Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen

Menachem Rosensaft is general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. But he is a poet by night, whose fierce writing wrestles with the darkness again and again.
April 20, 2021
A World War II veteran places a flower at the inscribed memorial wall during a commemoration service in the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, northern Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

In honor of the 76th Anniversary of liberation: April 15, 1945.

Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” And yet, poetry has been written, even Nobel Prize-winning poetry (by Nelly Sachs), and poetry must be written if words are to be used to grapple with the unique evil that was Auschwitz.

But Adorno was right in some respects. The task of using language — concise language, precise language, intense language, suggestive language, allegorical language — to confront the abyss must not be undertaken lightly. It requires skill, understanding, empathy. The journey into barbarism can indeed become barbaric, yet it need not be.

Menachem Rosensaft, a Second Generation leader, exemplifies how to strike that balance. Rosensaft was born in the Displaced Persons Camp of Bergen-Belsen to parents who had survived Auschwitz. His mother preserved the lives of many children at Bergen-Belsen, and his father was a prominent, charismatic political leader in the DP camps who restored dignity to the survivors while making them an important symbol of need for a Jewish State. Living up to his parents’ incredible legacy is not easy, made ever more difficult by being named “Menachem,” named for his grandfather but a consolation for Benjamin, the five-year-old brother he never knew, who was taken to the crematoria at Birkenau.

Rosensaft, known as a political activist and human rights advocate, is now general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. But one would be surprised to discover that he is a poet by night, whose fierce writing wrestles with the darkness again and again. His newest work, “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (April 2021), reveals something essential about his own existence: although he left Bergen-Belsen, Bergen-Belsen has never left him.

Liberated 76 years ago on April 15, 1945 by the British, Bergen-Belsen was overwhelmingly a place of death. So virulent was the typhus epidemic there that 13,000 died after liberation and the concentration camp had to be burned to the ground — but only after its corpses were bulldozed into mass graves. But Bergen-Belsen was also a place of life, born and reborn. Rosensaft’s parents, who both had spouses that were murdered in Auschwitz, remarried and dared bring new life into the world, still not knowing where they would live and the shape of the world in which they would bring their children.

He writes of the Second Generation

true, we are the children
of a nocturnal twilight
the heir of Auschwitz and Ponar
but ours is also the rainbow
in us the storm meets sunlight
to create new colors
as we add defiant sparks
to an eternal fire

His words challenge God and humanity, Christianity and Creation. His credo:


Yes, I believe that
Jesus was God’s child
one son – not The.
nor His eldest
nor His heir;
and murdering a man
is still a greater crime
than deicide

Genesis, Post Scriptum

and on the eighth day
the devil became master
of the universe
by creating man’s soul
in God’s image

There is anger in Rosensaft’s poetry, an anger most reminiscent of the early writing of survivors, before they were tempered by the blessings of life renewed — children and grandchildren, careers, accomplishments, love — and before they learned that to bear witness they could neither scream nor remain mute, but speak and write with a gentle fierceness or a fierce gentleness.

There is anger in Rosensaft’s poetry, an anger most reminiscent of the early writing of survivors.

Rosensaft wrestles with God and appreciates the paradox that even after Auschwitz, Jews, believers, heretics and skeptics continue the traditions of Israel — wrestling with God.


the miracle
after god did not respond
to cries from the depths of Auschwitz
is that Jews
continue to pray
despite auschwitz

And yet there is hope, not the innocent, simplistic hope of Anne Frank’s diary, completed before she died on typhus at Bergen-Belsen, but a defiant hope that, even while confronting and understanding evil, is determined not to give death and destruction the final word. Rosensaft writes:

blessed is the soul
that emerged from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen
to create hope
not fears
to teach life
not sorrow

But what is wonderful in Rosensaft’s writing is that he fights intensely for Jewish rights — but not exclusively. He defends the uniqueness of the Holocaust, not to place it on the mountain top as the Olympus of suffering and evil, but to use it as a spiritual push to be sensitive to all suffering and all evil. The concluding poem of the book was written after the past summer and speaks to the extinguished life of George Floyd.

Black Lives Matter  

of course Black lives matter
and if we want
any of us
to remember
Jewish lives extinguished at Auschwitz
Bosniak lives at Srebrenica
Tutsi lives in Butare
Serbian lives at Jasenovac
Armenian lives at Musa Dagh
Fur lives in Darfur
Rohingya lives in Myanmar
then we must now all shout
that Black lives matter
until no child of God ever again dies gasping
“I can’t breathe”

Survivors and the best of their descendants often embody simple truth, basic values that form the core of human decency. Contrary to the Messianic pretentions of apocalyptic violence against their Arab neighbors, Rosensaft’s vision is infused with a commitment to the sanctity of all human life.

The Messiah Will Not Come

the messiah will not come
God will not leave Her seclusion
until Jerusalem’s bearded
rabbis imams priests
teach daily that each
Jewish child
Palestinian infant
is created with one
only one
always the same
divine spark

From the pen of a sophisticated man come a plea for simple truths that should be — must be — at the core of all true religions. In this slim but moving volume, we can witness an encounter with barbarity and its memory that does not descend but ascends. It uses language to enrich, enhance and inspire.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

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