How Bergen-Belsen Survivors Celebrated Independence

Take a rare look inside the newspapers published by the inhabitants of the concentration camp after liberation.

Daniel Lipson | 19.02.19 |
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Survivors from Bergen-Belsen immigrating to the land of Israel. A photograph from the album, “Destruction and Rebirth: Bergen-Belsen 1945-1965”

The Bergen-Belsen camp was established in Germany in the 1930s to house workers who were constructing a military camp near the village of Belsen. The camp held Polish, French, Dutch and Belgian prisoners of war at the beginning of World War II. In 1941, thousands of Russian prisoners of war were detained at the camp.

At the same time, the German Foreign Ministry ordered the rounding up of Jews with dual citizenship or citizenship of neutral countries in order to exchange them for German citizens who had been taken captive in the Allied countries, such as the German Templar communities in Palestine. In 1943, SS Commander Heinrich Himmler ordered that these “exchange Jews” (Austauschjuden) be moved from a camp in Poland to a camp in Germany. The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was chosen as the new detention center for these Jews. The lives of a few of the “exchange Jews” were spared when they were returned to their country of origin in exchange for captured Germans. The vast majority, however, did not share this fate.

Within a short time, other European Jews joined the “exchange Jews” at the camp. In the spring of 1944, transports of ill Jews arrived from other camps. Their compromised state of health, combined with the abusive treatment in the camp, greatly increased the mortality rate at Bergen-Belsen. Later, the Germans transferred in Jews from other camps that were deemed too close to the eastern front, including those who had survived the death marches. The camp administration had never planned to hold such a large number of prisoners, and Bergen-Belsen soon became a place of widespread starvation, typhus, dysentery, suffering, and death.

 

The camp’s survivors sit, packed together. A photograph from the album, “Destruction and Rebirth: Bergen-Belsen 1945-1965”

On April 15, 1945, British armed forces arrived at the site, liberated the camp and arrested its Nazi administrators. The British were shocked by what they saw. One of the first officers to arrive was the chief medical officer of the Second Army, Glyn Hughes. He described a terrible density of humanity in the barracks, where the living and the dead lay side by side. More than 40,000 prisoners were found in the camp, 28,000 of whom required medical treatment. Among the living prisoners, the British also found 10,000 bodies. Thousands of other bodies were found piled in mass, uncovered graves at the edge of the camp,

The British army, the Red Cross and later, Jewish aid organizations such as the Joint, the Jewish Relief Unit, the Jewish Agency, and other organizations sent food, clothing, medical supplies, and relief workers. Sadly, these efforts did not always succeed in helping the starving and sick prisoners. In the weeks following the liberation of the camp 15,000 people died. In most cases however, the survivors’ will to live overcame the compromised state they were found in.

The pictures in the history books change with surprising speed. In the first few pages, we see pictures of horrifying scenes – heaps of dead bodies alongside walking skeletons waiting desperately for their last day. But, shortly following, are group photos featuring smiling, healthy faces and well-dressed children kicking a ball around. In short order, the survivors began to rebuild their lives. Three days after the liberation, on the 5th of Iyar, the date on which David Ben-Gurion would announce the establishment of the State of Israel just three years later, a Jewish committee was established in the camp. The chairman of the committee, from its establishment until the eventual closure of the camp, was Josef Rosensaft.

On May 21, after all the prisoners had been transferred to a nearby military base, the British burned down the camp in order to eliminate rampant typhoid. Over time, a series of monuments and memorials were erected in the location where the concentration camp stood.

 

Crowds watching flames and smoke in the camp’s vicinity after the British forces entered

With the war over, Jewish life developed rapidly in the new Bergen-Belsen camp for displaced persons. The first wedding of survivors was held in June of 1945. Children of survivors – the next generation – were born in the camp. Among them was Shlomo Goldberg who would later devote nearly 50 years of work to the National Library in Jerusalem.

Within a short time, a primary and secondary school, a Yiddish theater, a hospital, sports teams, and a center of Zionist political activism were all established in the camp. Many came to visit the displaced and assist whenever possible. Just as in the pre-war period, the survivors now joined the various Zionist organizations and extensive Zionist activity began to take shape at the camp.

Many works and periodicals were published in the camp, mainly in Yiddish. A booklet containing copies of 58 periodicals, books, poems and more is now kept in the National Library of Israel. All of the works within the booklet were printed at Bergen-Belsen.

 

A booklet that was published in the camp.

The first periodical issued by the survivors was published on July 12, 1945, in the town of Celle, in the British zone near Bergen-Belsen. The title of the publication was “Undzer Shtime” (“Our Voice”). Printing in Bergen-Belsen itself began with the second issue.

