The International School for Holocaust Studies
Destruction and Rebirth at Bergen Belsen
Shoshanna Lockshin, Jackie Metzger and Asaf Tal
Grades: 9 - 12
Duration: 1 - 2 hours
- Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp
- The Liberation of Bergen Belsen
- From Concentration Camp to Displaced Persons' Camp
- Life in the Bergen Belsen DP Camp
- Marriage at Bergen Belsen
- Childbirth at Bergen Belsen
- Conclusion: Destruction and Rebirth
This classroom activity explores the transformation of Bergen Belsen from a concentration camp to a Displaced Persons' camp. It focuses particularly on how Holocaust survivors grappled with loneliness and despair by getting married and starting families shortly after liberation. Through the lens of Bergen Belsen, we see how Holocaust survivors displayed courage and determination in generating life after the Holocaust.
During World War II the Nazis killed millions of civilians. In accordance with Nazi ideology, they went to extreme measures to totally destroy the Jewish people. They killed six million Jews, mainly in extermination camps that they built specifically for this purpose. The Nazis also imprisoned Jews in forced labor camps and concentration camps.
Bergen Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. Over the course of WWII, tens of thousands of Jews died in Bergen Belsen. Among the most famous victims of Bergen Belsen were Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who both died there in March 1945.
In this testimony, Judy Rosenzwieg, who was twenty years old when she was in Bergen Belsen in 1945, describes the conditions there:
"Suddenly we were marched into Bergen Belsen, that's where we were taken. In Bergen Belsen it was absolutely the worst of them all. It was not blocks; not organized. It was in the streets. We were just thrown in there between the electric wires, and wherever you could go - you go, and wherever you want to sleep - you sleep. No food. Only once or twice a week they were handing out some of that horrible grass soup."
What was Bergen Belsen?
The Bergen Belsen concentration camp was established in April 1943. Over the next year-and-a-half, five sub-camps were set up there. Jewish inmates of these camps were forced to perform hard labor for the Nazis. Bergen Belsen was infamous for its extremely unhygienic conditions; it was infested with lice and typhus. Its horrific conditions deteriorated near the end of the war, when tens of thousands of prisoners arrived at Bergen Belsen on death marches from the East.
Who was Imprisoned at Bergen Belsen?
The different camps at Bergen Belsen housed Jews from a variety of countries: Albania, Argentina, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Tunisia, Yugoslavia. Most were from Poland and Hungary.
Many of the prisoners at Bergen Belsen arrived there on death marches from other concentration camps. During Summer 1944, as the British and American Armies advanced in their fight against Germany from the West and the Soviet army advanced in its fight against Germany from the East, the Nazis began liquidating concentration camps, sending prisoners on death marches. They forced prisoners of concentration camps to march over long distances, under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were abused, and sometimes killed, by the guards that accompanied them.
The death marches served a dual purpose for the Nazis. On one hand, the Nazis intended for large numbers of Jewish prisoners to die on death marches. Indeed, about 250,000 prisoners, many of whom were Jews, died on death marches. On the other hand, the death marches were also an attempt to move concentration camp prisoners into Germany's borders, so that the Nazis could continue to exploit them for slave labor. Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany, such as Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Mauthausen.
Shmuel Judkiewitz says that Bergen Belsen was "indescribable." How does Judy's testimony describe the indescribable?
On April 15, 1945, British troops entered Bergen Belsen. They liberated some 60,000 prisoners, many of whom were on the verge of death. During the first weeks after liberation, close to 500 people in Bergen Belsen died every day. From liberation day until June 20, an estimated 14,000 people died from the terrible conditions that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis during the war.
In the following testimony, Judy Rosenzweig describes the liberation of Bergen Belsen: "All of a sudden out of the blue sky we saw tanks rolling into the camp…We had no idea what kind of tanks they were. Is it the Americans? Is it the Germans? Is it…We just didn't know. We just suddenly panicked…And loudspeakers started speaking loudly in German and in English:
'You are liberated.'
'We are the English Army - You are liberated.'
'Stay away from danger and stay inside and we'll help you.'
'Stay alive. Try to hang in there. We're here to help you.'
And we knew we were liberated. Needless to say, our feelings were very mixed. So we were liberated. So thank God we are alive. But are we really thankful? Who are we? Where are we going to go? What are we? Nothing. That's okay, we're alive."
