Commentary Magazine

Belsen Remembered

“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting,” Koheleth advised, but for all his worldliness he did not anticipate that one could go to both simultaneously. The occasion was last November when the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations sponsored a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria to mark the 20th anniversary of Belsen's liberation.

I had worked among the survivors of the Holocaust in the Jewish displaced persons' camp at Belsen in 1947, but for many years now had lost touch with my friends among them. The invitation to dinner (black tie optional, but appropriate) had summoned up dormant memories about who survived and who did not. I decided to go, but mocking my own sentiment, I mocked the incongruity of the occasion. I would go not to feast but to participate in the commemoration and observe the feasting.

Nearly a thousand guests thronged the grand ballroom; a full-sized symphonic orchestra was assembled on the stage; dozens of Jewish notables were installed on a two-tiered dais. Amid the glitter of gowns and the gabble of gossip, beneath a huge trilingual banner exhorting, Remember, the speeches began. The survivors themselves spoke in flat and insipid phrases, unable to revive memory. I wanted the relief of silence from the flow of banality, yet chided myself that a fastidiousness for style was Jamesian rather than Jewish. (But later that evening Elie Wiesel, accepting the Belsen Association's first Remembrance Award, for The Town Beyond the Wall, spoke of the need for “an accumulation of silence.” Job's comforters, Wiesel reminded us, sat with him seven days and seven nights and none spoke a word.)

When Josef Rosensaft, former chairman of the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, rose to speak, the tedium was replaced by tension. His own unconsumed passion to tell and retell his tale ignited his words. Suddenly, I did not mind his rhetoric, nor even the occasional theatrical effects. At his bidding we rose to remember the dead. As each of us stood in the silence of his memories, the lights dimmed. The ghostly and evocative strains of the ani ma' amin, played by the orchestra's muted strings, sounded as if wafted from the other side of this life, perhaps from the mass graves at Belsen.

The DP camp of Belsen, in the bleak landscape of the sandy Lueneburg heath, was housed in the concrete barracks of a former German Army Panzer Training School, about a mile from the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Summer there is brief and cool. In spring and fall the chill and damp penetrate your bones. In winter, I was told, ice formed in the corridors of the barracks.

The flatness of the landscape was relieved here and there by sparsely wooded areas. But I could take no pleasure in them, suspecting every young forest of camouflaging a graveyard. Before 1943, when Belsen became an internment camp for Jews holding foreign citizenship papers who were to be exchanged for German civilians abroad, the Germans had operated it as a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. Whether any Russians left that camp alive, I do not know, but some 50,000 were buried there in terraced mounds, separated by trellises made of birch branches. Birch saplings and young fir trees lined the gravelled paths. One path in the Russian cemetery led to a moss-covered wooden platform on which stood a tall thin cross of birch. A bare wooden sign identified the surrounding mounds of mass graves and wooden crosses as the Cimitero Italiano. (How these Italians came to be buried there, I do not know.)

Belsen was altogether a place of graveyards and tombstones. The Jewish graves stood on the site of the concentration camp, under the bare sky, without the protection or concealment of trees. Some mass graves contained a few hundred bodies, others as many as five thousand. In a corner of the field, a handful of monuments marked individual graves—a miniature cemetery set against the anonymous vastness of the mass graves. Wherever you stood on this necropolis, you thought you must be treading on corpses. (On the first anniversary of their liberation, the Belsen survivors dedicated a modest monument to the memory of 30,000 Jews murdered in Belsen, the inscription paraphrasing Job: “Earth conceal not the blood shed on thee!”)


In 1944, Belsen was turned from an exchange camp into a camp for the sick (in Nazi German doublespeak, a “recovery” camp), and in the last months of the war Bergen-Belsen became a dumping ground for thousands of slave-labor survivors from Auschwitz and other camps that the Germans had begun to dismantle and destroy before the Allied armies came upon them. Besides prisoners, Belsen inherited from Auschwitz Haupt-sturmfuehrer Josef Kramer, who became top officer, and a complement of other Auschwitz officials.

