ON A DAY pulsing with the sweetness of spring, April 15, 1945, the British liberated a place in northwest Germany called Bergen-Belsen.
They had been told that in this concentration camp were 40,000 political prisoners-mostly homosexuals and criminals, according to the SS officer in charge. What they found were 40,000 living skeletons and 10,000 unburied dead packed six feet high- a tangle of shrunken legs and arms, and buttocks "no larger than fists." And a raging typhus epidemic.
For five years the survivors of Belsen lived close to their graves, to watch over them, to remember. The crematorium, the stink, the disease, the brutality had been burned out. Only the mass graves remained-raised mounds with signs: 1,500 buried here . . . 2,000 . . . 2,500.
On this fifth anniversary of liberation, April 15, 1950, they celebrated their dead with a stone monument.
The memorial day that had started with a spongy spring rain became a torrent. Something inconsolably bleak soaked the gray morning as we huddled around the stone and waited. A young man with a black and white tallis thrown over his shoulder started to chant. The undertow of mourning was stabbed with a wail as a wave of remembrance splintered the survivors.
In other places the earth was swollen with the promise of spring. Here there was only a weeping wasteland, pocked with the mounds that were the mass graves of Bergen-Belsen.
The chanting song blurred the rain and then there was stillness. Only the sway was felt and the scalding tears. The speeches were short. A murmured prayer followed and then the drenched air throbbed with "Hatikvah," the anthem of the Jews: . . . in the east a new light dawns . . . a new hope . . . look toward the east.
Who were these Jews? Who were all the others, living in wooden huts and Wehrmacht barracks stained with urine and raw with cold?
They were Displaced Persons. DPs.The Nazis had needed mountains of muscle, reservoirs of blood. They turned to the east to sate their need, and called their loot Ost - "East people". No other label was required to spell the blitz of Poland and the brutal occupation of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania by Himmler's Einsatzgruppen .
The Allies flushed out 7 million Ost slaves and started to repatriate them through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Five million were sent to their place of origin. But something went wrong. A twilight fell, and it grew darker as all around the curtains came down and the Ost people were sealed from their homelands.
Darkness yielded to the dawn of resettlement under the International Refugee Organization (IRO). Into that wan dawn scamperd an industrialist from Canada who flew away with a hundred Polish maidens, virgins all, all hand-pinched-to spin in his mill, to spin for 20 cents an hour.
A humanitarian gold rush was triggered. Britain screened for single girls to fill its need for domestics. Short men came from Chile with tapes to measure the tallest DPs. Australia sought to swell her census with family units. Good teeth, a lot of youngsters and knowing how to sign your name qualified you for Operation Kangaroo.
Brazil, oblivious to caries and children, accepted agricultural workers between 18 and 48. (Jews and persons of Asiatic origin were excluded.) New Zealand sought single women to work in mental hospitals. Belgium panned for coal miners to fill her Black diamond scheme. Argentina solicited specimens without physical defects.
By the time I arrived in the British zone of Germany in the winter of 1949 to be an IRO movements officer, the strongest and tallest DPs had been skimmed off. There remained the hard core-the aged, illiterate, tubercular-and a sea of faces refusing to go anywhere except the United States.
Australia was still shopping for young blood, and Canada, having had a taste of honey, was rummaging for brawn . . . Fetch the scales. Weigh the blokes. Feel their muscles. Do they bulge? Do they ripple? Tall and strong, with no part marred or missing.
How do you measure a man's soul? How do you feel its muscle? How can you tell how tall a soul is? How do you put it on a scale and weigh it and tell it it has to work 500 meters under the earth?
In the rest of Germany they were singing "O Tannenbaum," and the fir trees were dripping with tinsel and sparkling with white candles; and pantries were full of lebkuchen and festooned with wursts. It was the time of the Christ child.
There were those who refused to be weighed and pawed and taped. They had resisted the blandishments of the selection missions and were waiting for the Statue of Liberty to welcome them.
It happened in Truman's time. In the second session of the 80th Congress Public Law 74 was passed, admitting 202,000 DPs. The catch was that 30 percent of the visas were designed for migrants previously engaged in agricultural pursuits. Never were so many rural types spawned so quickly.
Renee, who worked for the Jewish agency that resettled Belsen DPs, claimed her "clients" were looking more and more like Christ. She had a group of Christ waiting to go to the United States, all with beards, and lean, aquiline noses, and eyes long and narrow burning with Weltschmertz .
I, too, was haunted by Christ-like faces. I took truckloads of them every Thursday morning to the railroad siding. They were on their way to Bremerhaven to embark to the States. I lifted their wooden boxes into the train. They scrambled for seats and started to eat their blood wursts and sour black bread. I inspected the toilets and windows, and shared a schnapps.
Einsteigen! bellowed the stationmaster. "ALL ABOARD!" The Train gave a weak gasp and crawled away with its strange cargo.