June 6, 1944: D-Day Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Western Europe begins in Normandy, France
July 24, 1944: Soviet troops liberate Majdanek in Poland
January 17, 1945: Soviet troops liberate Warsaw
January 27, 1945: Soviet troops liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland
April 15, 1945: British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen in Germany
April 29, 1945: American troops liberate Dachau in Germany
April 29, 1945: Hitler commits suicide
May 8, 1945: Unconditional surrender of Germany to the Allies
What Did British Soldiers Experience When They Liberated Bergen Belsen?
Upon liberating Bergen Belsen, British soldiers discovered the true nature of the Nazi Third Reich. Bergen Belsen had reached its lowest point about three weeks before liberation. Typhus was raging and about 1000 inmates died every day from this epidemic. There was no running water and rations were down to half a pint of soup a day and bread only three times a week. Although the British soldiers had heard about Nazi atrocities, nothing prepared them for what they saw. Richard Dimbleby of the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), who visited Bergen Belsen a few days after liberation, broke down several times when he tried to record his first impressions of the camp. On April 19, 1945, the BBC broadcasted his report and a stunned world learned what the inmates of Bergen Belsen had gone through, and what the British soldiers had witnessed a few days before. It took the British soldiers some time to realize that the former prisoners at Bergen Belsen needed easily digested food such as rice, biscuits and fresh milk. Thousands of prisoners died after liberation because they could not get to the food that the British provided, or because they ate too much, or because they could not digest the food that was available.
In total, some 14,000 people in Bergen Belsen died during the first eight weeks after liberation. Even after liberation, they succumbed to the terrible conditions that had been inflicted on them by the Nazis during the war.
Poem about the Liberation of Bergen Belsen
- We know from survivor testimonies that Jews in ghettos and camps constantly felt insecure because of a lack of information about what was going on around them. How is this expressed in the first few lines of Judy's testimony?
- What words of the British liberators indicate the extreme situation of the prisoners? What specific dangers could they have been referring to?
- We might imagine that liberation was swift, sweet and simple. Choose three quotations from Judy's testimony that show that liberation was not swift, sweet or simple.
- Are you surprised by Judy's testimony?
- Some 14,000 prisoners in Bergen Belsen alone died in the eight weeks after they were "liberated." Do you find this statistic particularly poignant? Explain your answer.
In the weeks that followed liberation, the British burnt down the typhus - infested barracks in the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen. They transferred the former prisoners who had not died in the weeks that followed liberation to the military camp, where there were better living conditions. Many survivors remained at Bergen Belsen after liberation, because they did not want to return to their homes or because they had no homes to return to. The British registered these survivors, and Bergen Belsen began to operate as a DP (Displaced Persons) camp for them. Many Jews who survived other Nazi camps, or who survived the Holocaust in hiding or by fleeing to the Soviet Union, moved to the DP camp at Bergen Belsen.
In this testimony, John Fink describes watching the concentration camp burn, and moving into the DP camp at Bergen Belsen:
"I stood still when this camp was burnt down by British flame throwers. Then I was evacuated to the former German military camp in Bergen Belsen. It was a complete military installation for one division, thousands of people that survived were there."
Why Did Most Survivors from Eastern Europe Not Return to Their Homes after Liberation?
Immediately after liberation, West European Jews who survived the Holocaust generally returned to their countries of origin. Holocaust survivors who tried to return to their homes in Eastern Europe faced many more difficulties. The Nazi destruction in the East had been all-encompassing. Many survivors, particularly in Eastern Europe, continued to encounter antisemitism when they returned to their communities. In some places survivors who had returned home met with violent hostility. In Kielce, 42 Jews who had survived the Holocaust were killed by local Poles in a pogrom on July 4, 1946.
Jews from Eastern Europe flocked to DP camps in the zones of Europe that were occupied by the Allies. By the end of 1946, there were approximately 250,000 Jewish DPs-185,000 in camps in Germany, 45,000 in camps in Austria, and 20,000 in camps in Italy.
- The concentration camp at Bergen Belsen had to be burnt down for health reasons; it was infested with infectious diseases. Why else might the British have wanted to burn it down?
- Consider the photograph of survivors watching the burning of the camp (in Additional Resources). What did the burning of the camp symbolize to them? Why did John Fink 'stand still' while watching?
