Bergen-Belsen visit

By Josef Rees

Seventy years ago this April, British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. As an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) through my participation in the Learning from Auschwitz project whilst at school, I was invited to visit the camp on 26th April along with other ambassadors, teachers, religious leaders and historians to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.

Belsen, in the post-war British psyche, became synonymous with Nazi evil and brutality, playing a key part in British perceptions toward Nazis justifying the war. Rev Father Edmund Swift, Chaplain to the 81st British Genera Hospital, wrote of Belsen, “Never more will we want to doubt the existence of Hell.” It was the largest and most intact concentration camp liberated by the British. Although the British had knowledge of the camp’s existence, no one was prepared for what they were about to witness. Richard Dimbleby’s famous correspondence for the BBC regarding the scale of the suffering in the camp under Commandant Josef Kramer shocked the world. Belsen, therefore, quickly became a symbol of the righteousness of the Allied war effort for there were 60,000 inmates living in filth and squalor on liberation day.  The story of Belsen however does not end with liberation as it became a major relief effort on behalf of the British Army, its medical units, chaplains and voluntary units. Belsen inextricably became linked to the Displaced Persons crisis engulfing Europe following VE Day. Due to its Jewish inmates, Belsen became a crucial battleground between Zionist organizations and the British government over the future of Jews and Palestine, creating tension between previous wartime Allies and arguably the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948.

I attended two services; the first was at the Jewish Memorial in the camp itself conducted by AJEX (Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and Women) at which the President of Germany, the President of the World Jewish Congress and the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Ephraim Mervis, addressed those present.

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Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis, Copyright Christine Rees. ©

The second was held at the Jewish Cemetery, Bergen-Höhne British Army Garrison. These services were all the more significant as it was the last memorial service in which the British Army will play a part as the Garrison is being shut down this summer. Over 90 survivors and liberators were present at both services. Eva Behar was one survivor present, returning to the site for the first time in 70 years with 8 of her children and grandchildren. Walking around the camp, I was fortunate enough to listen to an interview between a military journalist and Melvyn Hirsch. Melvyn, a Jewish D-Day soldier, though not part of the original liberation unit, was stationed at Belsen in the weeks that followed with the British Army. Indeed, there is a different story for every person who spent time at Belsen. Perhaps the most famous Holocaust victim, Anne Frank, alongside her sister Margot, was killed at Belsen. I found the grave of a Taff Tusia, which simply marked the date of birth and date of death; they were separated by a mere 4 months.

 

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Melvyn Hircsh. Copyright Christine Rees. ©

 

 

For all the individuals’ stories, Belsen is infamous for forgetting the individual behind the suffering. One of the most unfortunate scenes from Belsen are those of a British soldier using a bulldozer to bury thousands of corpses; the reasoning being that the bodies were riddled with disease and to bury by hand was too dangerous to those still alive; even in death there was no dignity for many. There was no way to identify the remains; therefore the bodies were simply bulldozed together into several mass graves. The inscription on these pits simply states how many bodies are buried there – there is no list of names, the largest containing 8000 bodies, the smallest 500. This I found hard to comprehend as the Trust attempts to identify the individuals behind the statistics and suffering yet right there in front of me there was only numbers.

            And so we left Hannover at 8pm, arriving in Reading near midnight. It had been an emotional and thought-provoking 24 hours. Belsen is the third Nazi camp I have visited – the others being Auschwitz-Birkenau and Theresienstadt. Inevitably, I found myself comparing each camp, Birkenau being an extermination camp, Theresienstadt a holding camp and Belsen. Arguably, to compare is to trivialise the suffering, but as a historian whose undergraduate and postgraduate dissertation focuses significantly on the Holocaust, its impact and Belsen as DP camp, I found it unavoidable. One of the speakers at the memorial said, in comparison to other camps, there ‘is not much to see in Belsen.’ (This is due to the British decision to burn the camp’s buildings to stop the spread of disease). Nevertheless, we must respect such a site of suffering, for Belsen is a place of contradiction; man showed what man could do to fellow man, not just for evil, but also for good as the British Army’s Medical Units and Chaplains helped save lives and give the survivors their humanity back.

Some question the purpose of commemorating the Holocaust, arguing to repeat the story is merely to not allow yourself and others to move on. Yet, what the memorial services and survivors taught me on that day is that we can never forget what happened at Belsen and places like it. Just because there are no buildings does not mean there is nothing to see or feel. As the years go by, the amount of survivors, liberators – and perpetrators- alive decreases, therefore it is important now more than ever to remember what happened at Belsen, and never to forget.

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