remain in contact with the comrades! In any event, we've decided to keep a diary in which the two of us will write alternately. Good night," the first entry, dated March 7 reads. "They open the lock of the shack from the outside. Get dressed! Get washed! Eat! We quickly saw what our new work was. They brought us to the crematorium. The furnace had already been kindled before our arrival. "They asked us, had we ever seen a dead man before? We replied in the negative. We removed rings from the hands of the dead and extracted gold teeth using forceps...By 13:00 we had finished incinerating the nine bodies and the corpse of a little boy, and we were allowed to go to eat, under guard... "Slowly it became clear to us that we would be cut off from the others without the ability to exchange a word with them, and even the waving of hands was forbidden us," the next entry dated March 8 reads. "The comrades outside with shovels for digging succeed in getting close to the shack, and we hear every word. For our sake, they speak in Hebrew. Effie heard the following: The transport from Westerbork did arrive anyway, with a total of 212 persons. From among our comrades came Klara, the Kaufman family, Chana Rubel, Naomi Cohen and her brother, and Hans Stein. Meanwhile, a transport left from Westerbork to Theresienstadt, and one to Auschwitz," the next entry dated March 17 reads. "The English went out again in a big aerial attack as they have done frequently of late. The sirens' whine is heard all the time. One bomber was downed here, and we could see it go up in flames. We saw two of the crew who parachuted out," reads a March 23 entry. The young men's ad-hoc Pessah celebration the next month, on an April day marked by "marvelous weather," as the diary recounts, was to be their last. Later that year, Effie and Honki were sent on a transport to the Neuengamme concentration camp, where they perished on November 27, 1944.