I returned to the barrack to move more Christs. actually, I was a signature. I sat behind Hermann Goering's desk and signed nominal rolls. I signed railroad warrants. I signed baggage declarations, the most interesting of all because I could read what a Christ carried with him: one "breast warmer," four drawers, one Saint picture, one necessaire , one battle dress, one bundle letters, one icon, one candle, one milk can, one box w.trifles, one Cross.
My signing was interrupted by calls from Headquarters. Displaced Persons, I was told, would no longer be called "bodies." They would be referred to verbally and in writing as "migrants."
According to this new terminology, I was advised that Camp Jever was sending 140 migrants.(Jever was the jewish camp that took over the Belsen after Belsen became notorious for black market operations.) They would arrive at 17:27. Correction: Only 69 arriving by rail; the rest in Rolls-Royces . . . one piano accompanying each body-delete-each migrant. This is HQ's oblique way of telling me that a raging black market had replaced the typhus epidemic of five years ago. After seeing the mass graves at Belsen, Movements was eager to sign baggage declarations covering 140 pianos. Movements hoped they were baby grands . . .
I picked up my pen again. Now I was signing death warrants. These were for DPs who had a spot on their lungs or had been denounced as subversive by a nameless accuser. They waited in a corner of the room for the railway warrants that would take them back to their camps.
HQ again: To boost morale, another egg will be rationed. This brought the total to seven a week. Gin would still be one bottle a week and whiskey would remain one-fourth of a bottle a month.
Seven eggs a week! This meant: on top of a puddle of sour spinach, sprayed over macaroni, draped over cauliflower, masking the rotten brussels sprouts, plopped in the potato soup, tucked in the sauerkraut-in addition to the naked egg served with kippers that was Sunday's treat.
(Is it a wonder that my Italian friend Cesare was urging me to migrate to the American Zone? "Better to go where the Americans are. Instead of one egg a day you will find a hen a day. You have always to go near rich people. This give you more chance. The poor people make us sad; the rich give different illusion.")
I stopped signing and looked out the window. Barrack 12 had a face in each window. There was spinal meningitis in 12 and the quarantine was in its second week. How tortured were their faces.
And how tortured I had become, and disillusioned, and worn. The rumored end of IRO had wrought a terrible change. Now, this was a place of intrigue and desperation, where the U.S. Displaced Persons Commission held court, the consul was king, and the immigration inspector was high executioner. I felt the bitter taste of futility, denunciation, of suicide and murder.
They joy had gone out of it.
How long it seemed since that first teaser shipment of Polish virgins. Could they be virgins still at 20 cents an hour?
Leaned back in Goering's chair, closed my eyes and remembered how it was when there was only one egg a weak.
I recalled the Baltic shepherds who, after seeing a film on life in the United States, "had no more wish to go to Texas."
a request had been received from the King Ranch in Texas for shepherds. Twenty-two Latvians and Estonians had been selected. They were very old, but who cared. They were real shepherds.They wore shepherd headdresses and greatcoats and carried crooks just like a shepherd should.
The sponsor had sent someone to show the shepherds a film of U.S. life. A simple film, familiar to anyone who has been a travelogue. The first scene flounced into a rodeo. Bronco-busting cowhands were whooping it up with bone-crushing antics. In the darkened room I could hear the shepherds suck in their breath.
The camera shifted to a ski jump in Sun Valley. It was a dizzy, dazzling performance, with skiers leaping into space and lurching earthward. With each lurch, a low moan issued from the shepherds.
After several other equally typical American scenes, there was a pastoral episode featuring a flock of sheep grazing peacefully on a grassy slope. A man came and performed an operation that started with a k ife and ended with sinking his teeth into a private part of the sheep. When the operationwas over the sheep limped away, leaving a trickle of blood behind them.
A montage of swimming, diving, racing, tennis, baseball and football was the final flurry, and, as the sun went down and the house lights went up, there wasn't a shepherd in the house. They had all shuffled away, taking their crooks with them.
The Texan and his wife were stunned. Loulou, the Belgian resettlement officer, was furious. She pounced on the camp leader, but he just shrugged and said that after the film the shepherds had no more wish to go to Texas. The Texans were in a state of shock-not want to go to Kingsville? They must be cretins, these Balts.
There was a speedy roundup of shepherds. They were polite but firm. One said he couldn't be a bronco-buster-too old. Another confided that he had never learned to ski in Estonia. Anyway, he was too brittle now. A third removed his dentures and dangled them in front of Loulou. How could he do the operation?
"It was a peculiar operation," Loulou grimaced, pouring us another gin and squash. "But certainly not one that should be strange to an IRO-tested-and-selected shepherd!"
I remembered the old people, too old for any country to want. One day Father Braun came looking for them to go to France. They would be guests of the Little Sisters of the Poor. We selected 37 simple types for the padre to interview.
There was the Pole, Wierzbicki, who was a Jehovah's Witness, and his friend Waslic, who was a Baptist. Would the Little Sisters welcome a Witness and a Baptist? Oui, smiled the padre.