- Consider the photograph of the sign outside Bergen Belsen (in Additional Resources). Why did the British erect a sign where the concentration camp once stood? Why might they have used the German spelling--"Kultur"-- for the word "Culture"?
Over a short period of time, Bergen Belsen became the largest DP camp in Germany. In 1946, more than 11,000 Jews lived there. Some survivors succumbed to their despair in the DP camp. After years of forced labor, some survivors refused to work at all. Others developed a Black Market at Bergen Belsen, trafficking in anything that would earn them a penny. However, the majority of survivors at Bergen Belsen were able to gather emotional energy and channel it towards rebuilding their lives.
In the following testimony, Holocaust survivor Paul Trepman, who was a member of the Jewish leadership in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen, describes life there:
"Teachers established good schools, from nothing. People produced quality newspapers that were worth reading, even without a press. Actors established a theater. All of this was in addition to meeting the daily needs of the new Jewish community in the camp.
Of course, over time, we received help from outside. But we laid the foundation for this new community, we built it and ran it ourselves. We received food and books from outside, but we did the work and we can be proud of our efforts, Those who survived will always remember April 15, 1945 as their second birthday - in many ways more important than their first."
What was Daily Life Like in the Bergen Belsen DP Camp?
The survivors at Bergen Belsen, living under improved conditions, began to establish educational institutions shortly after liberation. They set up an elementary school as early as July 1945. After three years the number of pupils in the elementary school had grown to 340. This number was impressive considering that most children did not survive the Holocaust. In December 1945 the survivors founded a high school, where studies were carried out with the help of soldiers from the Jewish Brigade. Over the course of time the number of pupils in the high school reached 200. The school also included a yeshiva (institute of higher Jewish learning). The DP camp also had kindergartens, an orphanage and ORT vocational training institutions.There was a lively theatrical life in Bergen Belsen. In addition, the main Jewish newspaper in British-occupied Germany, "Unzer Sztyme" ("Our Voice") was published there.
- Paul Trepman's testimony focuses on the intense desire for renewal of life in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen. Give three or four examples that describe this energy.
- After years of torture and deprivation, the entire survivor population could have easily turned to lawlessness and looting. Considering this, what is the significance of Paul's testimony?
- In the ghettos, the Nazis usually prohibited Jewish education - often one of their first acts of anti-Jewish persecution. How does this fact affect your understanding of why the survivor community rushed to establish schools in the DP camp?
- Why does Paul emphasize that "we built it and ran it ourselves"?
- What does Paul mean when he says that April 15, 1945 is the survivors' second and more important birthday?
- Carefully read the editorial from a 1946 edition of "Unzer Sztyme" (in Additional Resources). How does the Zionist dream that is conveyed in the editorial give an answer to the disappointments with liberation?
- What can we learn about the survivor population from the fact that they were able to dream about a brighter future?
Most of the survivors in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen were young people. They found themselves entirely alone, having lost their parents, spouses, children and siblings during the Holocaust. They commonly chose to establish a feeling of normality and fight despair by marrying in the DP camp. During the first year after liberation, in the Bergen Belden DP camp, there were often six weddings a day, and up to fifty weddings a week. During 1946, there were 1,070 weddings at Bergen Belsen.
Weddings were the main agenda of the camp's social life. Young brides and their friends turned old clothing into bridal gowns. Printers and artists produced announcements and invitations. Friends decorated rooms and worked to transform rations into cuisine cooking. Drama and musical groups performed.
Wedding Invitations and Documents from Bergen Belsen DP Camp
- Invitation to Devorah and Yakov's wedding, Bergen Belsen, 1948 (Hebrew original)
- Invitation to Devorah and Yakov's wedding, Bergen Belsen, 1948 (English translation)
- Invitation to Fryda and Zygmunt's wedding, Bergen Belsen, 1948 (German and Yiddish original)
- Invitation to Fryda and Zygmunt's wedding, Bergen Belsen, 1948 (English translation)
- Invitation to Golda and Menashe's wedding, Bergen Belsen, 1948 (Hebrew original)
- Invitation to Golda and Menashe's wedding, Bergen Belsen, 1948 (English translation)
- Ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), Bergen Belsen, 1946 (Hebrew original)
- Ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract), Bergen Belsen (English original)
- Jewish marriage license, Central Jewish Committee, Bergen Belsen (English original)
- One of the most difficult things that liberated survivors had to deal with was intense loneliness. What do you think is the difference between the loneliness that we all sometimes experience and the loneliness that Holocaust survivors felt after liberation?
