The war in Ukraine and the atrocities committed there, with accompanying claims of genocide and Nazism, have made remembrance of the Holocaust more relevant than ever. We are confronted by perhaps the most serious challenge to the international rule of law since the end of the Second World War. Unfortunately, we are also confronted with atrocities committed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia on a level we have seldom seen in Europe since then.
The liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, near the city of Hannover, took place on 15th April, 1945, when the British entered the camp and the war was almost over. What they saw horrified the soldiers who were among the first to witness the Nazi murder machine. The pictures they took defined for the world the enormity of the crimes against humanity that the Nazis had committed.
The sights of what almost immediately became known as the “Horror Camp” were so shocking that British soldiers wept. Many were sick; some couldn’t enter it. The images of heaps of dead, naked, skeletal bodies, at least 10,000 corpses stacked and littered throughout the camp, were mixed with approximately 58,000 half-dead, starving and diseased men, women and children who were themselves no more than skin and bones, mostly Jews but also Roma and Sinti, prisoners of war, political opponents and homosexuals. For decades after, especially in the UK, Belsen symbolised what we today refer to as the Holocaust.
This year the 77th commemoration of that liberation was held on May 8th, VE Day: the end of the war in Europe and a day before the Soviet (and now Russian) Victory Day. The commemoration this year began at the nearby cemetery, with its Soviet-era memorial, honouring the 14,000 POWs, Ukrainians, Russians, Georgians, Chechens and others who died in the winter of 1941/1942 at Stalag X1; there was no accommodation at the beginning because the barracks were still under construction.
In 1943, a concentration camp run by the SS was established adjacent to the Wehrmacht’s POW camp. This new camp was initially a transit camp (Aufenthaltslager) for Jews whom the Germans wanted to exchange for German nationals held by the Allies. Belsen was not an extermination camp, but by the winter and early spring of 1945 it had mushroomed into a sprawling complex of wooden barracks and huts holding over 50,000 prisoners, many thousands of whom died from disease, starvation, mistreatment and lack of sanitation. The camp is infamous for many things, including the fact that this is where the teenage diarist Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died from the raging typhus epidemic in February, only weeks before liberation.
Then, both the Russians and the Ukrainians as Soviets were our allies against the Nazis. This year, the Russians were asked not to attend the ceremony. Alliances have been scrambled. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is the largest military operation in Europe since 1945: a superpower has unleashed its forces in the most brutal way on a neighbouring country.
The commemoration remains relevant because we need to remind people of what happened. Today’s Germany is not the Germany of 1933 or 1945. Ukrainians can flee Russian soldiers and find refuge in Poland, in the rest of the EU, in the UK, in Canada, in the US. Back then most Jews found all the borders closed: they couldn’t escape. The Jews were usually someone else’s problem and no one’s priority. Today the West is united in support for Ukraine; the international community has acted appropriately despite the unfolding tragedy.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky, like Winston Churchill, has united the nation. Remembrance is also relevant in the time of rising populism. In the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen won over 40 per cent of the vote, which is a serious concern. Also alarming was Eric Zemour, who so publicly jettisoned the principles of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. If the mass graves of Belsen have a moral imperative, it is a plea not to let this happen again.
But in 1933, no one was thinking in terms of a Holocaust, and few took the rantings of Adolf Hitler seriously. As late as 1941, before the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the plan wasn’t to exterminate the Jews but to get them out of Germany. But by then it was clear that no one would take the persecuted Jews of occupied Europe, and the Nazi leaders turned to genocide. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred in the wake of Operation Barbarossa — the “Holocaust by bullets”. In January 1942, senior German bureaucrats gathered at a villa in the Wannsee suburb of Berlin to set in motion the implementation of the “Final Solution”. Standing amidst the mass graves in the fields of Bergen-Belsen, where memorial mounds hold the bones of tens of thousands of people, we know that today’s crimes are not the same, but also that we must remain vigilant.
As I walked on the landscaped space between no-longer existing barracks, a man stopped to ask if we had any connection to Belsen. My host was Professor Menachem Rosensaft, the genocide law scholar, poet, author, and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress. Yes, he did have a connection, he told the young British man. He was born in Belsen in 1948 after it had become a Displaced Persons camp.
