BERGEN-BELSEN, GERMANY — “It’s called rote grütze. I remember eating it all the time here as a young child,” said Aviva Tal as she tucked into the German fruit pudding as brightly red-colored as her stylishly cropped hair. When she finished her first portion she got up to get more from the buffet table, bringing several little glasses of the pudding, topped with vanilla cream, for the others at her table to enjoy, as well.
Tal, a Bar-Ilan University Yiddish professor in her late 60s, was eating lunch with some close friends of similar age under a large tent next to the museum at the Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen (Bergen-Belsen Memorial Site) late last week.
They had all come to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. The lunch was a break during a full day of touring the concentration camp site, as well as the neighboring displaced persons camp (now a British NATO base) ahead of the official commemoration ceremonies that took place on April 26.
Recollections of a tasty confection may seem incongruous at the site of a concentration camp where 70,000 perished, many from starvation. But the connection Tal made is not to where people died, but rather to the DP camp down the road where she was born and where she lived the first years of her life.
Tal’s comment about the rote grütze reveals far more than her fondness for fruit puddings. She and her friends at the table, who were all born at Bergen-Belsen during the first five years after the war, are somehow able to associate positive memories with a place that represents the horrors of the Holocaust.
Like all second-generations survivors, they carry the scars that the genocide left on their families. However, unlike some other members of the second generation whose inheritance was secrets, victimhood and dysfunction, they exhibit a notably strong sense of optimism and empowerment as a result of having been born to parents who immediately began rebuilding Jewish life at the very same place that the Nazis sought to destroy it.
Growing up on DP camp adventure stories
This seems to be the case especially for those whose parents were among the leaders of the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.
Menachem Rosensaft, General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, was born at the DP camp’s Glyn Hughes Hospital in 1948. His father, Josef Rosensaft, was the head of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews of the British Zone — effectively the leader of the 50,000 survivors who lived for varying lengths of time in the DP camp between April 1945 and August 1950. His mother, Hadassah Bimko, was a doctor who worked with the British forces’ medical staff to care for the tens of thousands of severely ill concentration camp survivors.
Both of them survived Auschwitz and lost almost their entire families, including their spouses and children. Yet, they were open about their Holocaust experiences with their son Menachem as he grew up in Switzerland and later New York. They always included him and other members of the second generation in the gatherings they continued to organize for former Bergen-Belsen DP camp inhabitants and their families for decades after it closed.
“I identify with the DP camp, not the concentration camp,” said Rosensaft, who is the Founding Chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Survivors and has succeeded his father in looking out for the extended Bergen-Belsen DP camp family, as well as for their interests as the moral guardians of both the concentration camp and the DP camp sites.
“My parents told me adventure stories about life in the DP camp. They were positive, uplifting and interesting,” he said. “I loved hearing about how my father met David Ben-Gurion when he came to visit the camp in 1945, and about how my father prevailed in his interactions with the British military authorities.”
Talking out the trauma
According to Dr. Yaffa Singer, a clinical psychologist and the former head of the Post Traumatic Central Clinic in the Israeli Military Mental Health Department, the fact that the survivors in the DP camp formed an immediate community and had one another to talk to about what they had gone through made a huge difference in terms of their adjustment. The same is true about their willingness to speak about their losses with their children.
She knows this not only as a mental healthcare professional, but also as the daughter of Romek and Eva Zynger, survivors who lived in the DP camp before going to the new state of Israel. Singer and her brother Yitzhak Zinger, who entered the world together in 1946, were the first twins born at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. They were two of the 2,000 babies born there in five years, representing one of the highest birthrates ever in history.
Romana Strochlitz Primus, a retired physician living in New London, Connecticut, was born in the DP camp the same year as the Zyngers’ twins. She grew up in New York City and recalled how being part of a close-knit survivor community there was important to her family.
Primus, whose first language was German, believes that language has been key to the second generation’s ability to connect to the first generation and their pre-war culture.
“I was able to hear and speak to the survivors in their own language. If I had been born in the US instead of the DP camp, my first language would have been English.” she said.