There was the Hungarian, Farbyka, who had three crooked fingers. Verkrummte , hissed the German clerk, and the way she said it was the sound of fingers crunched in a meat grinder. Farbyka had wanted to go to Argentina, but somehow the verkrummte fingers had been interpreted as missing. By the time his dossier made the rounds of the Argentine mission the missing fingers had developed into a missing arm. So he languished in a camp until he became eligible for an old persons' scheme. Oui, Father Braun was happy to say.
There was Marunyk, the Romanian, who wanted to know how much his wine quota would be. Father Braun assured him he would be treated as if he were a Frechman. "In that case, oui, " beamed Marunyk.
Thirty-three of the 37 were accepted by the padre. We were grateful that he had not brought a print of Lon Chaney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" with him.
The day after the selection, the old people sent a delegation to see me. Was it true that they would have to genuflect to the Pope? That they would not be allowed to sleep with their women? Their wine would be watered? One old man figured that he would be happier in a kingdom-maybe Belgium or Holland.
In the end I persuaded them to go. And in the end they went.
I turned up at the railroad siding to bring some gifts and say au revour . Amid incredible confusion they were making their exodus from Germany with the help of some home-made schnapps. They were all holding each other up, and the one in the middle was holding the jug. I hoisted them into the train, fielding their tipsy embraces, and settled them in their seats.
Amid wild shouts of Vive la belle France!, the train started to pull out. The window were alive with hands tracing crosses, and withered tears were falling down crumpled cheeks. I walked to the end of the platform and watched the train creep away. And as it went I shouted Vive Padre Braun . . . Vive those Little Sisters. . .
I remembered Mrs. Kull, the Estonian DP who used to say "Is this not a bloody life?" as she gave me my weekly ration of green soap, candy, gin and 80 cigarettes.
It was indeed a bloody life. I had to escape for a few days-to Perpignan to hear Pablo Casals; to Florence for the Musical May; to Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden where the clouds drifted in the window and the jukebox blared "Ghost Riders in the Sky"; to London to see friends.
But wherever I went I was always hungry to return to the DP camps, the only life that had come to mean anything.
How long it seemed since Loulou and I used to laugh together as we drank gin and wolfed the Belgian chocolates and wursts her parents brought from Liege. We laughed at all the fahrts on the Autobahn-einfahrts and ausfahrts, durchfahrts and freifahrts . We laughed when she put on her UNRRA drawers and impersonated her UNRRA chief: "Let them do what they have to do in the camp before they leave for their homeland," he ordered, refusing to erect WCs on the repatriation trains heading east.
We could even laugh at some of the incidents that happened when the DPs were being interviewed by the selection missions-the rubber stamp, the shepherds, Mahunyk of the big purple nose, ill-timed pregnancies, instant marriages.
. . . I asked the Polish DP to sign his name to prove he was literate. He whipped out a rubber stamp, breathed on it, and fixed his signature on a sheet of paper. All I could stammer was: "But it's upside down." He stamped it right side up. I scheduled him on the next transport to Australia.
. . . Miss Mercic was headed for Brazil. The trouble was, she had engaged in some extracurricular activity, and it took a lot of doing to persuade the Brazilian consul to accept an unmarried mother. Then we discovered she was with child again. She was indignant with IRO. "If you had worked faster on my papers there would not have been time for this to happen. But I will overlook it if you send me and my lover to Brazil as soon as possible."
. . . There was Warung. He came trailed by his woman and their six children. Just the sort of family composition that Australia wanted. And Australia was where he wanted to go. All he had to do was get married. He turned around and looked her up and down. "Marry her? But I don't even like her." We married them.
These were the lighter times we shared. For a little while we could blot out where the DPs lived, how they dressed, what they ate, the look in their eyes. But we knew the hard core was growing harder, and time was like a noose around our hearts.
In those early days I was like an amoeba, like one cell dancing and churning in a drop of water, with no other life before or after. I liked having a food vacuole and an oil vacuole and a nucleus and waves of protoplasmic arms to wrap around my DP friends.
I was no longer an amoeba. Now I was a sea urchin, bristling with purple-black spines and rigged with a toothy Aristotle's lantern. Now I was a tired, sagging sea urchin, clinging to a rock, battered by a stale backwash.
All the phosphorus was gone and no stars showed.
Sea urchin or amoeba-what did it matter?
What mattered was seeing the Ost People on their way to a new life. All the tiredness and hurt vanished when the railroad platform echoed with their goodbyes.
Peasants, saints, rogues, Christs, black marketeers-all waving and weeping and shouting goodbye.
Dowidzenia, aufwiedersehen, dosvidanya , bye bye, so long, ciao, Shalom !
The trains made a sound like dankeschoen, bitte schoen, dankeschoen, bitteschoen, danke schoen, bitte schoen, danke schoen, bitte schoen . . . faster and faster and faster still, and were lost in the thunder. CAPTION: Picture 1, I took truck loads of them every Thursday morning to the railroad siding, The National Archives; Picture 2, no caption, The National Archives; Picture 3, All the hurt vauislud when the platform echoed with their goodbyes. The National Archives; Picture 4, no caption, United Nations Photo