In the aftermath of the platinum jubilee, it is worth recalling one of the Queen’s many international trips over the past seven decades that links her inexorably with one of the most infamous places of the 20th century.
Seven years ago, on 26 June, 2015, Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, walked through the grounds of the former Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, laid a wreath on a memorial, and met with some of the camp’s survivors, who told her of the horrors they had endured. The occasion: the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops.
The memorial site of Bergen-Belsen consists mainly of manicured grass covering a series of randomly scattered mounds across a vast field. In front of each mound is a stone marker with a stark inscription in German – “Here lie 1000 Dead,” “Here lie 5000 Dead,” “Here lie 500 Dead.” Not visible but omnipresent were and are the ghosts.
These mass-graves are what remains of the gruesome crime against humanity, the gruesome genocide, that was perpetrated at Bergen-Belsen by the Third Reich. When British officers and soldiers entered the camp on 15 April 1945, they found more than 10,000 corpses scattered about the camp, and around 58,000 surviving inmates, most of them suffering from a combination of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, extreme malnutrition and countless other virulent diseases.
Last month I was at Belsen to take part in the commemoration of the 77th anniversary of its liberation. Walking past the same visually sanitized mass-graves that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had walked by seven years earlier, one is accompanied by the spectres of the past who inhabit this place.
Perhaps Queen Elizabeth sensed the presence of one of these ghosts – 15-year-old Anne Frank, who died here of typhus in March of 1945, and remembered that one of Anne’s last entries in her now world-famous diary, on 21 April 1944, was about her: “It’s the eighteenth birthday of Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth of York…We have been asking ourselves what prince this beauty is going to marry, but cannot think of anyone suitable.”
For weeks after the liberation, men, women and children, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, continued to die in the barracks that stood only meters away. My mother, then a not yet 33-year-old dentist from Poland who had survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, headed a team of a handful of doctors and 620 other female and male volunteers from among the survivors. They worked around the clock alongside the British military doctors to try to save as many of the erstwhile prisoners as possible.
Despite their desperate efforts, the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims during the two months after the liberation.
These dead had to be buried anonymously in mass-graves, a final victory for the killers who sought to rob their victims of every vestige of human dignity, including their individual identity. British bulldozers shoved the naked, skeletal corpses into the pits. But they, or their souls, still hover, still whisper. One feels them, hears them.
“Places leave their mark in the same way that a human being can touch us,” writes Jacqueline Winspear in A Sunlit Weapon, her latest novel in the superb Maisie Dobbs series. “We have to make our peace with place…You only have to visit a battlefield long after a war has ended, to know that places are never quite the same following a tragedy.”
Walking amid the Belsen mass graves in 2022, recalling the horrors that occurred there more than seven decades ago, one cannot be deaf or blind to the atrocities that are being committed today.
Once again, civilians – men, women, and children – are terrorised, brutalised and murdered on a scale and with a ferocity not witnessed in Europe since the end of World War II. Once again, corpses are strewn among the living. Once again, mass graves have become final resting places of nameless victims of barbarity. “In my worst nightmare,” the German-Jewish author Josef Joffe, the son of Holocaust survivors, wrote recently in The New York Times, “I could not have foreseen the slaughter of the innocents in Ukraine.”
Still, Ukraine is not the Holocaust and 2022 is not 1939-1945. To be sure, the killers are still vicious killers but this time the world is watching and reacting in real time.
During the years of the Holocaust, with only a very few exceptions, the gates of the free world were closed to the persecuted Jews of Europe and parts of North Africa. This time, millions of Ukrainian refugees are received and welcomed, not turned away. If nothing else, this time the world is not indifferent.
How many of those buried in the Belsen mass graves might have lived if the US or Australia or Canada had given them refuge? Or if the British government had not refused to let them into Palestine?
In order to contain the different epidemics at Belsen, the British evacuated its survivors to the military barracks of a nearby Wehrmacht military base that became first an emergency hospital and subsequently the largest Displaced Persons camp in Germany, where I was born three years later. On 21 May 1945, when this relocation had been completed, the British set fire to all of the concentration camp’s wooden barracks, leaving behind the mass-graves as a reminder of the devastation and horror perpetrated there.
And the ghosts, oh the ghosts . . .
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation. He is the author of "Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen" (Kelsay Books, 2021). This article is adapted from his speech at Bergen-Belsen on 8 May 2022, at the commemoration of the 77th anniversary of that Nazi concentration camp’s liberation.