What Bergen-Belsen Taught Us


On Sunday, April 17, hundreds of Holocaust survivors from around the world, along with their children and grandchildren, gathered on the site of the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen to observe the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. I was privileged to participate in the commemoration beside the Jewish monument my father had inaugurated in the midst of mass graves in April 1946. Because my parents are no longer alive, I spoke in their stead, on their behalf, hearing their voices in my mind.

It is from Bergen-Belsen that the horrors of the Holocaust first permeated the consciousness of humankind. Long before Auschwitz became the defining term of the Shoah, the films and photographs taken by British soldiers and journalists in April 1945 of both the dead and the survivors of Bergen-Belsen — shown in newsreels throughout the world — awakened the international community to the genocide that had been committed against the Jews of Europe.

In her memoir, “Yesterday: My Story,” which she finished writing just before her death, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, described April 15, 1945:

“It was Sunday, a very hot day. It was strange; there was nobody to be seen outside the barracks. The camp seemed to have been abandoned, almost like a cemetery…. Suddenly, we felt the earth tremble; something was moving. We were convinced that the Germans were about to blow up the camp…. We all believed that these were the last moments of our lives. It was 3 p.m. We heard a loud voice repeating the same words in English and in German. ‘Hello, hello. You are free. We are British soldiers and have come to liberate you.’…. We ran out of the barracks and saw a British army vehicle with a loudspeaker on top, driving slowly through the camp.”

But almost immediately, my mother recalled, a new reality set in: “There was joy, yes. We were free, the gates were open — but where were we to go? The liberation had come too late, not only for the dead, but for us, the living, as well. We had lost our families, our friends, our homes. We had no place to go, and nobody was waiting for us anywhere. We were alive, yes. We were liberated from death, from the fear of death, but the fear of life started.”

At Belsen, the British found themselves in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. More than 10,000 bodies lay scattered about the camp, and the 58,000 surviving inmates — the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews — suffered from a combination of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, extreme malnutrition and other virulent diseases. Confronted with the emaciated, tormented survivors moving, walking, speaking in the midst of corpses, the liberators must have asked themselves not “Can these bones live?” but “How can these bones live?’’

My father, Josef (Yossel) Rosensaft, was also liberated here. For more than five years following the liberation, he headed both the Jewish Committee of the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp and the Central Jewish Committee in the British Zone of Germany. I am one of more than 2,000 children who were born in Bergen-Belsen between 1946 and 1950.

We, the children and grandchildren of the survivors, were proud to be at Belsen on that Sunday alongside our parents and grandparents. We know that we were given life and placed on earth with a solemn obligation. Our parents and grandparents survived to bear witness. We, in turn, must ensure that their memories, which we have absorbed into ours, will remain as a permanent warning to humanity.

Sixty years after the liberation of Belsen, anti-Semitism remains a threat, not just to the Jewish people, but to civilization as a whole, and Holocaust deniers are still allowed to spread their poison.

In France, Great Britain and the United States, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has increased markedly during the past year. The same weekend that we were in Belsen, several American white supremacist groups were scheduled to celebrate Hitler’s birthday with concerts in Michigan and New Jersey. Earlier this year, right-wing members of the state parliament of Saxony in Germany disrupted a tribute to the victims of Nazism; and the mayor of London saw fit to compare a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard.

Sixty years after the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau stopped burning our families, innocent men, women and children are murdered in a horrific genocide in Darfur; and government-sponsored terrorists continue to seek the destruction of the State of Israel, which arose out of the ashes of the Shoah.

Thus, we do not have the right to focus only on the agony and suffering of the past. While the Germans were able to torture, to murder, to destroy, they did not succeed in dehumanizing their victims. The ultimate victory of European Jews over the Nazis and their multinational accomplices was firmly rooted in their human, ethical values.

The critical lesson we have learned from our parents’ and grandparents’ tragic experiences is that indifference to the suffering of others is in itself a crime. Our place must be at the forefront of the struggle against every form of racial, religious or ethnic hatred.

Together with others of the post-Holocaust generations, we must raise our collective voices on behalf of all, Jews and non-Jews alike, who are subjected to discrimination and persecution, or who are threatened by annihilation, anywhere in the world. We may not be passive, or allow others to be passive, in the face of oppression, for we know, only too well, that the ultimate consequence of apathy and silence was embodied forever in the flames of Auschwitz and the mass graves of Bergen-Belsen.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, is the founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. This column is courtesy of JTA from a speech Rosensaft gave at Bergen-Belsen.