Bergen-Belsen Revisited

Article excerpt

A Major Exhibition in Washington, D.C.: "Rebirth After the Holocaust"; Commemoration at the Site of the Former Nazi Concentration Camp and the Bergen-Belsen Mass Graves

Bergen-Belsen has become a symbol of both the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracle of rebirth of the Jewish survivors. The epic story of their return to life in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, established only a mile away from the mass graves of the victims, is told in "Rebirth After the Holocaust: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, 1945-1950," a major exhibition at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC. Organized by the World Federation of the Bergen-Belsen Survivors' Association in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Conference, "Life Reborn," the exhibition, is on view through 11 September 2000. It will then travel to other institutions throughout North America and be permanently installed at the Holocaust Museum and Documentation Center at Bergen-Belsen, in Germany.

Through photographs, documents, and artifacts, this exhibition describes how the She'erit Hapletah -- the surviving remnant -- returned to life in Bergen-Belsen from the first moments of liberation through the five years during which it flourished as an autonomous Jewish community and the largest all-Jewish displaced persons camp in Europe.

From 1942 to 1945, the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp witnessed the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Jewish victims at the hands of the German Nazi criminals through starvation, torture, and disease. On the day of liberation, 15 April 1945, the British soldiers were shocked by the hell they discovered: tens of thousands of emaciated human shadows, crowded into narrow, filthy barracks, and thousands of unburied corpses throughout the camp.

When freedom dawned over Belsen, it awakened all the dormant springs of Jewish creativity and sent them streaming in all directions. The uprooted and homeless survivors, despite their suffering and losses, emerged from the valley of death with a strong will to rebuild their lives. Although the survivors of Belsen came from many lands, diverse cultures and traditions, and different ways of life, they were motivated by a consciousness of their common fate and forged a brotherly unity of aspirations and dreams.

The exhibition depicts every aspect of life in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp as it developed into a vibrant center of rehabilitation and reconstruction. Photographs and documents illuminate medical care, memorialization of the kedoshim, the Lueneburg war crimes trial of the perpetrators of Belsen and Auschwitz, self-government, religious life, schools and vocational training, weddings and the birth of over 2000 Jewish children, publications, theater productions, orchestras, sports clubs, Zionist activities and political demonstrations on behalf of Jewish rights. In Belsen, individuals and organized groups molded into a responsible social aggregate. This community, in turn, became a catalytic force in the great historical struggle of the Jewish people for freedom and for the independence of the Jewish State of Israel.

One of the remarkable phenomena of Jewish unity, despite the diversity of the Jewish population in Belsen, was the emergence of the Central Committee as the political representative of the camp and German-Jewish communities in the British-occupied Zone of Germany. The exhibition describes the Central Committee's jurisdiction in all areas of life and its role as the representative of the survivors in their interaction with the British military authorities and the Jewish world abroad. The Central Committee planned and acted in the practical sector with profound responsibility for the civil, economic, cultural, and spiritual problems of the survivors and the complicated issues of aliyah and emigration.

The Central Committee's Chairman, Josef Rosensaft, of blessed memory, displayed a remarkable capacity for brilliant leadership, organization, and fearless courage before the British military authorities. …