'I passed through the barrier and found myself in the world of a nightmare'
On April 19, 1945, BBC Radio broadcast a shocking report that would go down in history: rare real-time testimony about what the Nazis were doing in the concentration camps. For eleven and a half minutes Richard Dimbleby, the network’s military correspondent, described the horrors he was seeing in Bergen-Belsen as the camp was liberated by British forces, without sparing the listeners any graphic details.
Dimbleby had accompanied sorties over Berlin, the battle of El-Alamein, and the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. As he said in his report, which shocked Britain and resonated throughout the world: “I’ve seen many terrible sights in the last five years but nothing, nothing approaching the dreadful sights in Bergen-Belsen.” Years later he would add that the day he walked into the camp was the worst day of his life.
The sights that left such a lasting impression on Dimbleby were the reality experienced by my grandmother, Tzipora Singer (then Fanny Zurawska), for several months. She was 22, one of the tens of thousands of prisoners dying from hunger and typhus, living among piles of decomposing bodies, in a state of consciousness that Dimbleby described as “the gradual breakdown of civilization that happens when human beings are herded like animals behind barbed wire.”
That day in which her life merged with this most famed day of Dimbleby’s, was saturated with fear and confusion, but also some optimism too.
“When they said to us in English, ‘You’re free,’ we all started to cry,” she said many years later. “I was so broken, I knew I had nowhere to go back to, nothing to search for.”
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Dimbleby’s son, Jonathan Dimbleby, himself a well-known journalist, went to Bergen-Belsen this year to shoot the documentary film 'Return to Belsen,' marking 75 years since the camp was liberated, an event deeply etched on the British collective memory by virtue of his father’s broadcast. Following an article I’d written about my grandmother’s life for Haaretz last year, my mother and I accompanied him to the former camp.
The film dealt with the effect the place had had on its liberators, its survivors and on the second generation. His father’s radio broadcast, augmented by footage shot that same day and the visit to the huge, icy cold site, gave new meaning and perspective to my grandmother’s story, which had to a great degree shaped my mother’s life, and more indirectly, mine as well.
Savta Tzipi (“grandmother Tzipi”) started to gently tell us her crazy and awful Holocaust story when I was around 16. She didn’t provide many graphic descriptions as she gradually peeled back the layers of memory, which slowly became silent explanations of nights that she would wake in alarm as I slept next to her, and her frequent urging that we finish the food on our plates. As the years went by, the stories became more rounded out and detailed, and the moments that were burned on her brain, from the most seminal to the most esoteric imaginable, emerged. Many of them were tragic and emotional, but she spoke of them steadily, not pausing to cry.
Yet two stories particularly shook her up anew every time she repeated them. Telling how she lost her two brothers, moments after her mother and sister had been murdered, you could see her visible suffering from the memory 70 years after the event. In contrast, when relating how she had crawled on her belly the length of Bergen Belsen because she was too weak to walk and saw a British tank for the first time, her eyes would tear up with excitement.
Perhaps this explains why, in the biography of my grandmother that I was writing in my head, Bergen Belsen became associated more with liberation than with hell. She also told us about the diseases and the inhuman conditions that prevailed there, but ultimately it was there that her incredible journey of survival met its successful end; it was also there that she met my grandfather and began, both symbolically and in practice, a new life that cannot be defined as anything other than a great victory.
I only learned of the horrors that she wanted to spare us in the testimonies she gave to Yad Vashem and Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust Testimonies Project. Through those, that period of her life emerges as a parallel universe that was so unimaginable that it was impossible to put myself in her shoes and connect images and feelings to the stories.
The missing piece was provided by Richard Dimbleby’s broadcast. After all, he was there, at a very specific place and time, providing a precise glimpse of what my grandmother’s life looked like on April 15, 1945. “Along the rutted tracks on each side of the road were brown wooden huts. There were faces at the windows. The bony emaciated faces of starving women too weak to come outside – propping themselves against the glass to see the daylight before they died,” he reported.
To prepare for the trip to Bergen Belsen I had to delve more deeply and hear more. To stop every frame captured on that day by the lens of the British army camera in an effort to find my young grandmother among the thousands of walking skeletons. For decades she had refused to tell my mother what had happened in the camp. “If I remember, I won’t be able to continue living,” she told her.
The broadcast and filmed documentation made it crystal clear why it didn’t matter how my brave, strong and optimistic my grandmother was and still is; she simply couldn’t remain the same person that she’d been before. No one could. “It still haunts me at night,” says a Scottish soldier in the film who had been among the liberators of the camp. And he had been a spectator, not an active part in the horror show.