On April 15, 1945, when the 11th Armored Division of the British Second Army entered Bergen-Belsen, they came upon 40,000 sick, starving, and dying prisoners (25,000 women), mostly Polish and Hungarian Jews, and 10,000 corpses stacked in high heaps. To be sure, in the hierarchy of horror, Belsen had ranked low. Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Lublin (Majdanek), Sobibor, Treblinka—these were the great killing centers, where the Germans innovated and perfected the technology of mass murder. But the British had their first direct encounter with death camps at Belsen and their shock made Belsen a byword for terror. The Times correspondent began his story: “It is my duty to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind.”

Typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery spread. In the first four weeks after liberation, another 13,000 died. The British senior medical officer set up an emergency hospital in the officers' hostel of the Panzer Training School, from which the Wehrmacht had fled. The less critically ill were evacuated to the training school's concrete barracks. Under British supervision, the German and Hungarian SS began to collect the corpses.

When the remains were buried in mass pits, the camp huts and the SS installations were razed. At the entrance to the desolate waste, the British erected two signboards, in German and English:

This is the site of

The Infamous Belsen
  Concentration Camp

Liberated by the British on April
    15, 1945.
10000 unburied dead were found
Another 13000 have since died.
All of them victims of the
German New Order in Europe
And an example of Nazi Kultur.

(Those signs no longer stand, but in 1947 they were included in the standard necrological tour on which we took visiting dignitaries.)

As soon as they could, Western Jews returned to their countries; non-Jews were moved to another camp. The East-European Jews, declining repatriation, remained—awaiting visas, passports, certificates, exit permits from infernal Europe. The British, meanwhile, wanted the Panzer barracks for their soldiers and prepared to evacuate the Jews to a camp at Lingen, near the Dutch border. But they had reckoned without Josef Rosensaft.


Rosensaft had arrived in Belsen just a week before the British, in a contingent of 4,000 slave laborers from Dora. Born in Bedzin, Poland, in 1911, he was raised in a traditional Jewish family. Before the war he led an ordinary life, buying and selling scrap-metal. Deported in June 1943, he jumped from the transport and escaped, only to be caught two months later and sent to Auschwitz. Assigned to a labor camp nearby, he escaped once more in May 1944, while working on the outside. He returned to Bedzin and hid for a time with a non-Jewish family, but the Auschwitz number tattooed on his arm soon gave him away. After months of torture (the Germans suspected he had accomplices) and solitary confinement in Auschwitz, he was sent to Dora as a slave laborer.

A small, wiry man, infinitely resourceful and unpredictably daring, Rosensaft, having survived the Third Reich, could scarcely be intimidated by the British. He found the quarters at Lingen without water, without light, unfit for human habitation. Defying British military orders, he sent the first transport of Jewish evacuees back to the Belsen barracks and prevented the second from setting out. That was how the Jewish DP camp at Belsen began.

The next battle with the British was over names. The British, sharing the Panzer barracks with the Jewish survivors, identified the camp by the name of the nearest town, Hohne; Britons at home, the army explained, became agitated on learning that their soldiers were stationed at Belsen. But determined to keep the remembrance of Belsen alive (a name, he says, to make you tremble), Rosensaft persisted and, persisting, prevailed.

Under Rosensaft's direction, Belsen became a self-governing community of about 10,000 Jews who were waiting for exit papers. The first thing to be set up was the tracing service to seek out family among survivors all over Europe and relatives all over the world. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee began to send in supplies to supplement British army rations. People began to get married and babies to be born. Rabbis, mohalim, shohatim plied their trades. Jewish police kept order and Jewish judges held court. Children went to Talmud Torahs and secular schools; adults attended vocational classes. A hand-printed newspaper began to appear; a drama studio was formed; a library was set up. From Aguda to Revisionists, Jewish parties competed for representation on the Central Committee.


Belsen became, as Rosensaft puts it, a shtetl. Perhaps it was—the last shtetl in Europe, whose inhabitants, teeter-tottering between despair and exhilaration, were suspended between past and future. Their memories pursued them, waking or dreaming. Once I met a friend in the camp, his hands freshly bandaged: literally leaping out of a nightmare, he had gone through the window. (Until today, Rosensaft tells me, many survivors prefer street-level apartments because of such recurrent dreams.) Public events were occasions for processions to the cemetery, and the Deuteronomic text “Remember what Amalek did unto thee” became a commonplace. Belsen also had its manic side—mass meetings and vociferous demonstrations, almost always on behalf of a Jewish state, and there was dancing in Belsen's Freedom Square on that Saturday night, November 29, 1947, when the UN voted to partition Palestine.

