BERGEN-BELSEN, Germany — There are no gas chambers or crematoria to see at Bergen-Belsen. Instead, there are grassy berms, covering the massive pits into which more than 10,000 emaciated corpses were packed, with bulldozers, after British forces liberated the concentration camp on April 15, 1945.
From a young age, I have seen film footage of those bulldozed bodies, but the other day I actually walked among those berms. It was a disturbing feeling, a surreal experience I have not yet fully grasped. Yet, before I will have had time to fully process it, I will walk by those mass graves again on Sunday, as I make my way to the official ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
Dignitaries like German President Joachim Gauck, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, and British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis will speak. I suspect, however, that I may be listening more to the ghostly sounds that someone with me here and who has visited this site many times, says she hears, as the wind blows through the 70-year-old trees that stand exactly where the camp’s barracks used to be.
The concentration camp
The barracks are gone because the British immediately burned down every single structure in the typhus- and typhoid-infested camp in an effort to prevent the further spread of disease. That’s why there is nothing left of this place, where more than 70,000 people perished between 1941 and 1945, other than vast open fields and the surrounding forest — and, of course, the huge mounds covering those who died of disease or starvation as the camp’s population ballooned tremendously beyond capacity. That was when the Soviets advanced across Poland, and the Germans marched and transported prisoners from death camps in the east to concentration and prison camps in territory still under their control.
Bergen-Belsen was originally a prisoner of war camp. In 1943 it also became an “exchange camp” for Jewish prisoners who could be held as hostages to be traded for German prisoners overseas. The concentration camp — the only one the Nazis built exclusively for Jews — was designed to hold no more than 7,000 inmates, but by liberation it imprisoned 50,000, thousands of whom were provided no shelter, food or water in the final months.
Bergen-Belsen is in effect the largest Jewish cemetery in Western Europe, but there are no grave markers or monuments save for a small number of symbolic ones, placed in recent years by family members or memorial foundations to supplement a number of official monuments erected on the site in the late 1940s and early ’50s. (In more recent years a documentation center and museum have been added by the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation, which manages the site.)
There is another cemetery nearby, one that was established after liberation. Four and a half thousand people — Jews and Christians — are buried here, but there are relatively few gravestones. A number of them state nothing more than “Here lies an unknown deceased,” in German.
Almost 14,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen in the first few months after liberation. For them, the Holocaust did not end with the arrival of the Allies. It is striking that even among those who received a proper burial, so few were remembered with a permanent marker.
The displaced persons camp
I may be listening for the voices of the dead among the berms, but otherwise during my time at Bergen-Belsen with a group of survivors, I am hearing the voices of the living, as they tell me about their experiences at the displaced persons camp established at the German military base a short distance away.
In operation from April 1945 until August 1950, it was the largest DP camp in Europe, and the temporary home, at one point or another, to 50,000 of the 250,000 Jewish displaced persons after the war. The survivors (some of whom were brought to Bergen-Belsen by the Germans, while others arrived after the war had ended) quickly built an autonomous community as they waited for permission to emigrate.
Making use of the facilities at the state-of-the-art military base, built between 1935 and 1937 on Hitler’s orders, the survivors — primarily teenagers and young adults — established newspapers, a police force, sports teams, schools, a theater and arts and cultural programming. Those who had been Zionist youth leaders before the war stepped up to lead again, adding Bergen-Belsen’s voice to the urgent call for a Jewish state. Overseeing it all was the politically effective Central Committee of Liberated Jews of the British Zone, which interfaced with the British military authorities and the world.
The grand Roundhouse building in the middle of the base, used as a mess hall by the Germans, became a 7,000-bed emergency hospital. Later, patients were moved to a proper medical facility, Glyn Hughes Hospital, named in honor of the British brigadier who was the medical officer for the 11th Armored Division that liberated the concentration camp.
While the other areas of the DP camp (which has been the Hohne NATO base since 1950) are accessible to visitors, the Glyn Hughes Hospital, which is located in a restricted training area, is generally not. Our group, however, received special permission to at least drive up to its gate and get out and take photos.
Certain members of our group eagerly posed together for a picture there. It is the place — not the memorial site with its berm-covered mass graves — where their personal Bergen-Belsen stories start. Born at the hospital, these men and women in their late 60s still refer to themselves as the “Bergen-Belsen babies.”
They are second-generation Holocaust survivors, but their situation is unique. Unlike the first generation, they did not personally experience the horrors of the camps, and unlike most members of the second, they were not born after their parents began new lives in Israel, Canada, the US or other countries.
The 2,000 babies born at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp represent an astoundingly high birthrate, a resurgence of the life force that the Nazis had sought to extinguish.
As I watched these “babies” squeeze together and smile into the camera lens, I thought about Bergen-Belsen’s uniqueness in taking the Holocaust story further than 1945, beyond death into new life.
It’s a perfectly appropriate place for a Holocaust selfie.
The writer was a guest of the World Jewish Congress.