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From 'Horror Camp' to 'Europe's Last Shtetl': What Our Fathers Saw at Bergen-Belsen

Captain Chaim Herzog and Josef Rosensaft met at the first congress of Jewish displaced persons in Germany – one as a British officer, and one as a leader of survivors. Soon, their sons will stand together in the same place their fathers once did

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Josef Rosensaft, the chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, at a ceremony of unveiling a memorial commemorating the first anniversary of Bergen-Belsen's liberation, April 15, 1946.
Josef Rosensaft, the chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, at a ceremony of unveiling a memorial commemorating the first anniversary of Bergen-Belsen's liberation, April 15, 1946.Credit: Hadassah Rosensaft

Sometimes, events have a way of reminding us that we are part of an immutable arc of history. One of these events will happen this week at the memorial site of Bergen-Belsen in north-west Germany.

When Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visit the Nazi concentration camp’s mass graves, I will have the unique privilege of accompanying them. Each of us will be there in formal representative capacities. But for President Herzog and myself, it is also personal.

In his official role, President Herzog will be representing the nation state of the Jewish people established in the aftermath of the Shoah, recognizing that Bergen-Belsen, like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Buchenwald, epitomizes the ultimate consequence of virulent antisemitism left unchecked.

I will be there as one of the more than 2,000 children born between 1945 and 1950 in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen, established in an adjacent German army base, a Wehrmacht Panzer training school, immediately following the camp’s liberation. I will also be there representing the World Jewish Congress, and as chair of the advisory board of the foundation that oversees World War II memorial sites in Lower Saxony, including Bergen-Belsen.

It was then and there, at Belsen after the war, that our families’ paths first crossed. This is where our fathers first met 77 years ago, in late September 1945.

A group of 300 Americans and Canadians, lead by Jossel Rosensaft, President of the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Survivors, visited the site of the former concentration camp in Germany in July 1970.Credit: AP

President Herzog’s father, the late President Chaim Herzog, was a 27-year-old British army intelligence officer in the British Zone of Germany where Bergen-Belsen, which by then had become the largest DP camp in Germany, was located. My father, Josef Rosensaft, known throughout Belsen simply as Yossel or Yossele, was the 34-year-old chairman of the Jewish Committee of the Belsen DP camp.

Both our fathers were at the beginning of their respective careers. Chaim Herzog, the Irish-born son of the revered Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, had enlisted in the British army after serving in the Haganah and receiving his law degree from University College London. He was an active participant in the final Allied campaign that culminated in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

He was also personally affected by the Holocaust: his cousin Annette was murdered at Auschwitz after being sent there from Paris where she was living with Herzog’s aunt.

Chaim Herzog first came to Belsen shortly after its liberation by British troops on April 15, 1945. In his memoir, Living History, he recalled the “sight of the living, emaciated skeletons,” a scene “made more apocalyptic – if that’s even possible – by the fact that, because typhus raged throughout the camp, the wooden barracks were being burned to the ground.”

In the fall of 1945, Chaim Herzog’s days as a major-general in the Israel Defense Forces, as the founder of a prominent Tel Aviv law firm, as Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, and as Israel’s sixth president lay ahead of him.

My father, meanwhile, came from a prominent Hasidic family in Będzin, Poland. He studied at a yeshiva in Warsaw before becoming active in the Zionist labor movement. During the war, he managed to escape twice from German captivity, and, after being recaptured, was tortured for over six months in the notorious Block 11, the “Death Block,” at Auschwitz.

From there, he was deported first to the concentration camp of Langensalza in Turingia and then to Dora-Mittelbau, where Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets were manufactured. He was taken to Bergen-Belsen in early April 1945 and was liberated there.

Within days of the liberation, the Jewish survivors of Belsen elected my father to head a committee to represent them vis-à-vis the British. According to a contemporaneous account by fellow survivor Rafael Olewski in the second issue of the Belsen newspaper Undzer Shtimme (dated August 15, 1945), he “devoted himself to his task with the burning fanaticism of a messenger.”

Writing in 1953, Leo W. Schwarz – a former official of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in postwar Germany – observed that by the beginning of May 1945, my father was recognized as the undisputed leader of the Jewish DPs of Belsen:

“[L]eaving nothing undone to assist his people. When the British military were selecting a limited number of the sick for convalescence in Sweden, he interceded for members of families who were again being separated. With an unfailing nose for German and Hungarian collaborationists, he hunted down dozens who had concealed themselves among the liberated. He spurred British soldiers to collect clothing for the thousands being discharged from the temporary hospital in the former Panzer Training School. He possessed an uncanny ability to locate danger spots and to hammer at the highest authorities for action.”

The occasion that brought Chaim Herzog and my father together on September 25-27, 1945, was the first congress of Jewish DPs in Germany which my father had convened at Belsen, against the wishes and without obtaining the permission of the British military authorities. Once it became known that prominent Anglo-Jewish personalities, including Member of Parliament Sydney Silverman, were scheduled to attend, Captain Herzog, fluent in Yiddish, was assigned to observe the congress and report back.

