Children of Bergen-Belsen survivors warn: Never forget

hanover, germany   |   Seventy years after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by British troops, some 100 people personally touched by the history returned to the site to share their memories and warn against forgetting.

Among them were children born at a displaced persons camp for survivors less than two miles from the camp. Survivors who recovered started new families: In fact, an estimated 2,000 children were born at the DP camp — the largest in postwar Germany — before it closed in September 1950.

Aviva Tal was one of them. Her parents, who had married before the war but were torn apart and survived several concentration camps, were reunited at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, where they shared a room with 12 other survivors.

The women “became pregnant right away, including my mother,” said Tal, who was born in February 1947. “They put me in a basket in the middle of the room, and I was the most pampered child, always being held. My feet never touched the floor.”

Tal was one of several children of survivors to speak April 25 at a panel on Holocaust memory led by Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the DP camp on May 1, 1948. He recently edited a volume of essays, “God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors.”

Gathering at their hotel in this northwest German city, the participants spoke of growing up with their parents’ stories of survival and of their own responsibility to ensure that others carry on remembering.

A key problem, they said, is keeping the young people interested.

The Duke of Gloucester (left) and German President Joachim Gauck (second from left) mark the 70th anniversary of the iberation of Bergen-Belsen on April 26. photo/ap-martin meissner

“Jewish kids are getting to the stage where they are saying it’s enough, we are a new generation,” said Maram Stern, deputy executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress. The son of survivors who settled in postwar Germany warned that Germans in general, and their political leaders, “hope that the subject will be over.”

“We won’t let that happen,” responded Julius Meinl, head of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, who advocated increased use of films of eyewitness testimony and social media to “keep people on their toes.”

Ehud Bandel, a Conservative rabbi in Israel and founding director of Rabbis for Human Rights, said that while it is essential to remember the Holocaust and fight anti-Semitism, Jews also must fight all forms of persecution.

“We always have to be on guard,” said the child of survivors, “lest we fall into this deadly trap of bigotry and hatred.”

The visitors, most of whom were sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, attended a commemorative ceremony on April 26 at the Bergen-Belsen memorial site about 30 miles from Hanover. More than 70,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, died at Bergen-Belsen from 1941 to 1945, including Anne Frank. The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945; some 14,000 former inmates reportedly died after the liberation. The DP camp was established in July 1945 in an emergency hospital set up in a former German army barracks.

“Seventy years ago the world was silent, and now we are standing on one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world,” Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said at the ceremony. “We appear to be descending into the same hell today. Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, neo-Nazi groups are sitting in parliament in Hungary and Greece, and Iranian leaders repeatedly promise to wipe Israel from the pages of time. To shout against the past while remaining silent about the present is not just wrong; it is outrageous and immoral.

“From the ashes of this terrible place, the Jewish people rose up and moved on. Today there is a younger generation committed to making sure the Jewish people never fall victim to this kind of evil again.”

Other speakers included Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck; Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of the United Kingdom; and Romani Rose, president of the Central Council of German Sinti and Roma.


Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.