- How does this loneliness connect to the astounding marriage statistics at Bergen Belsen?
- What is unique about the three wedding invitations from Bergen Belsen (in Additional Resources)? Consider invitations to weddings that you have seen. Which family members are normally mentioned together with the bride and the groom?
- Many survivors who married at Bergen Belsen recount that the joy of these weddings was mixed with pain. All three wedding invitations indicate the location of the ceremony, as well as the address for replies. How do these details convey the darker side of the event?
- Why do you think that two of the wedding invitations include the birthplaces of the bride and groom?
In the following testimony, John Fink describes his marriage in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen. After liberation at Bergen Belsen John returned to his birthplace, Berlin, where he found his sister, who had survived the Holocaust underground. He then returned to the DP camp at Bergen Belsen:
"Coming back to Bergen Belsen, I met the people from the Jewish Relief Unit from England and the Joint American Distribution Committee. In 1946 one of the nurses who came from England was a former Berlin girl, Alice Retlick, and we got to be friends. We got married on the 20th of June 1948 by the Chief Rabbi of the British Army, Chaplain Levy, and our Rabbi Asaria Helfgott. It was a great day."
- John Fink and his wife Alice were married by two rabbis. We know that even secular couples at Bergen Belsen were married in the framework of Jewish religious wedding ceremonies. Why do you think they made that choice?
Young couples in the Bergen Belsen DP camp usually gave birth very shortly after they married. The birthrate of the Jewish population in the DP camps in Europe was the highest of any group in the world at the time. In 1946, 555 births were registered at the Bergen Belsen hospital. By 1948, the 1000th baby was born in Bergen Belsen.
In this testimony, Judy Rosenzweig reflects on the decision to give birth after liberation:
"It was not an easy decision on my part at the very beginning of my liberation to ever bring another Jewish child to the world. But soon enough my life began to take a more normal route, so to speak. And God blessed us with two beautiful children."
What Challenges were Posed by the Large Number of Pregnancies and Births at Bergen Belsen?
Women who became pregnant shortly after the Holocaust had not always regained full strength and health. They and their babies were often in danger. There was a constant shortage of proper nutrition in the DP camp, undernourished mothers found it difficult to breastfeed, and there was not enough baby food in the DP camp. The fact that new mothers did not usually have guidance from their own mothers, grandmothers, sisters or aunts, as they would have had in previous happier times, also posed a challenge. As a result, the welfare agencies that operated in Bergen Belsen made great efforts to care for new mothers and babies. Moreover, young mothers at Bergen Belsen reached out to help one another, creating extended "families."
- How do you explain the very high birthrate at the Bergen Belsen DP camp?
- Why do you think Judy Rosenzweig was hesitant about having children after the Holocaust?
In this statement, Menachem Rosensaft discusses the significance of childbirth at Bergen Belsen. Menachem's parents were Josef Rosensaft and Hadassah Bimko-Rosensaft, who were both central leaders of the Jewish community of DPs. Josef and Hadassah married, and gave birth to Menachem, in Bergen Belsen.
"In the spring of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II and the liberation of the infamous German concentration camps, a child was born in Bergen Belsen, the place where only a short time earlier tens of thousands had perished. This child was the first of over two thousand who were born in and around Bergen Belsen, of parents who had survived the Holocaust.
The song went: 'Under the green trees of Poland, Moishelach and Shloimelach do not play any more…' The birth of this first child of Belsen meant that Moishelach and Shloimelach and Ruchelah and Lealach would play again under the trees…in Israel and in other countries…
We, who call ourselves the children of Belsen, believe that we are a part of Belsen. We may not have lived through the horrors of the Holocaust, but we can and do feel its tragedy. We have tried to learn about it, so that we can help our parents in keeping the world from forgetting it."
Who were the Bimko-Rosensafts?
