Bergen-Belsen

  • Bowls from Bergen-Belsen

  • Bearing witness for survivors

  • One big dark place

And we went into Belsen, and my father was separated from us, and I was with my mother. And I do remember various things about the so-called washing arrangements. Showers which I don’t remember really using more than about once or twice. I certainly remember the food… what there was of it. It was dreadful. It was water, a turnip boiled in water, and that was known as a soup. And this one piece of turnip, and a piece of black bread - very hard. And that was the day’s ration. My parents gave me theirs. It wasn’t enough to keep body and soul together, but I took theirs because I was hungry and I didn’t know any different. And… they starved to death. My father in December ‘44 and my mother in January ‘45.

There was some sort of stove in the barracks but it really gave off very little heat. I suppose they used wood for fuel but it gave off very little heat. So cold and hunger. Fear, I suppose… but I think by that time one sort of…it became for a child part of, sort of, what life was, you know. I can’t remember actually questioning it. Funny isn’t it? One would think one would question: ‘Why is this suddenly happening?’ I think perhaps children don’t - just take what’s happening to them or they just take it. But I suspect that my mother gave us food of hers. I thank goodness I cannot remember that, but I suspect she did because she needed it more than us, in a way. We didn’t grow in that time you know. Children just stop growing if you don’t feed them.

Having suffered from asthma a bit, and the sheer thought of having somebody so close to me, on the middle bunk or the bottom bunk. I just couldn’t face it. So my mother made every effort that we would get [a top bunk bed]- Not that it made much difference because the roof on the barrack was so close on top of us. But for me, not having a person above us, made me feel that it was safer. And… and I also- That I’ve got still a memory of. That, you know we had a beam which separated the bunk next - next to us, from, from ours. And there was a lady who was suffering very badly from typhus. And I don’t remember whom she was sharing the bunk with. But she had put, because there was no proper facilities- There were no proper facilities in the barracks. You had to go outside to a loo. And so she had put a tin pot, which many people had done then, on the beam which separated her bunk from ours. And during the night, she was so weak she couldn’t control herself. And it was full of… I can’t- just- I can’t even say the stuff… that she knocked it over, off the beam, and it came over on me. And my mother was in a terrible, terrible state because she was worried, as she was suffering from typhus, that I would catch it and that she would have to cut off my plaits. And- Because, that for her was still something very important...

The next night the train stopped, before we got to Bergen-Belsen that is and we had to change trains, it was late at night, we had to go from one train to the next, we had to get off one train and go to, and as I got off I lost my parents, I was very scared, because I was, they find a child they shoot, no question. My mother gave me this very heavy bag to carry, with all these tins in it which was at least food, and I lost my parents in the middle of the night, it was dark, and people are running to the other train, I was holding this very heavy bag and I was running to the other train and looking for my parents, and the way I was running the handles came off, the handles of this bag, it was very heavy, I throw away the handles to keep the food, and eventually I found my parents and we got onto the other cattle train and we continued there. In the end we continued another few days and we got, eventually we got to Bergen-Belsen... Anyway, we got to Bergen-Belsen, years later my mother told me that in the handles was some diamonds. She didn’t tell me, I was a child so she didn’t tell me, it is good that she didn’t tell me, I don’t know what I would have done with those handles to hide them, where would I have put them. But, I couldn’t be careful with them, I don’t know, anyway we lost them, that is how, it is what I said, in the war we lost everything, and this went on, everything we lost.

And, there was no food, some things we brought with us, some people had cigarettes, and some of the German soldiers did give us things for cigarettes. We could exchange among ourselves, some Jews were so hungry for cigarettes that they would give up some of the things they brought with for cigarettes. So we could exchange, but there was no food, I mean I was so hungry, all the time, ever since, my house is always full of food. I can't bear it if someone comes in and I can't give him a meal or somebody says I want more and I don’t have, since then I can't bear the thought, and if anybody comes to my house, and they say what have you go so much things for, but I can't otherwise, my freezer is full, my cupboards are full. I have got flour, I have got sugar, I have got bread. I must have it, it is just a feeling that if somebody comes, it is not for myself, if somebody comes in and wants to eat, that I shouldn’t have is a terrible thought for me. I must say I have fed a lot of hungry people since, I have called many hungry people into my house, I couldn’t stand it, I can't stand that people are hungry. It is since then, it is such a terrible, terrible thing.

And still my father tried to keep kosher as much as he could. And then he asked the Rabbi what to do, because I kept fainting, and the Rabbi said he should give me to eat whatever he could put his hands on and shouldn’t seek kosher, he should give it to me. The soup was brought in in such churns like they bring milk today. So the men took turns to go to the kitchen to fetch those big churns. And then one opportunity was that when you went to the kitchen that you could steal something, either a potato or, whatever there was, while you were there you might be putting something into your pocket, and of course all the men wanted to go to the kitchen to fetch the food. So my father’s turn came and he went, and my father brought back an onion. Now, he peeled that onion and we sat down to eat it. We felt that onion in every part of our body. The onion is such a strong healthy food that our fingertips were getting tingling so since then for me onions are a very important food, because there is so much strength in it.

There was one man in there, a Mr Birnbaum, Mr Birnbaum who had been a teacher in Berlin. He was in Belsen with his wife and his six children. And as the war was progressing and in fact reaching its end and people were dying left right and centre, he gathered orphans as they became orphans. And my father, realising that he wasn’t going to survive… went to see this Mr Birnbaum and asked him to look after me and after the war to get me to his sister-in-law, my aunt in London. And he gave as many details it could. He also gave him a book of addresses and names, and… apparently they took that from Birnbaum; he never had it. So after the war he had a lot of difficulty finding… relatives for people, including for me. And… this Mr Birnbaum was very worried about all these children; he had by this time about fifty children in his care. Six of them were his own children and the rest of us were orphans. And he went to the authorities in the camp, and said that he would like to start a school. School. And they mockingly said, “Yeah, sure, you do that. You can have your school in the room at the end of that barracks there. But you have to clear it first.” He didn’t know what that meant. So he went to look and he saw that that’s where corpses had been stored, piled high, because they couldn’t be buried quickly enough. And so they were just put in there until burial could be organised. So he organised a work party amongst the inmates, and they cleared that room. And we fifty children had our schoolroom in there. And I remember that he taught us- He’d been a teacher of religious instruction in Germany, in Berlin. And he taught us Jewish studies and my time in Belsen was approximately the most religious time of my life, I would say, which is quite an irony. But it kept us out of harm’s way, because we were locked in there, and couldn’t get under the feet of guards, who - who would shoot or set dogs on people if they felt like it.

 
 

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