April 21, 2020, is the observance of Yom Hashoah, which commemorates the lives of Holocaust victims. This year is also the 75th anniversary of the liberation of many concentration camps, where millions of our Jewish people were ruthlessly murdered through acts of pure evil.
One of those death camps was Bergen Belsen; it was liberated on April 15, 1945, days after Passover, by the British army. More than 10,000 bodies lay on the ground. After liberation, an additional 14,000 former inmates died due to disease, malnutrition and other causes.
Despite this carnage, the Jewish spirit remained in the survivors, and on the first Shabbat after liberation, a service was held that was recorded by the British. The service included a moving rendition of “Hatikvah,” which is online.
Rev. Isaac Levy, senior Jewish chaplain to the British army, arrived at the camp with the libertaing troops, and Rabbi Herman Helfgott followed after spending four years as a prisoner of war. Together, along with many others, they participated in the burial of the dead.
I consider what happened after liberation as a kind of miracle, which has affected my entire life. Despite desperately horrendous conditions of both the concentration camp and its survivors — within three days after liberation — a Jewish camp committee was formed, led by survivor and leader Josef Rosensaft, also known as Yossel. A footnote to some, it is significant in the history, survival and a return of the Jewish people as a light unto nations.
In September 1945, he was democratically elected as president of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British zone, which included the Bergen Belsen displaced persons camp. Under Rosensaft’s stewardship, along with Norbert Wollheim and Rafael Olewski, the Central Committee became an organization that helped displaced persons politically, socially and culturally.
Helfgott passionately threw himself into the work of the Committee and became the chief rabbi of the British occupied zone. Like Rosensaft, Helfgott enjoyed great popularity and distinguished himself in the maintenance of the morale of the DP camp.
Under this leadership, the Committee tried to normalize life as much as possible. A highly functioning community was established, including schools, an orphanage, a yeshiva, organized occupational education, theaters, a library, an orchestra and newspapers.
Most importantly, many Jewish survivors were young, and in the first two years following the creation of the DP camp, approximately 1,000 weddings took place. Between 1945 and 1950, when the camp closed, 2,000 babies were born there, one of whom was me. We are known as “Belsen babies,” born in the Glyn Hughes Hospital, named by survivors after British Brigadier Hugh Llewellyn Glyn Hughes, the medical officer of the 11th armoured division.
Helfgott, in a video interview recorded by Yad Vashem in Israel, recalled that he “officiated at weddings, circumcisions and so on.” He was so happy that “every couple I married wanted me to hold their baby boy at the circumcision ceremony. The happiest day of my life was when I held the thousandth baby boy in my arms.” The rabbi understood the miracle of the DP camp.
Many of the 2,000 children are, unfortunately, no longer with us, but those still living are in their 70s. In order to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, the World Jewish Congress reached out and invited the Belsen babies to attend. The principal involved in this effort was Menachem Rosensaft, the son of Josef Rosensaft, who is the general counsel and associate executive vice president of the WJC.
He is also a Belsen baby, born the year before me. We were going to spend five days together, with the formal commemoration beside the mass graves on April 19, 2020. It was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In lieu thereof, a video was produced by the WJC and posted on its website.
Menachem Rosensaft said of the camp and the babies born there: “We share a birthplace that is unique in history. No one else had that birthplace and no one else will have it in the future. We are bound in history by having been part of the rebirth not just of our families, but the rebirth of the Jewish people.
“By our birth, by our coming into this world, against the backdrop of an attempt to destroy the Jewish people, to destroy our families, to destroy our parents, which, by the way had largely succeeded, our presence on earth was the ultimate act of defiance. And, in a small measure, a victory over those who sought to destroy the Jewish people generally and our families in particular.” JN
Alan Chaim Jablin is a retired attorney. He speaks to schools and groups about the Holocaust. He is the founding president/board chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix.