How Bergen-Belsen Survivors Celebrated Independence

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

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


Who Is the Israeli Who Won 10 Olympic Medals?

During the Holocaust, she escaped the Nazis using forged documents. Only a decade later she was known around the world as one of the greatest Olympic gymnasts of all time. Discover the amazing story of Ágnes Keleti.

אגנס קלטי

The entire State of Israel may have racked up just one Olympic gold medal in its short history, but Ágnes Keleti, a resident of the Israeli city of Herzliya, is the proud owner of no less than ten Olympic medals – five of them gold.

Keleti was born on January 9, 1921 in Budapest to a well-to-do Jewish family. At the tender age of 4, Keleti began taking “swimming lessons” thanks to her father, who enjoyed tossing her into the lake during family vacations. She was also enrolled in gymnastics at a young age. Despite showing obvious physical talent, Ágnes did not begin to take the sport seriously until age sixteen. Instead, she spent most of her time practicing and playing the cello.

Unlike many other athletes, whose distinct competitive drive pushes them to compete at an international level, Keleti says it was not necessarily her hunger to win medals that motivated her.

“The medals were nice, but I didn’t play sports solely for the accolades. I enjoyed the day-to-day routine and the opportunity to see the world. The Communist regime in Hungary was very tough and not at all to my liking. At the time, most people could not even leave Hungary. I decided to excel in sports in order to see the world. I was fortunate enough to visit places that most people didn’t even dare dream of,” she said in an interview several years ago.

Ágnes Keleti, from the Maccabiah Archive
From the Maccabiah Archive

Keleti survived the Holocaust by using a false identity. During the war years, she adopted the name “Yuhasz Piroshka” and assumed the identity of a village maid. Later, she worked in an ammunition factory. Her mother and sister were also saved, thanks to the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was later recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the same luck did not extend to the rest of her family. Her father and uncles were murdered at Auschwitz.

When the war ended, Keleti returned to gymnastics. In 1946, she won the title of ‘Hungarian National Champion,’ which she held until she fled the country in 1956. Her meteoric rise to world fame came at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. At the age of 31, Keleti won four medals: a gold medal in floor exercise, a silver medal in the all-around team competition, a bronze in the uneven bars and a bronze in the portable apparatus team event.

אגנס קלטי (משמאל) עם אורי זמרי, ברוך בק, ואלינור רוזוולט 23.2.1962, צילום: לע"מ
Ágnes Keleti (left) with Uri Zimri, Eleanor Roosevelt and Baruch Beck – February 23rd, 1962, photo: GPO

In 1956, she competed in the Melbourne Olympics, this time at the age of 35 (twice the age of most of her competitors). She won six medals in Melbourne: three gold medals in individual events (floor, uneven bars and balance beam), another gold in the portable apparatus team event and two silver medals in both the individual and team all-around events.

By the end of her career, Keleti had won ten Olympic medals overall, placing her seventh in terms of all-time medal winners in Olympic history. For comparison, the legendary Carl Lewis also has ten medals to his name, while Mark Spitz has eleven medals in total. In fact, Ágnes Keleti holds more medals than other familiar sports legends like Nadia Comăneci and Usain Bolt. Yet what is perhaps most impressive about Keleti’s medal run is that she won nine out of her ten Olympic medals after reaching the age of 30.

Escape from Hungary and Immigration to Israel

While Keleti was halfway across the world competing in the Melbourne Olympics, a national rebellion was brutally put down by the Soviet regime in her native Hungary. When the revolt broke out, Keleti made the difficult decision not to return to the country for which she was competing. Together with other Hungarian athletes, she appealed to the Australian government for asylum. Their request was granted.

In fact, Keleti had already begun plotting her escape from Hungary prior to her departure for the Melbourne Olympics: “I had had enough of this bloody regime. One day I was swimming in the national team’s heated pool and a young man offered to drive me home. I agreed, but after a while I noticed that we weren’t heading in the direction of my house. He took me to the communist party headquarters and, there, they tried to convince me to spy on my teammates. In that very moment, I realized that I must escape” she told an interviewer.

