By Richard Ferrer
So here I am again, moping around another Nazi concentration camp.
Why do I keep taking these hellish trips? To Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, Plaszów, and today Bergen Belsen, as part of a UK delegation marking the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the British army.
Is it a sense of duty? Morbid fascination? To fill a void, scratch an itch? Perhaps I just like a good funeral. What sort of sick tourist am I?
Perhaps I’m here for the broken branches of my own family tree; mum’s Polish aunts and uncles and dad’s Ukrainian nieces and nephews. Perhaps Jannic and Marie, the Ferrers recorded in the Bergen Belsen memorial book of the dead, were among them.
One thing’s for sure. I can’t help myself. The psychological scars cut so deep that even everyday objects and events scream six million: a packed train; an arm tattoo; a wood-fired pizza oven; a pile of tiny shoes at my daughter’s nursery; a sudden knock at the door.
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Arriving at a rainy Bergen Belsen I recall the disappointment of my first visit back in 1991, being told it had shut for the day and asking if there were any other Nazi camps they could recommend nearby. A flippant remark made, in my defence, by a profound urge to fill that void; scratch that itch.
Had I known Neuengamme, where 50,000 perished, was a mere hour’s drive north, I’d have forced my mates to catch the train there rather than head to Amsterdam to get stoned with all the other graduates.
On Sunday I returned during opening hours as part of a 200-strong British delegation led by the Holocaust Educational Trust [HET] to mark the liberation anniversary of the final resting place of Anne Frank and 70,000 others.
Among us were 100 teenage ambassadors who’ve taken part in HET’s remarkable Lessons From Auschwitz project, which aims to give two pupils from every school in Britain the chance to visit the most infamous of all Nazi death camps.
We joined 1,000 others, including survivors, liberators, and political and religious leaders including German President Joachim Gauck.
Auschwitz is the ultimate symbol of terror, but it is Belsen that has most informed Britain’s relationship with the Holocaust – from liberation by the 11th armoured divison to Richard Dimbleby’s solemn eyewitness reports for the BBC to the displaced persons camp set up at the nearby British Bergen-Hohne army barracks where survivors were nursed.
I walked with Mala Tribich, 84, and Rudi Oppenheimer, 82, both liberated from Belsen. Rudi recalled how his parents both died here. He says: “So many people were ill with diarrhea, pneumonia, and other illnesses. In January 1945 my mother fell ill. There were no doctors, no nurses, no medicines. One evening she disappeared from the hospital barracks. She had died and her body had been taken away to make room for someone else. She was not yet 43.”
The British burnt this typhus-ridden place to the ground soon after liberation. Today Belsen resembles a landscaped garden more than a gravesite. Lush acres are interrupted by occasional gravestones, including one for Anne and Margot Frank, and raised mounds of earth – mass graves with marker stones stating: ‘Here lie 2,500 dead.’ ‘Here lie 1,000 dead.’ ‘Here lie 800 dead…”
It all seemed so unrecognisable to Mala, who shut her eyes to help her remember. “My barrack was opposite a hut with a pile of corpses,” she says. “I recall a procession of women dragging bodies in blankets or by a limb along the ground, adding to the pile all day long.”
I meet Mervyn Kersh, a 90-year-old British-Jewish soldier, who recalled giving survivors his chocolate rations. “It was only after doing this [that] I learned it was the worst thing I could have done,” he says. “These people were walking skeletons. Chocolate was far too rich for their weak digestive system.”
The day ended with a service in the Jewish cemetery at the nearby British barracks, where 29,000 survivors arrived after liberation. Some 14,000 perished despite the best efforts of the British army.
The mourner’s kaddish and the sounding of The Last Post were painfully poignant, but the most moving moment saw each of us handed a chalk ‘memory stone’ on which to write a few well-chosen words before placing it on the memorial.
I thought of the past and Mala, Rudi, and Mervyn. And I thought of the future and the desire of these young British ambassadors to speak on their behalf. And I wrote the three words on my stone that seemed to best sum up the day: ‘History is happening.’