Col. Chaim Herzog (right) with David Ben-Gurion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in 1967.Credit: David Eldan / GPO

The British had good reason to be apprehensive. Relations between them and my father had been tense from the get-go. While the survivors were grateful to the British for ending their captivity, they were unwilling to be pawns on the geopolitical chess board that was post-war Germany. Most importantly, they wanted to wrest back control of their destiny as best they could.

For example, my father and his colleagues insisted that the Jewish DPs of Belsen be recognized as Jews rather than as nationals of their countries of origin, something that the British – and the Americans, for that matter – adamantly did not want to do.

Early on, my father frustrated a British scheme to break up the Belsen DP camp by sending several thousand Jewish survivors to other camps near the Dutch border. After my father discovered that living conditions there were significantly inferior, he simply told a first group of some 1,000 DPs to return “home,” as it were, to Belsen, which many of them did, and he prevented a second transport from leaving Belsen. Furious at my father for defying both their orders and their authority, the British put him on trial before a military tribunal which, in due course, acquitted him.

In August 1945 Maurice Eigen, the Joint Distribution Committee director in Belsen, reported that “Rosensaft, a veritable Jewish Lincoln, is a national leader but is always incurring the wrath of the Army officials here. He is always threatened with arrest. Rosensaft had been a labor organizer in Poland and has a tremendous following here. He thinks nothing of flaunting military regulations repeatedly and has made my task of interpreting the committee to the military an exceedingly difficult one.”

A page of the report kept in the UK National Archives on the First Jewish DP Conference held at Bergen-Belsen 25-27 September 1945, prepared by British military officers based in Germany.Credit: The United Kingdom National Archives

The Belsen that Herzog experienced in September 1945 was lightyears away from the “horror camp,” as the British liberators called the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, he had seen only five months earlier. My father used to refer to the Belsen DP camp as “the last shtetl in Europe.”

Under his leadership, Belsen had become, in the words of child survivor Coby Lubliner, “a self-governing enclave,” with both secular and religious schools, its own rabbis, a Yiddish newspaper, a theater company and a host of cultural, political, youth and sports activities. The first book published in Belsen (on September 7, 1945) was a listing, in English and German, of the camp’s Jewish survivors, to facilitate the reunification of family members and friends.

And, to the dismay of the British, Zionism was the order of the day.

The British military authorities in Germany were concerned that the September 1945 congress of Jewish DPs at Belsen would focus adversely on the British government’s refusal open the gates of Mandatory Palestine to the Jewish DPs. Their fears turned out to be warranted.

Speaker after speaker, starting with my father who chaired the congress, denounced the British on this issue, and the cover sheet of a British military overview of the congress emphasized: “It is impossible to read this report without seeing that the main motive in arranging this ‘congress’ was Zionist.”

Major C.C.K. Rickford's report on the First Jewish DP Conference held at Bergen-Belsen: 'It is impossible to read this report without seeing that the main motive in arranging this ‘congress’ was Zionist'Credit: The United Kingdom National Archives

In his report, Major C.C.K. Rickford noted: “It became obvious very early on that a claim to return to Palestine was the main objective, and as a corollary the demand for segregation now [of the Jewish DPs] into Jewish camps in order to train the community for its future life in Palestine.” At the same time, Rickford acknowledged that, “All factions were accorded a hearing at the insistence of the Chairman, including communists and those advocating a return to their previous countries. Both these latter views were extremely unpopular with the large majority.”

My father closed the congress with unambiguous words rooted in the Passover Seder: “We are now entering an era in which we must fight for our rights. We have been slaves, but now we are free, the children of a free nation . . . May we be blessed to convene our next congress in Eretz Yisrael.”

Among the resolutions adopted by the congress was a demand that Palestine be designated as a Jewish state. Another read: “We call on the world to realise that the extermination of 6,000,000 Jews in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Belsen and other centers was possible only because of the homelessness and statelessness of the Jewish people.” Yet another proclaimed: “We affirm our right of immigration to Palestine, sealed with the blood of millions, and demand its immediate realization.”

The most defiant of these resolutions left little to the imagination: “We vow that no obstacle or political restriction will bar our way to Palestine and warn those concerned of the consequences which will flow from a policy in conflict with the vital interests of the Jewish people.”

Small wonder that the British came to regard my father as “an extreme Zionist” and a “dangerous troublemaker.”

For Chaim Herzog, the opening congress of the congress “was a terribly emotional experience; never have I been so moved as when we sang our national anthem, ‘Hatikvah.’” In sharp contrast to the “living, emaciated skeletons” he had encountered at Belsen shortly after the liberation, the Jewish DPs he met and heard at the September 1945 congress were no longer anyone’s victims.

Herzog also sanitized the English translation of a speech in Yiddish calling for “revolt against the British,” delivered by a member of the Jewish Brigade, the British army unit consisting of Jewish soldiers from Palestine, thereby saving the speaker from a potential court martial.

Seventy-seven years later, it is symbolic that the sons of Chaim Herzog and Yossel Rosensaft will be at Belsen together. And I want to believe that our two fathers will be smiling down on us and that their spirits will hover protectively over us.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities and is the author of “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (Kelsay Books, 2021).

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