“I had to look hard to see who was alive and who was dead,” Dimbleby said, of the huts that were full of lice and bodies, where tens of thousands of prisoners had been housed and which were burned after they were emptied by the British.
Nothing of that remains now, only desolation surrounded by trees and fresh air, punctuated by dozens of mass graves into which tens of thousands of the dead were quickly tossed. “You couldn’t breathe the air in Bergen-Belsen,” my grandmother told me. “The smell of the bodies was so terrible and I can’t get rid of it to this day.” Looking at the wide-open space now there, it’s hard to imagine how any smell could dominate it and settle permanently in the heads of those who experienced it.
Thousands upon thousands of people died within days or even hours of being liberated. Some died of disease, while others died from the food they were given as a humanitarian act. The soldiers didn’t realize that giving certain foods to the starving would be a death sentence. “Once a day we got half a liter of soup with a bone that we passed to one another and sucked. I saved the slice of bread I was given, putting in my mouth a few crumbs when I felt as if my soul was about to depart from me. My stomach burned as if someone with a drill was sitting and drilling into it, as if my body was eating itself,” my grandmother said.
Image after image and sentence after sentence from Dimbleby’s broadcast complement her testimony, while her experiences in turn provide commentary to the scenes of madness that he had difficulty understanding.
“I saw a man wandering dazedly along the road, then stagger and fall. Someone else looked down at him, took him by the heels and dragged him to the side of the road to join the other bodies lying unburied there. No one else took the slightest notice, they didn’t even trouble to turn their heads,” he reported, in shock over the weakening of human values in a place where death with suffering was a more common and banal event than drinking water or eating bread. It was hard not to ask myself whether my gentle, sensitive grandmother wouldn’t have even glanced at the scene.
And the sad answer is that it’s very possible, certainly when you know that for months before that moment, “every day women would stand for the count and would just drop like flies from hunger and die,” and that friendships that developed there would end when “I would remove bodies from the hut with another three girls. First to the ovens. Later there were so many bodies that they couldn’t even burn them, piles and piles of bodies. And we would take a body in a blanket, and fall together with her on the other bodies.”
“Many of the women went mad,” my grandmother said, about an incident in which she was stabbed in the head by a woman who accused her of killing her daughter in Holland. In the short time Dimbleby spent there, the insanity the camp imposed on its prisoners was revealed to him as well.
“One woman, distraught to the point of madness, flung herself at a British soldier who was on guard in the camp on the night that it was reached by the 11th Armoured Division. She begged him to give her some milk for the tiny baby she held in her arms. She laid the mite on the ground, threw herself at the sentry’s feet and kissed his boots. And when in his distress he asked her to get up, she put the baby in his arms and ran off crying that she would find milk for it because there was no milk in her breast. And when the soldier opened the bundle of rags to look at the child he found it had been dead for days,” he related, and immediately added, “I have never seen British soldiers so moved to cold fury as the men who opened the Belsen camp this week.”
Less than a year after the camp was liberated, my grandmother was photographed there smiling. In the worst place in the world she had managed to recover, to find love, to make modest plans and realize them. For us, she was and will always be not just a grandmother but an exceptional perspective on life, on what real hardship is, and on the ability of a person to adjust to any situation.
Jonathan Dimbleby’s father never spoke to him about Bergen Belsen or about his mythic broadcast, which the BBC refused to air for several days because network officials didn’t think the public could stand it, but also, as Jonathan suggests, because they weren’t sure it was reliable. In the end it was broadcast, but only because Dimbleby threatened to resign.
And he, this journalist who saw up close the consequences of the collapse of democracy and the loss of humanity that dictatorship caused the world, instilled in his son the critical importance of preserving and strengthening democratic institutions.
Far away from there, in Netanya, Savta Tzipi, age 97, voted this past year in three different elections, implementing the exact same lesson.
While we were filming in Bergen Belsen this year, at a monument that my grandfather was photographed next to in 1946, my mother took out a stone that she had brought from my grandmother’s backyard. Written on the stone was my grandmother’s maiden name and the words, “I survived.”
I had never felt such a great admiration for my Savta Tzipi, not just for surviving, but primarily because she had remained a human being who could still smile and be happy; and who can, even today, during her good periods, reassure us based on her long experience that the coronavirus pandemic too will pass.