Although she was an international Olympic star, Keleti was unsuccessful at finding acceptable work in Australia. One day, she received a telegram from Professor Gifstein, her physical education teacher from the Jewish gymnasium in Budapest. In the telegram, he told her that he had decided to immigrate to Israel.

עיתון "דבר" 25.8.1957
“Introducing: Ágnes Keleti” Davar, August 25th, 1957


Gifstein invited her to come to Israel to continue her training while adding a warning: “There is nothing here. Bring equipment with you.” Keleti decided to accept his invitation nonetheless and arrived in Israel in 1957, just in time to participate in the Fifth Maccabiah Games.

From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection
From the Tel Aviv Municipality Collection

The press in Israel was very excited by Keleti’s arrival in the country. Because of her success at the previous Olympics, she became one of the biggest stars of the Fifth Maccabiah. The stands were packed as Ágnes Keleti took to the floor, this time in her new home of Israel.

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Rare Documents from Belgrade Tell Tragic Tale of Lives Taken Too Soon

The documents from the Historical Archives of Belgrade tell the story of Isak Darsa, a young boy murdered in the Sajmiste concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis.


Application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade

Tracing the lives of average Jewish citizens who perished during the horrors of the Holocaust can be extremely difficult- especially if there were few to no survivors in their immediate family. The Historical Archives of Belgrade holds several documents that have helped retrace a part of the story of Isak Darsa, a young man with a bright future ahead of him, that was cut short by the Nazis.

Benjamin Darsa, Isak’s father, was registered for the first time as a citizen of the Belgrade municipality in 1924.  Benjamin’s certificate of permanent residence can be found in the Citizens’ Cards Register within a collection marked Administration of the City of Belgrade. The certificate reveals that Benjamin was born in 1896 to parents Isak and Gintil Elic in Zemun, which at that time was considered a seperate city but today forms part of Belgrade.

Certificate of permanent residence of Benjamin Darsa, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrad.

Benjamin worked as a clerk in a French-Serbian bank and on November 18, 1923, he married Estera-Stela nee Kalef of Belgrade at the old Synagogue Bet Israel. The young couple lived together in a leased house in the center of Belgrade.

Isak himself was born to the couple on May 29, 1926, and the next year, the little family moved into their own home on Prince Evgenie Street (modern-day Braca Baruh Street) in Dorcol, a Belgrade district where Jews formed a majority of the population. Technical documentation belonging to the city of Belgrade has preserved the floor plans of the Darsa family house and show that the architect who designed and built their home was Franja Urban, who would later become famous for his work in designing the new Belgrade Synagogue, also known as Sukkat Shalom Synagoue, in 1929.

Floor plans of the Darsa family house, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Isak Darsa attended a local elementary school in the neighborhood. A glance at his school register shows that his grades were nothing more than average as he was marked with a three on a scale of five in all of his school subjects.

In 1938/39, after finishing four grades of elementary school, Isak Darsa continued his education in the First Male Gymnasium. While he may have proven himself to be average in elementary school, he did not manage to keep to that standard in secondary school as his grades in the Gymnasium were even poorer. Isak barely managed to pass his final exams. While it is unclear if it was due to his poor grades or due to the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, at the age of 13, Isak did not return to the Gymnasium for the next school year.

Isak Darsa’s grade report from the First Male Gymnasium, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

While school may not have been the right place for him, Isak Darsa did manage to leave us another clue as to what he accomplished in pre-war Belgrade. In February 1941, three months before the war broke out in Yugoslavia, Isak began working with a merchant’s apprentice in a fashion store named Benvenisti and Pinkas on Kolarceva Street in the city center. At that time, sixteen-year-old Isak put in a request with the Merchants’ Association to be issued an occupation license. He submitted his photograph along with his application to the association as a part of his request for a license.

