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.
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.