In the first issue, which opens with the Yizkor (memorial) prayer, David Rosenthal wrote about the decision to publish the journal and the reasons behind it. “The Jewish word will be heard in the land of our enemy,” Rosenthal explained. He added that the purpose of the newspaper was “to reflect our daily lives and to make contact with our brothers in the other camps.”

The publication focused on youth education and national Zionist education in general. The newspaper detailed the suffering of the survivors in the camp and fumed at the British closure of the gates to the Land of Israel. It included articles on the history of the Jewish people, Jewish holidays and festivals, Zionism, and settlement. It offered information about what was happening in the camp, news from the Land of Israel, reviews of Nazi trials, and more.

Since there was no Hebrew typewriter available in the camp, the first four issues were handwritten and then duplicated for distribution. Issue No. 5 was the first to be written on a typewriter. The camp received one typewriter from soldiers of the Jewish Brigade who came into Germany from Italy, and another from a Jewish-Canadian soldier. Around the time of issue No. 12, members of the editorial board were able to obtain a more professional printing machine.

“Undzer Shtime” was intended to be a bi-weekly magazine, but it was not always published in an organized fashion. During its two years, only 24 issues were published. The last issue was published on October 30th, 1947. The three editors (Rafael Olewski, Paul Trepman, and David Rosenthal) belonged to various Zionist parties, which helped maintain the paper’s neutrality and non-partisan approach.

The “Undzer Shtime” editorial board. From the left: David Rosenthal, Paul Trappman and Rafael Olavsky. A picture from “The Tear,” by Rafael Olavsky

The “Wochenblatt” newspaper began to appear in Bergen-Belsen on December 5, 1947, a week after the passing of the UN resolution to establish a Jewish state. The title of the main article in the first issue was “The End of Homelessness, the End of our Wandering- A Jewish State in the Land of Israel. ” Like its predecessor, this newspaper was also issued by the Central Committee for Liberated Jews in the British Zone in Bergen-Belsen. Members of the editorial board were the same members who served on the editorial board of the “Undzer Shtime.” Over time, as the original editors left Germany, they were replaced by other editors.

After two months, the periodical evolved into a bi-weekly paper. It resembled any other newspaper in that the editors made sure to provide news to its readers but, like “Undzer Shtime,” “Wochenblatt” contained a fair amount of articles about camp life, news from the Jewish world, sports and culture. The “Wochenblatt” advocated for Jewish rights, warned against anti-Semitism in Germany, and published the names of former Bergen-Belsen detainees who had fallen in battle in the Land of Israel. The newspaper called on the Jews to leave Germany, which was still difficult as the struggle for independence in the State of Israel trudged on.

On Friday, May 14, 1948, an important article appeared in the newspaper. It was entitled, “The Eve of a Jewish State.” Although rumors were circulating, the editors had no way of knowing that that very day in the Land of Israel, Ben-Gurion would announce the establishment of the State. The announcement was heard in Bergen-Belsen that night on the radio.

“The Eve of a Jewish State.” Issue No. 19, May 14, 1948

The next morning the camp residents woke to loud singing and cries of joy at the birth of the State of Israel. Jews danced in the streets and in synagogues. The youth distributed flyers in the camp, calling on all residents to celebrate the establishment of the State and to participate in a festive rally to be held later in the day. At the rally the chairman of the Central Committee, Josef Rosensaft, announced that recruits from the camp would soon arrive in Israel to serve in the new Israeli military. The group of recruits was invited onto the stage to thunderous applause.

The next issue of “Wochenblatt,” which came out a week later, was titled “Jewish Independence: Reality.”

 

“Jewish Independence – Reality.” Issue No. 19, May 21, 1948

In the 79th issue of “Wochenblatt,” Josef Rosensaft wrote that the Bergen-Belsen camp was in its closing stages and that the last Jews in the camp would be moved to the Jever displaced persons camp. It was there that the 80th and final issue of the “Wochenblatt” was published on August 18, 1950. It focused on the conclusion of the Jewish Agency’s activities in Germany. The Jever camp was closed the following year.

In September 2010, the Sh’erit Hapleta survivors organization of Bergen-Belsen in Israel published the newsletter “Our Voice – Undzer Shtime”. This time the newsletter was not printed in Yiddish in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons’ camp, but in the free city of Tel Aviv in the local language of Hebrew.

 

“Our Voice,” a newsletter issued by the survivors of Bergen-Belsen in Israel

 

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Daniel Lipson

Daniel will gladly help you navigate the databases, online catalogs, and different digital projects as you search the National Library. His hobbies: Uncovering treasures, surprises, and secrets from the collections. His favorite word is "Serendipity"

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