Belsen 76: ‘Learn to re-humanise the victims of the Holocaust’
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Belsen 76: ‘Learn to re-humanise the victims of the Holocaust’

Ahead of the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen Belsen on Thursday, Alice Bebber and Laurie Rich reflect on their experience of learning about the victims of the camp

Alice Bebber at Belsen
Alice Bebber at Belsen

Alice Bebber

There are many reasons why I wanted to take part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Belsen 75 Project, the main one being that it is vital that we acknowledge, listen, and learn from those who have survived the Holocaust.

As part of the Belsen 75 Project, I had the honour of meeting Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich MBE. During the Holocaust Mala was faced with incredibly difficult decisions, often the result of which she would either live or die. When reaching Bergen-Belsen Mala became ill with typhus, but still remembered very clearly the day of Liberation on the 15th of April 1945.

Alice Bebber

One thing I will always remember from Mala’s story is her continued reference to hope. In her testimony Mala said, “without hope there’s no survival” and later on hope was referenced again “I hope people want to know”. Mala kept hope all the way through the Holocaust, it kept her going, and now it keeps her story going.

I was so affected by hearing Mala’s story and being surrounded by people who listened and learnt in the same way that I did. I remember vividly stepping out of the pre-visit seminar after hearing her speak and being completely overtaken with emotion.

As an Ambassador of the Trust, Mala’s hope inspires me to champion the truth and to continue passing on testimonies such as hers to remember the Holocaust and respect those who were murdered. As a young person, it is now my and my generation’s moral duty to do so. Survivors will not be able to share their stories forever, but I hope that as many people as possible are committed to the responsibility of ensuring these experiences live on, and we will continue to share those stories that we have been so honoured to hear.

Mala Tribich

My main message is that I, through partaking in this project, learnt that there was something I could do to ensure we never forget what happened. I feel incredibly privileged to have heard from Mala and I will ensure I continue to share her testimony. In some small way, we can all help, whether that is reading, listening, sharing, watching, survivor’s stories, or researching, or just taking the time to think, what can I do?

One year on from visiting Bergen Belsen, and I still find myself transported back, to the place where for the first time in my life, my eyes were truly opened. I can still hear the deep silence that lay across Bergen-Belsen, and in that silence, I can hear more than ever the need to preserve survivor’s stories and to continue to learn and listen to those around you who we have the privilege of listening to.

 

Laurie Rich

On this day 76 years ago, the Bergen-Belsen camp in Saxony (north Germany) was liberated by British troops.

Sergeant Mike Lewis described what he saw as he entered the camp:

Something had changed for me after
I’d seen that camp. Although I’d seen
seen terrible things in war, to have treated ordinary people like this… all the stories of persecution of people from my mother and father, here they were true.’

However, the site itself had not always been like this. Bergen-Belsen had been constructed in 1935 to house civil construction workers, who were building a military base there.

The Wehrmacht (Germany Army) took over the new camp in June of 1940, turning it into a Soviet Prisoner of War Camp in 1941. By 1942 roughly 14,000 Soviet POWs had died from poor sanitation and starvation. In July of 1943, the first Polish Jews began to arrive en masse.

Towards the end of the war as the German front retreated, approximately 85,000 prisoners were evacuated from places such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and bought to Bergen-Belsen. The complexity of understanding this tragedy lies in listening to the testimony of the victims and survivors, as well as recognising the Holocaust was perpetrated by human beings, not monsters.

Laurie Rich

Between 1943 and 1945 it is estimated that 70,000 people died in Bergen-Belsen. Mostly Jewish people, Czech, Polish, Dutch, but also political prisoners, Communists and Socialists.

Unfortunately, due to the scale of this atrocity, the human narrative and subsequent significance of the events at Bergen-Belsen often get lost in the numbers (it is often said ‘a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic’ and unfortunately this is how events from the Holocaust seem to be remembered).

On the 5th day of liberation (19th April), an ‘Eve of the Sabbath’ service was held for the survivors of the camp, led by the Jewish Chaplin to the 2nd British Army, Reverend L.H Hardman.

During the service the survivors, in tears of joy from the liberation and tears of sorrow from the atrocities they had witnessed and were still enduring, began to sing the Jewish hymn ‘Hatikvah’ (the ‘Hope’). Amazingly this service was recorded and broadcasted to the world, with the BBC broadcast being the first time many in Britain and across the world had learnt of extent the horrors that had been occurring in the continent against the victims of the Nazi regime.

This was the first Jewish service carried out on German soil for at least 5 years.  From that point on, the culture of the oppressed began to re-emerge in the ‘Displaced Person’ Camp near Belsen (which was active from 1945 until 1950). The significance of this first service cannot be overstated, with many non-Jewish people joining in, all celebrating the defeat of Fascism and uniting around the common feeling of hope and humanity, to all.

Learning of this event really moved me. As participant of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Belsen 75Project, we had to complete a Legacy Project which shared the knowledge that we obtained through the programme. For my Legacy Project, with the aim of highlighting this important turning point in the rebirth of Jewish culture, and to remember those who were murdered during the Holocaust, I arranged the ‘Hatikvah’ for piano, using the recording from Belsen as my only reference point.

I arranged the Hymn, as a fugue instead of the monophonic texture in which it is usually presented in today.

This was done consciously; to recognise, the many different voices, individual, collective, who fell victim to this terror, and those who continue to face genocide across the world today. This polyphonic texture is also effective for emphasising the scale of the atrocity that is the Holocaust, as when focusing on one unified voice, e.g., looking at the number 6 million for example, it can be difficult to consider its component parts which make up the whole.

Therefore, focusing on the multiple and multitude of voices, expressing a common message instead, in this specific polyphonic texture, helps to emphasis on the scale of the atrocity, but also putting a face and a personality on what is otherwise a rather empirical fact. Different voices yes, but voices expressing the common feelings of solidarity for one another, and most importantly, hope.

Memorial stone in the grounds of Bergen-Belsen (Photo credit: Klaus Tatzler/Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation/PA Wire)

Taking part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Belsen 75 Project and visiting Bergen-Belsen taught me the importance of the re-humanisation of the victims of the Holocaust: focusing on the individual, or a collective group, a person, and people rather than a number on a page. By doing this the legacy of Bergen-Belsen can serve as a way of undermining the Nazi’s aim at Bergen-Belsen, to dehumanise the Jews, Poles, Dutch and many other ethnic and cultural and political groups that they imprisoned and persecuted.

The importance of the legacy of Bergen Belsen is to stop anything similar ever occurring again, and to realise that any form of discrimination and persecution can never be justified. As human beings we need to learn not just to tolerate our differences, but celebrate them, in the process creating the material foundations for a world of equality, peace and justice to evolve and grow, it is this which gives me hope.

 

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