A Tragic Search for Holocaust Survivors
Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen
The very first time I encountered Jewish Holocaust survivors was in August 1945. While returning to my base at Salzgitter, Germany from a visit to a camp for displaced persons, I passed a forlorn-looking group of stragglers.
They were limping along the main highway towards Brunswick. This was not an unusual sight at the time, particularly in this part of Germany, where the whole population seemed to be on the hike.
Everywhere one went there were scores of demobbed soldiers and civilians streaming out of the Russian Zone just a few miles away. There were also constant streams of displaced persons of all nationalities on the move – north, south and west – any direction away from the east where relations with our Russian allies were deteriorating day by day and the Iron Curtain was starting to descend.
There was something about this group of stragglers that impelled me to stop the Bedford truck and take another look. It was the menfolk of the group that arrested my attention. They were bearded, like their counterparts in the East End of London, that I’d seen in Whitechapel on a Sunday morning. They looked like Holocaust survivors to me, but I had to make sure so I pulled into the kerb, walked up to the group and addressed them in Yiddish of which I remembered a little.
“They had come from Auschwitz and were going to Belsen. The group was not related, just camp brothers and sisters, banded together to search for relatives who may have escaped extermination.”
“Rist Yidden?” (Are you Jews?) I asked. They looked at my British service uniform without replying, until I added, again in Yiddish, “I am an English Jew.” Then the storm broke. They all spoke together, far too fast for me to understand, and when the initial excitement had subsided, I asked the woman who appeared to be the mother of the group, to speak slowly and tell me who they were and where they were going.
They had come from Auschwitz and were going to Belsen. They were a group of eleven, four men, five women and and two young children who they had picked up, she said, on the way, from German people who had hidden them in their homes during the troubled years.
The members of the group were not related, just camp brothers and sisters, banded together in a search for relatives who might have escaped extermination and who may still be alive in one of the liberated camps. This tragic search for holocaust survivors, for those who had narrowly escaped the gas chambers and incinerators was to continue for years but, for the majority, it was to be a search in vain. As if to establish their bona fides they showed me the numbers tattooed on their arms, prefixed by the letter ‘A’ for Auschwitz, the sadistic method of registration that only Nazi devils could devise.
They were clothed in rags, the women in blouses crudely made from hessian bags and make shift slacks, and the men in tattered oddments of clothing, and all the adults had felting on their feet for shoes. It was impossible to guess the ages of the adults because of their bedraggled appearance. The two children though were well clothed.
Their destination troubled me because I had heard and read that the horror camp at Bergen-Belsen had been destroyed and the holocaust survivors removed but my newly found kinsfolk were certain that there were still thousands of Jews at Belsen.
“As if to establish their bona fides they showed me the numbers tattooed on their arms, prefixed by the letter ‘A’ for Auschwitz, the sadistic method of registration that only Nazi devils could devise.”
After a long discussion in which my limited German and worse Yiddish were taxed to the utmost, I managed to explain that I worked for the United Nations. I finally convinced them that in accordance with the functions of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) it was my job to help them on their way and could probably help find transport for the rest of their journey. So they eventually agreed to come with me to an adjacent DP camp on the Goslar Brunswick Road.
It wasn’t a camp for Holocaust Survivors but for recalcitrant Poles, the ‘hard cases’ who wouldn’t adhere to camp rules and regulations, and were forever in trouble with the military police. The Polish camp leader wasn’t overly welcoming of the new arrivals but when he saw their condition and that they had not so much as a suitcase between them, he allotted them a hut near the guardroom where the camp police could protect them by keeping intruders away.
They were given bowls of soup, loaves of rye bread, and beds for the night, mattresses filled with straw. To assure them, I promised to return in a couple of hours with a few supplies from our UNRRA store, where fortunately we had recently received POW Red Cross parcels, and I returned with two of these.
I felt a bit like Joseph when he was giving corn to his brothers in Egypt. The group had long forgotten what decent food looked like and could not believe that this generous gift was gratis and for nothing. The children had never seen chocolate and could not be persuaded to even taste it. For the adults, the cigarettes were a treasure trove more important than the food, which is understandable to a tobacco starved-addict, but they seemed to grasp their value for barter.
The following day was a Friday, and I arranged to have them transported from the camp to our assembly centre in Salzgitter where we had a small reserve of clothing and footwear kept for transit displaced persons. I turned them loose in what to them must have felt like being in Aladdin’s cave, to choose new garments for themselves. Then, hot baths were prepared for them and when they reappeared the transformation was quite unbelievable. The ill kempt, bedraggled nomads had, as if by the touch of a magic wand, been changed into a party of neatly dressed young people. Whereas before they had looked old, they now looked young and relaxed.
“I felt a bit like Joseph when he was giving corn to his brothers in Egypt. The group had long forgotten what decent food looked like and could not believe that this was gratis and for nothing.”
A bigger surprise was to follow for them on Friday evening as the Jewish Sabbath began, and I had told the caterer, a chatty German hausfrau, to arrange a meal for eleven people, guests of mine, two of them children. The guests were invited to arrange themselves at table in order of age, because the senior was to light the traditional candles and say the blessing preceding the evening meal. I thought that I was case-hardened by now but that memorable Sabbath meal was almost too much for my emotions.
After a day’s rest, the party left in the charge of an American welfare officer, who when she returned told me of the new Belsen, a huge Panzer barracks, two miles or so away from the old horror camp, where there were thousands of Jews and Poles, most of them survivors of the infamous concentration camp. The military leaders in charge of the camp used its correct name, ‘Hohne’, but to those Jews who had survived the Holocaust it would never be anything but Belsen. Little did I know then that I would become the UNRRA director of the camp and working with displaced people would become my greatest life calling. It seemed everything in my life led up to this point.
“This tragic search for the survivors of the gas chambers and incinerators was to continue for years, but for the majority, it was to be a search in vain.”
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