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Meditating on Bergen-Belsen: Passover After Oct. 7

President Herzog and the author at Bergen-Belsen in September 2022 -- Photo credit Shahar Azran/WJC (used with permission)

The joyous atmosphere that usually characterizes the Jewish festival of Passover is tempered if not absent this year.

Passover is meant to celebrate the liberation of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt and their birth not just as a nation but, as conceptualized by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, as a continuously evolving civilization.

Rabbi Sharon Brous has noted that the very “idea that it’s possible to move from slavery to freedom and from darkness to light and from despair to hope—that is the greatest Jewish story ever told.”

But how can we revel in our freedom when any number of the more than 100 remaining hostages, including women, children and the elderly, who were violently kidnapped from Israel on Oct. 7 are still held in Gaza by Hamas and other terrorists under horrific conditions?

How can we bask in light with the heart wrenching knowledge that almost 1,200 Jews, again including women, children and the elderly, were savagely murdered by the same Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 as were many of the hostages?

How can we not despair when Jewish women and girls were raped and brutalized in the pogrom of that watershed day?

Still, we once again sit at our Seder tables and recite our prayers in the hope that our tomorrows will be better than our yesterdays.

Seventy-nine years ago, when Passover began on the evening of March 28, 1945, my mother, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, then Ada Bimko, a 32-year-old dentist from Poland, was one of tens of thousands of Jewish inmates in the Nazi German concentration of Bergen-Belsen which she described in her posthumously published memoirs as “an indescribable hell.” This was 18 days before the beginning of her liberation..

“The camp was overcrowded,” my mother wrote. “Typhus, tuberculosis, and other epidemics raged. In the hospital and throughout the camp about a thousand people a day lay on the floor, starving and dying. . . . The small crematorium could not cope with all the corpses, even though it was kept burning day and night. The unburned corpses were strewn all over the camp. The SS, who felt that the end was near, cut off the water and electricity. We were given one piece of bread per person only three times a week and one-half bowl of so-called soup daily.”

My mother did not celebrate Passover that year. Nor did she and the other inmates of Bergen-Belsen exult on April 15 when British troops entered what they referred to as the “horror camp.” April 15 only marked the beginning of an extended process of liberation because the aftereffects of the genocide of European Jewry, its aftershocks as it were, continued on virtually unabated, with 13,944 inmates dying in the following two months.

My mother, who had been charged by the British liberators to organize and head a team of doctors and nurses from among the newly-freed prisoners to help save as many lives as possible,  did not remember much about May 8, 1945, V-E Day when World War II in Europe came to an end – “we were so busy with the sick and the dying. Of course we were glad to hear the news of the Allied victory, but we in Belsen did not celebrate on that day . . . . We in Belsen did not dance on that day. We had nothing to be hopeful for. Nobody was waiting for us anywhere. We were alone and abandoned.”

And yet, the Jewish survivors of Bergen-Belsen defied their fate and moved inexorably, almost with a vengeance – perhaps as an act of vengeance – “from slavery to freedom and from darkness to light and from despair to hope.”

The Belsen Displaced Persons camp established in erstwhile German military barracks about one kilometer away from the concentration camp, in short order became one of the most vibrant Jewish communities anywhere in the world, with schools, a rabbinate, sports clubs, Zionist, socialist, and religious political parties, a police force, a newspaper, and not one but two theater companies. In the shadow of death, love miraculously rekindled itself. My parents, both left widowed by the gas chambers of Auschwitz, were among the thousands who met and married there. I was one of more than 2,000 children who were born in the Belsen DP camp between 1945 and 1950 when the camp was closed. This, too, like the years of death, pain, abandonment, suffering, and anguish that preceded it, is an essential chapter of “the greatest Jewish story ever told.”

This year’s observance of Passover, at the Seder and throughout the week, must be about more than the biblical exodus from Egypt — it must also be about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the Jewish renaissance that took place in the Belsen DP camp. It must also be about Oct. 7 and about how we must not stop thinking about the hostages who remain in captivity and those who have not survived their ordeal. And, because we cannot care only about ourselves, we must also empathize with the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, especially the Palestinian children there, who are dying, who are displaced, and who are suffering in the ravages of the Israel-Hamas war.

Two weeks from now, on May 5, survivors of Belsen and descendants of survivors from different parts of the world will gather beside the mass-graves and monuments of Belsen to commemorate the 79th anniversary of the liberation. We will be joined by officials of the government of Lower Saxony, the German state where Bergen-Belsen is located, by the leaders and members of the Lower Saxony Jewish community, and by the German staff and volunteers of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial Site who are its guardians throughout the year when we are not there.

We will hear testimonies of two women who survived Belsen as children. We will hear a cantor intone the traditional El Male Rachamim memorial prayer and we will recite Kaddish, the communal Jewish mourners’ prayer, for the dead of Belsen, for the dead of Oct. 7, and for the hostages who have died in their Gaza captivity. We will also listen to students from a local Jewish school who will reflect on what Belsen means to them and how the surging global antisemitism of the past six months is affecting them.

During Passover this week and at Belsen on May 5, our thoughts are and will be rooted in the past in order to enable us to cope with the present and confront whatever comes next in the Jewish historical trajectory with its inevitable tragedies, victories, and challenges.

 

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School. He chairs the Advisory Board of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation that oversees World War II memorial sites in Lower Saxony, Germany, including the Memorial Site of Bergen-Belsen.

About the Author
Adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School and lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School.
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