Isak Darsa’s application to the Merchants’ Association, courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

Unfortunately, the Darsa family met the same fate as most Jewish families living in Belgrade during the Holocaust. Benjamin, Stela and young Isak were murdered by the Nazis.  Isak’s aunt and Stela’s sister, Regina Kalef Eskenazi, who survived the war, reported the deaths of all three Darsas in 1945. Stela and Isak met their end in the Sajmiste concentration camp in 1941 and Benjamin was shot at the Tasmajdan killing site in October 1941. Regina also submitted their war damage claim describing their destroyed and confiscated furniture, clothes, and jewelry.

The Darsa Family in Yad Vashem’s records.

Benjamin, Stela and Isak Darsa have since been registered in Yad Vashem’s victims’ database.

In Color: Photos of Libyan Jews Brought to Life

These historical photographs documenting Jewish communities in Libya now appear more life-like than ever.

לוב שחור לבן וצבעים

Written by Pedahzur Benatia

As a child, I remember my parents showing me photographs that they brought with them when they immigrated from Libya to Israel in 1949. The photos gave me a direct window into the life of our family. Some of these were family portraits taken in photography studios, while others showed scenes from our hometown. I remember one photograph of the magnificent local synagogue in particular.

Years later, I began to deal with Libyan Jewish heritage professionally. Today, I am in charge of the Or Shalom Center in Bat Yam, an organization which serves to preserve the heritage of Libyan Jews. Over time, many photos have been added to Or Shalom’s ever-growing archive, but color photos were unheard of. We acquired countless photographs depicting bustling markets, streets and enchanting alleyways, incredible buildings and synagogues. There were images documenting Zionist celebrations and Jewish ceremonies featuring members of the community dressed in their finest garments. When I looked at these pictures it was as though the people in the photographs were shouting up at me: “Make no mistake, habibi, life back then was full of color and beauty! Why don’t you do something about it and show this to the world!”

Every time I looked at the black and white pictures, I found myself wondering about small details like the color of the wall in a synagogue, or the shade of the silk shawl that a particular woman wore, or even the color-tone and texture of a teacher’s suit in a school photo. I wanted to be as immersed as possible in the piece of history I held in my hand.

About three years ago, while perusing the internet for information on Libyan Jews, I came across the work of an artist named Arik Danino. It featured digitally colored photographs of David Ben Gurion declaring the foundation of the State of Israel and IDF soldiers at the Western Wall.

I wasted no time in messaging him, “Hey Arik, I saw the beautiful pictures you posted, and I could not help but feel envious. I have been dreaming about such a project for years. But, I had not known it was possible until I came across your pictures. Could you possibly give some of our photographs the same treatment?” And, the rest is history.


Members of the Society of Young Zionists of Tripoli
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Jews of Libya
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Jews of Libya


The first challenge we encountered in the project was how to communicate the vast knowledge that had been accumulated at Or Shalom to a professional who was unfamiliar with the community


לוב שחור לבן וצבעים

לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
Students in a drill lesson


We began by looking at photographs of clothing, in particular the lively zdad which was worn by women. We spoke to elderly members of the community about the coloring of the walls in the synagogue, the curtains in the hall, and the paving in the courtyard of the “Hatikva” school.


A zdad garment


Arik immersed himself in the work – asking questions, coloring, corresponding with us, making corrections here and there – soon enough, we saw wonderful results.

Arik sent me picture after picture, each one more beautiful than the last. A total of twelve photographs were carefully selected from our archive. These were the photographs that were meticulously colored and used in the first edition of a calendar that we now publish every year.


Libyan Jewish women


With the fantastic outcome from the initial project, our appetite only grew. The following year, we continued the project with the artist Raphael Ben Zikri who was able to produce another wonderful calendar. Nowadays, whenever we receive a new, striking photograph that catches our eye, we make sure to pass it along for a special color treatment that brings the scene to life.


The Pietro Verri Girls’ School in Libya
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
The streets of Tripoli
לוב שחור לבן וצבעים
The streets of Tripoli
Celebrating Israel’s first Independence Day in Libya


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