Menachem Rosensaft's parents, Josef Rosensaft (1911-1971) and Hadassah Bimko (1910-1997), were important leaders of the DP community. Josef Rosensaft was born in Bedzin, Poland. He was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944, after a number of escapes from the Nazis. He ended up at Bergen Belsen two weeks before its liberation. After liberation, Josef remained at Bergen Belsen and served as Chairman of the Central Committee of the British Zone. In this position, he led all attempts to improve the lives of the Jewish survivors in the DP camps in British-occupied Germany. He possessed natural wisdom, a keen sense of justice and a fine sense of humor.
Hadassah Bimko was born in Sosnowiec, Poland. She was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then to Bergen Belsen, where she arrived in November 1944. A dentist who studied medicine, Hadassah made a name for herself caring for children in Bergen Belsen before and after liberation.She headed a team of survivor-doctors and became the head of the Health Department of the Jewish Central Committee. She was broad-minded and well-educated.
Josef and Hadassah married in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen. Their only son, Menachem, was born there.
- A Hebrew invitation to Menachem's "Sholem Zachar" - a traditional Jewish gathering on the Sabbath after the birth of a baby boy.
- The English translation of the invitation to Menachem's "Sholem Zachar,".
- A photograph of members of the Jewish Brigade with Dr. Hadassah Bimko in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen.
- A photograph of Central Committee leaders with Josef Rosensaft (first on the left).
- What is unique about Menachem Rosensaft's perspective on childbirth in Bergen Belsen?
- The survivors who lived in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen came extremely close to death. After the Nazis had killed their parents, spouses, siblings and children, the survivors' determination to continue, and start new families, provides the answer to the Nazis' attempt to annihilate European Jewry. Reflect on what you have learned about marriage and childbirth in Bergen Belsen. In your mind, what fact, testimony or picture most symbolizes this determination?
We have explored different aspects of Bergen Belsen as a concentration camp and as a DP camp. More specifically, we have examined the significance of the families that were created among survivors at the Bergen Belsen DP camp.
At this point, we must remember that some survivors were unable to return to "normal" life after the trauma of the Holocaust. Among this group were survivors who committed suicide, survivors who experienced severe psychological scarring, survivors who were unable to marry or have children, and others who suffered from a host of problems after the Holocaust. What is remarkable is that these were the minority, and that most Holocaust survivors were able to bring a certain degree of order to their chaotic world.
To conclude, we bring Josef Rosensaft, who was an important leader of the Jewish DP population in Germany in general, and in Bergen Belsen in particular.
"Bergen Belsen, or Belsen, is a double symbol in the history of the years after the second World War; it is not just the name of a town in Northern Germany.
The name 'Belsen' invokes tremor in Jews' hearts. Belsen is engraved in the Jewish consciousness as one of the most cursed places in Germany, where the bones of tens of thousands of Jewish victims are buried. The Belsen camp is, in Jews' memories and in the memories of all people in the world, a camp of starvation, and unbelievable filth which caused diseases and plagues. Belsen has become a symbol of man's inhumanity to man.
On the other hand, Belsen is also the camp that was liberated on April 15, 1945, and then became a symbol for renewal and rebirth, and the 'return to life' of the survivors."
- In the continuation of his remarks, Josef Rosensaft mentions that people told him to try to forget Bergen Belsen before liberation, and focus entirely on the rebirth there. Why do you think people suggested this?
- How does Josef Rosensaft's notion that Bergen Belsen is a "double symbol" respond to this suggestion?
- Reflect on what you have learned about Bergen Belsen's transformation from concentration camp to DP camp. Identify symbols of destruction and symbols of rebirth.
- In the statement that we read, Josef Rosensaft insists that for him destruction and rebirth are necessarily linked in one place: Bergen Belsen. How did the shadow of the Holocaust affect happy "family" occasions at the Bergen Belsen DP camp?
 Yad Vashem O.69/216.
 Yad Vashem O.69/102.
 Yad Vashem O.69/116.
 Belsen. Tel Aviv: Irgun Sheerit Hapletah Me'ezor Habriti, 1958, p. 119. (Hebrew).
 Yad Vashem, O.69/116.
 Yad Vashem O.69/102.
 Menachem Z. Rosensaft, ed. Bergen Belsen Youth Magazine. New York: World Federation of Bergen Belsen Survivors, 1965, p. 5.
 Belsen. Tel Aviv: Irgun Sheerit Hapletah Me'ezor Habriti, 1958, p. 29. (Hebrew)