September 21, 2018

Am Yisrael Chai: The Story Behind The Bergen-Belsen Recording

Am Yisrael Chai!”, shouted Reverend L.H. Hardman who had finished conducting the first pre-Shabbat sermon that many of the Bergen-Belsen camp survivors had not seen for 6 years. Although weakened by hunger, disease, and the death of their loved ones, on the 20th of April, 1945 many whose spirits still remained strong began to sing “Hatikvah”, so the world can hear that they were there, and they survived.

There is a very good chance that you have heard this emotional recording, but have you ever stopped to truly consider the story behind it? Despite the sadness, yet immense hope in the voices of the singers: Who were they? How did they get there? And perhaps most importantly: What happened to them?

These questions are almost impossible to answer as history does not afford us many recorded accounts. Yet, this was the case in 1945. After the death of 6 million Jews in Europe, and an atrocious war which took the lives of 65 million. Confusion was normalcy. It was those amid the confusion such as Patrick Gordon Walker, a reporter for the BBC, who wanted to record the stories of what happened that managed to collect the few stories that we have left today. Nothing could have prepared him, or the soldiers who liberated the camp days earlier, for the horrors that lay inside.

The Bergen Belsen camp , which was established in 1941 in the middle of Germany served as a death camp for Jews, homosexuals and political prisoners. The exact number of how many people died during those years is not known, however when the British and Canadian 11th armoured Division liberated it, they found 60,000 people, most of which were extremely emaciated and suffering from typhus.

Walker entered the camp five days after its liberation to find people who could no longer possibly function because of hunger, only to be greeted with the sounds of “God Save The King” played on an detuned piano in order to honour the British and Canadian liberators. People were joyous, despite their condition and the fact that many were still dying. In fact, they sang, and talked with their liberators who gave them food, and comforted them by reminding them that they were human beings.

“What I saw there will always haunt me” said Walker in his famous broadcast, and this was the case as there were truly more dead in the camp than living. One soldier’s account of how he saw a mother and child dying of sickness right in front of him, was only one of hundreds when the soldiers first found the abandoned camp.

Yet, perhaps what is more interesting is not simply the survivors who sang the Hatikvah after liberation, but those who did when they were being led to their deaths. The account of Jan Michaels, a Polish Jew who saw a group of Jewish Czechs singing the future national anthem of Israel, while they were on their way to the gas chambers. Michaels said that the SS guards could not stop them from singing, as their hope was unstoppable even in the face of certain death.

Yet, why is this so important to remember?

However melancholic it is to remind ourselves of these horrible stories, it is essential that we remember all those who have perished, as well as those who lived on to sing the Hatikvah after their liberation, as it is was their hope to be reunited with those they loved in Eretz Tsion. Now, today, Israel still faces enemies who want its people abolished, but that will never again be possible.

To answer the first questions:

Who were they? They were just like you and I. How did they get there? Through unbelievable xenophobia, hatred and ignorance. What happened to them? They live on in all Jewish hearts, and more importantly they live on through Israel.