On April 17, 2011, I found myself once again in the midst of the mass-graves of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, not far from the German city of Hannover. I stood beside the Jewish monument that my father had inaugurated on April 15, 1946, the first anniversary of the camp’s liberation, and thought back in time about how I came to be there.
I realized that I am alive because on April 10, 1945, an SS officer named Kurt Becher persuaded the commandant of Bergen-Belsen to surrender the camp to the British. Originally established as a concentration camp in 1943, Bergen-Belsen was meant to hold at most 8,000 inmates. As Soviet forces drove rapidly through Poland during the second half of 1944, however, the Germans transported thousands upon thousands of prisoners from the death and concentration camps in Poland to camps in Germany.
By the beginning of April of 1945, as Ben Shephard chronicled in his outstanding After Daybreak, the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945, the camp was overcrowded with over 40,000 starved, emaciated inmates, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, who were afflicted with typhus, tuberculosis, and a host of other virulent epidemics, alongside some 10,000 unburied corpses in varying stages of decay. My mother, a not yet 33-year old Jewish dentist from Poland who had arrived at Bergen-Belsen from Auschwitz-Birkenau five months earlier, was among them. More than 15,000 additional inmates, including my father, were imprisoned less than a mile away in barracks of a German Army base.
If the Germans had not surrendered Bergen-Belsen to the British when they did, I doubt whether my parents and most of the other inmates who witnessed the liberation would have survived. As it is, the British soldiers who entered Bergen-Belsen were confronted with one of the greatest medical and humanitarian challenges in history.
Shortly after the liberation, Brigadier H.L. Glyn-Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Army of the Rhine, appointed my mother to organize and head a group of doctors and nurses among the survivors to help care for the camp’s thousands upon thousands of critically ill inmates. For weeks on end, my mother and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other female and male volunteers, only a few of whom were trained nurses, worked round the clock alongside the military doctors headed by Lt. Colonel James Johnston to try to save as many of the survivors as possible. Despite their desperate efforts – it was not until May 11th that the daily death rate fell below 100 – the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims during the two months following the liberation. And those who lived had to face a grim reality. “For the great part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” my mother later recalled, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”
Tragically, the atrocities that were committed at Bergen-Belsen were by no means the last.
The Genocide Convention, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948, was meant to put an end to systematic mass killings as a means of promoting megalomaniacal aspirations of ethnic or religious supremacy. Instead, the past half-century has seen devastating new genocides in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur, and elsewhere. And Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly and unabashedly threatens the citizens of Israel with genocidal destruction, has yet to be declared a criminal under either the Genocide Convention or the standards applied by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg 65 years ago.
A young woman named Adisada Dudic was a student of mine this past fall in a seminar on World War II war crimes trials at Cornell Law School. She is also a survivor of the genocidal atrocities perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims by Serbian forces in the 1990s.
As a child, she spent three years in refugee camps with her mother and sisters. A “hurtful reality,” Adisada wrote, “reminds me that my home country is destroyed, my family members are scattered all over the world, thousands of Bosnian women and girls were raped and ravaged, thousands of Bosnian men and boys were tortured in concentration camps and buried in mass graves, and so many of my people were slaughtered by an enemy hand that was out to get every single person that self-identified as a Bosnian Muslim…. I am infuriated that we continue to have gross violations of human rights all over the world while we continue to find excuses for why we cannot interfere in other countries’ affairs.”
We know, as Adisada knows, that Holocaust remembrance cannot be allowed to devolve into an intellectual or spiritual abstraction. If we are to honor the memory of the victims of Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, and all the other sites where Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was implemented, the eradication of the scourge of genocide must be a priority for all of us, individually and collectively, as members of a supposedly civilized international community.
In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel said that he “swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. . . . When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” How can the rest of us do otherwise?
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants