Magazine article The Spectator

What Is Freedom?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Is Freedom?

Article excerpt

Let's focus for a change on what the BBC does best. Take, for instance, a short half-hour programme on Radio Four, buried in the schedules, midevening on a Monday, in which the German historian Rainer Schulz took us behind a bit of actualité to expose an otherwise unheard, unseen aspect. In Belsen after Belsen (produced by Mark Burman) we heard the story of the thousands of Jews who lived in the camp after its liberation from the Germans on 15 April 1945. All the former captives wanted was to start getting on with their lives again. But where could they go? So many died on liberation, as if they had thought so long of freedom that when it came they no longer believed they could attain it. Others recovered remarkably quickly from the physical ordeal of being in the concentration camp, regaining not just their weight but also their sense of who they were as individuals, not numbers tattooed on a withered wrist. By the beginning of 1946 many were fuelled with such optimism that they were getting married, having children, trying to be as normal as possible -- and yet they were still living in the place of no hope, no redemption. How weird it must have been to stay on once the German SS had gone. Even weirder to live with the fact, as one man told us, that you were born in Belsen in 1948, just yards away from the mass graves.

From being treated as captives and then victims, these survivors and their newborn children were turned by the liberation authorities into Displaced Persons.

They steadfastly refused to return from whence they had come, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, but clutched instead to the dream of living in a country for Jews alone: Palestine. At that time, though, Palestine was governed by the British mandate, whose policies were pro-Arab.

Sorting out the mess took five years, and the last person to leave Belsen did not walk through those gates until mid-1950. One woman told us of the wedding dress she had specially made from whatever materials she could find, such as parachute silk (she still has it, yellowing with age). On the day of liberation, she had run to tell her sister that she had seen the first British tank entering through the camp gates. 'We are free, ' she shouted. But her sister, from whom she had managed never to be separated despite being moved from camp to camp, was too weak to believe that freedom was now possible, and eight days later she died. …

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