75 years ago, the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The scenes that met them were nothing short of devasting. Despite the British Army’s best efforts, more than 13,000 of the at least 50,000 prisoners died within weeks of liberation from rampant disease. Many of those who survived were children, with no-one left in the world to look out for them.
Mala Tribich MBE always recalls the moment of liberation. Inmates who could hardly shuffle, were running. Lying in her bunk, suffering with typhus, she was incredulous. Many, looking back, speak of not understanding what liberation meant at all. Starved, alone and on the brink of collapse, there was not a sudden or spontaneous celebration.
Freedom means something very different when you have nowhere to go. They knew the Germans had gone and the British had arrived, but not how that would change their lives. For those who survived as young children, they knew no different but a life under Nazi rule. Perhaps the same could be said of when the Jewish people were liberated from slavery in Egypt. So many generations had suffered that they knew not what they went towards, only what they gladly left behind.
Many of those who survived the Holocaust were the only surviving members of their families, so they came together to create their own sort of family. And to a large extent it was the British who enabled that. Whether it was The Boys who came to Lake Windermere, or those who banded together in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons’ Camp, they recall British support as they united towards a revival of Jewish life, culture and religion.
We always knew that the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen would be different to all those which have already passed. As time moves further on, the Holocaust moves from living history to just history, making our mission to educate all the more pressing. Some of our beloved survivors, who did so much to tell the world of what they had experienced, have passed away. I think of Gena Turgel with particular affection, who meant so much to me and inspired all those she met.
But, none of us could have foreseen the circumstances in which we will mark this momentous occasion; the voices of those we need to hear the most are quieter than we’d hope as survivors are rightly shielding themselves from the devastating affects of COVID-19.
At the Holocaust Educational Trust, we have been working hard to innovate through online and digital resources, and to ensure that even during lockdown we can engage, educate and discuss questions of faith, hope and resistance. And whilst visits to Belsen were cut short, we are glad that nearly 1000 students and teachers were able to visit the camp, and teachers across the country have accessed educational resources.
We have also been encouraging our support network to #SendSomeLove to Holocaust survivors who do so much for our cause. It’s been heart-warming to see messages pour in and their messages to us have been equally uplifting. They of all people know about hardship, but the swell of support and love for them has been heart-warming. In tough times, the best of humanity often shines through.
Susan Pollack MBE speaks of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the British soldier who lifted her up and put her on a stretcher, the first act of kindness and gentleness she’d seen since the Nazis invaded Hungary and her life changed forever. At this difficult time, it is right that we recognise the bravery and kindness of those who are sacrificing their personal safety for the good of others. And as we mark Pesach, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, we should take time to reflect on, remember and be thankful for the freedoms we share. Let us celebrate, virtually with loved ones, and together, as a community.