Not all Belseners went to the new Jewish state; many, even fervent Zionists, chose the United States or Canada. In 1950, Belsen closed down, its residents scattered throughout the new English-speaking Diaspora. But Belsen ties still bind them. Here, in Canada, and in Israel, Belsen associations have become new-style landsmanshaftn, and at their anniversary meetings, Belseners display their prosperity and boast of their children's accomplishments.

Rosensaft has prospered most of all, and he continues in his paternalistic concern for the dispersed Belsen community. His obsession to keep the memory of Belsen alive endures. He has become our Ancient Mariner, who passes, “like night, from land to land,” with “strange power of speech” to tell his tale to whomsoever will listen.

He has the means to indulge his obsession. He organizes annual pilgrimages to the Belsen site and arranges ceremonies of remembrance in New York, London, Montreal, and Israel. He has seen to the erection of a Belsen tablet on Jerusalem's Mount Zion, and he watches over the mass graves at Belsen. He has established scholarship and loan funds for Belsen survivors, Belsen memorial libraries in Tel Aviv and New York, and now an annual Remembrance Award for a work of literature, art, music, or research on the Nazi terror. He has subsidized the publication of commemorative books. The latest is a lavishly produced, out-sized, 471-page trilingual volume, Holocaust and Rebirth: Bergen-Belsen 1945—19651

He has sponsored the commemorative dinners (last November's was the splashiest, at $25 a plate), inviting as his guests non-Belsen writers, journalists, scholars, communal leaders, philanthropists, and rabbis. Through them he has tried to involve the whole Jewish community in the memory of Belsen and, against all odds and despite the incongruity of the setting, he has somehow succeeded. The Belsen commemoration I attended was not only a private Belsen affair. Briefly, fleetingly, it became a communal service of remembrance, a fragile moment in which we all remembered together.


An ancient Jewish legend has it that when God spoke at Sinai, revealing the Torah, all Israel was present, the living and the dead and those not yet born, so that every Jew in the course of history has had his personal share of the revelation. The Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein updated this legend in his poem Nisht di meysim loybn gott (“The dead praise not the Lord,” an allusion to Psalm 115), when he ascribed to all Israel a share also in the Holocaust:

We received the Torah at Sinai and in Lublin we gave it back.
The dead praise not the Lord,
The Torah was given for living.
And so together as all of us
stood together at the Giving of
    the Torah
So verily, we all died in Lublin.

And, indeed, nowhere in the world, I think, is there a Jew alive today who, if he ponders at all the fact that he is a Jew alive today, has not had his own apocalyptic encounter with the Holocaust. But we keep our share in the catastrophe private and intimate; we do not acknowledge it collectively. We have no set date to observe, no prayer to recite.

Having no religious or communal authority to decide such matters, those who commemorate the Holocaust are, like those Biblical men of war taking booty, every man for himself. Even Rosensaft, who explains his preoccupation with his institutions of remembrance as the surrogates of traditional mourning—kaddish and yortsayt—does not keep a fixed date for Belsen commemorative events. For some, April 19, the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, has become the date to remember. The Israeli Knesset decreed the 27th of Nisan as Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day to commemorate “the disaster which the Nazis and their collaborators brought upon the Jewish people and . . . the acts of heroism and revolt performed in those days,” but few American Jews know about, let alone observe, it. We have no prayer for the occasion, not even a liturgical poem. In the old days the liturgy accommodated itself to national disasters, assimilating into the service laments and supplicatory poems. But no one writes liturgical poetry nowadays and the trend is toward cutting services, not adding to them.

Consequently, I thank Josef Rosensaft for having given me a public occasion to remember. I came thinking to mock; I left wanting to remember and wanting nothing else but that we all remember.


1 Edited by Sam E. Bloch, published by the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Survivors, $25.00.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.