Primus was speaking English at the moment when she decided that she wanted to engage in dialogue about the Holocaust with Americans. She was at a 7th grade mother-daughter luncheon at her private school in Manhattan.
When they served pheasant, her mother remarked that she had never eaten pheasant before. When those around her asked her how that could be, her mother replied: “They didn’t have pheasant where I grew up before the war, and they didn’t serve it in the camps.”
Then, someone asked her in earnest, “So, what did they serve in the camps?”
From that point on, Primus, who sat on the board of the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum during the Clinton Administration and chaired the state of Connecticut’s Holocaust commemoration programming this year, has dedicated herself to Holocaust education.
‘You don’t sleepwalk through life’
It’s hard not to notice how high-achieving these Bergen-Belsen “babies” are. They are not only professionals and academics, but many of them have risen to the top of their fields. Many have also served in key lay leadership positions, especially in Holocaust memorial and education organizations and institutions.
“I learned from my parents that you don’t sleepwalk through life,” said Jean Bloch Rosensaft, who is married to Menachem Rosensaft. Her father Sam Bloch, 21 at the end of the war, was the youngest member of the committee that ran the DP camp.
The legacy she has received from her father, as well as her mother Lilly Czaban, is one of leadership, empowerment and self-determination. While they transmitted to her that it was important to make something of your life, they also taught her to celebrate life and never take any moment for granted.
‘Every child was a miracle’
Quick to laugh and with an infectious smile, Tal has an unmistakable zest for life. She, too, can speak about how having been born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp shaped her life and influenced her psychological makeup, but she’d just as well recount stories about her life until age five, when her parents took her to Israel.
She does not know why her father, a leader of the “Poalei Zion” Zionist movement and a trader on the black market (“He was a smuggler,” she said plainly), and her mother stayed on in Germany after the DP camp closed. Tal’s memories of Germany extend to their time in Jever, Germany between 1950 and 1952, where she recalls they lived in a nice house with a cook and a nanny.
But before that, she and her parents lived in a single room in the DP camp together with 11 other people. Her crib was in the middle of the room and her mother used to handwash the only two diapers she had and dry them on a stove.
At one point, members of the Jewish Brigade, Palestinian Jews who had fought for the British, came to stay at the camp to set up Aliya Bet [illegal immigration] operations. Each room of war refugees took in one of the soldiers. The one who joined Tal’s family’s group was Yitzhak Kaminsky, and it was he who gave Tal her Hebrew name.
“He suggested Aviva, as it meant spring and rebirth,” she said. (Kaminsky returned to Israel and fell in the War of Independence. Since he was an only child, Tal took it upon herself to light a candle for him every Memorial Day.)
Despite the cramped quarters, Tal, born in 1947, remembers being a very happy toddler.
“I was pampered like crazy. All the women sewed dresses for me and knitted me all these beautiful items. I never got to walk because I was always in someone’s arms,” she said.
“The whole community raised the kids. Many women couldn’t have children after the war. Every child was a miracle,” she said.
Returning to Bergen-Belsen
Tal and some of the other “babies” have returned several times to Bergen-Belsen for commemoration events and reunions over the years, but for Joe Laufer, a public sector lawyer from Toronto, this was his first time back since 1965.
On this trip, he is with his wife. When he was 17, he was with his father Bernard Laufer, who had been on the DP leadership committee together with Josef Rosensaft and the others. Their return, on the 20th anniversary of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation, was filmed for a Canadian documentary titled, “Memorandum.” It was one of the first Holocaust-related films ever made, if not the first one.
“I hadn’t seen Menachem and the others in 50 years, but we’ve had an instant reconnection,” Laufer said.
This was also the first time in a very long time back to Bergen-Belsen for Dina Lichtman, an organizational psychologist who does leadership consulting and executive coaching in the Philadelphia area. As a 22-year-old, she had come in 1970 to see the camp where her survivor parents had met, where she was born, and where everything started for her.
“I often do an exercise with my clients in which I ask them what the defining moment of their life has been,” Lichtman said.
“In my case, the defining moment of my life happened before I was born.”
The writer was a guest of the World Jewish Congress.