Saturday, 11 November 2017

Letter from Bergen Belsen, 1945

Here's a blog entry that I repost a few times a year, on April 22 (the day it was originally written in 1945), on Remembrance Day and on Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Please note, graphic content.

All families have their war stories, whenever and wherever those wars were fought, and today I'd like to share a small part of my family war history. There has been a letter in my family since April, 1945, which was written by my uncle, a Captain in the British army. When the British liberated Bergen Belsen concentration camp in April 1945, my uncle was asked to tour the camp and write down what he saw as a Military Observer. A copy of the original is carefully folded in my mother’s top bureau drawer along with other family treasures. It is torn and deeply creased, words and in a few places whole sentences missing. It’s a difficult read, be warned, and I have edited some of it here. But is important to share, I think, on this day of remembrance, so here it is:

      "I have just spent three hours amongst 50-60,000 beings who appeared, and who are-many hundreds of them-already sub-human; three ghastly, unnerving hours amongst piles of mutilated, terribly emaciated, rag-strewn corpses; amongst huts where dead and living lie thickly together; where the majority, starved in the extreme, appear-and are-more dead than alive.
     I was walking towards the main exit, trying to find words to express the final horror of the place, when I noticed the sign-- Kanteen-- above the door of a hut. What mockery the word was here! Expecting to see nothing more than a dirty, empty hut, I looked inside. I saw instead something which shocked and staggered me by its unexpectedness and yet by its implication gave the answer I had just been seeking in my mind.
    They were dancing in that Kanteen! Dancing to the tune of "Alexander's Rag Time Band." A handful of Hungarian soldiers, off duty from grave-digging, and some dozen of the fitter women and girls--were gathered around an old piano. On the fringe of the group stood a few yellow faced, emaciated men, their thin heads nodding to the rhythm. Around the sides of the hut, motionless and unregistering, sat a few deathly pale, dull-eyed youths. As the woman at the piano faltered and then again struck up "Alexander's Rag Time Band" a girl, her two eyes almost completely closed with disease, nudged a fitter companion to lead her on to the floor. With set, meaningless grins on their faces, they danced weakly around the filthy hut.
    I went out. Lying just a few yards away, on the edge of the main road through the camp, lay a heap of corpses. The strains of "Alexander's Rag Time Band" came from the Kanteen hut. Earlier the sounds of wailing women had come to me from other huts. I had to go into that Kanteen a second time to convince myself of what I had seen.
     Immediately outside, right between two huts, German soldiers were digging a huge pit. Alongside was a pile of starved bodies, incredibly fleshless, which the S.S. camp staff, driven at the double by British bayonets, were adding to continuously. A dying man propped himself up in a sentry box, watching. Men, women and young girls wandered around, forming a murmuring, weakly threatening line through which the S.S. were doubled by British guards to begin the clearing of corpses from yet another hut...
     At Belsen they are dying still at the rate of 600 a day. And tomorrow, and the day after, and for days to come in spite of all that British medical relief, intent first on checking the ravages of typhus, can do.
     Why did I visit Belsen? Given the opportunity I went because I know that in a few years only, clever people will say, 'Nonsense! Don't you realize that was just war propaganda?' And I shall know how to reply. CM, April 22, 1945"

Here are links to movies and books about Belsen:
Night Will Fall (Documentary, 2015)
Liberating Belsen Concentration Camp (Book, Leonard Berney, 2015)

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