Did the young man himself have any connection, asked Professor Rosensaft. This question started a memorable conversation. “Yes,” he replied. “My grandfather was one of the ambulance drivers when the camp was liberated.” “Under (Mervyn) Gonin?” asked Rosensaft, referring to Lt. Col. Mervyn Gonin, who commanded the British 11th Light Field Ambulance unit and led the first full medical unit into Belsen just after liberation. “Yes,” answered the young man, who comes back every year. Rosensaft, whose parents were liberated at Belsen and who had just given a commemorative eulogy at the Jewish monument, said, “I owe my life to your grandfather. Thank you.”
What Gonin saw when he and Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Second Army, one of the officers who liberated Belsen, entered the camp was like nothing anyone had experienced before. It was hell on earth.
The camp was built to house 8,000 prisoners, and until the summer of 1944, Belsen was considered, compared to other camps, “not that bad,” said Professor Rosensaft. But as the Red Army moved rapidly across Poland to Germany, the Nazis embarked on an insane mission. To clear the German death and concentration camps in Poland, inmates were taken on death marches and transports to camps in Germany, including Belsen.
In December 1944, Josef Kramer, who had been the commandant at Auschwitz-Birkenau, became the Camp Commandant of Belsen, and conditions there became horrific. When the British arrived, some 60,000 prisoners were crammed together. Disease was rife — typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery. The inmates were covered with lice, too weak and sick to even turn over to vomit, they urinated and defecated where they lay, and with no lavatory facilities, “the compounds were absolutely one mass of human excreta,” said Hughes. In the first week after liberation, 9,000 people died.
These mounds where human remains were buried are now covered in grass and marked with the number of dead interred, recorded in stone. The fields and monuments are surrounded by forests and the sound of birdsong. You have to use your imagination to see the watch towers, the rows of barracks, the terrified prisoners, the soldiers in their Nazi uniforms as Belsen became a place where the dead and dying could not be told apart. At the beginning, after liberation, the SS guards and officers were forced to bury the victims in mass graves, although that soon stopped and by May 8th, the mass burials were over, and individual burials began. The British burned down the camp to contain the disease, and the newly liberated were moved to the former Wehrmacht camp about a mile away.
As we drove past what had been the Wehrmacht camp’s cinema, Professor Rosensaft tells the story of Marlene Dietrich, who had left Germany for Hollywood to become a symbol of anti-Nazi resistance, performing during the war for Allied troops. In the summer of 1945, she returned to Germany and searched for her sister. When told she was at Belsen, Marlene Dietrich first thought she had been a prisoner there. What she discovered was that her sister and her husband had run the cinema for the Nazis. Dietrich, who was one of the highest paid actresses in the world, made sure her sister was looked after, but never spoke to her again.
Liberation, as Professor Rosensaft points out, is somewhat of a misnomer. The Germans were terrified that the typhus-ridden prisoners might escape and spread disease across the Lower Saxony heath. So they engaged in truce negotiations with the British, turning over Belsen to them on 15th April, though the British did not take full control over the camp until two days later.
It was during these first days that Brigadier Hughes encountered a young Polish-Jewish dentist, who had saved many lives during her time in Auschwitz. Hadassah (Ada) Bimko was deported from her home in Sosnowiec, Poland, with her family, arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the night of August 3-4, 1943. Her parents, first husband, and five-and-a-half-year-old son were sent directly to their death in one of the gas chambers. Because of her medical training, the notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, assigned her to work in the Birkenau infirmary, where she saved the lives of countless women by performing rudimentary surgeries and sending them on work details in advance of gas chamber selections by the SS.
On November 14th, 1944, the Dr Bimko, who had studied at the University of Nancy, France, was deported to Bergen-Belsen, where she and a group of Jewish women inmates kept 149 children alive until the camp was liberated. When Brigadier Hughes met Dr Bimko, he put her in charge of organising a team of a few doctors and several hundred volunteers from among the survivors to help care for all the camp’s wounded. Gonin, who observed her in action, said that Dr Bimko “was the bravest woman he had ever known.”
It is with great pride that Professor Rosensaft tells this story of his remarkable mother. “For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” Professor Rosensaft said, his mother recalled many years later, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”
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