Reading List

Reading List #8: Liberating Bergen-Belsen

This is Reading List #8, a selection of recent Holocaust-related news stories and links from around the internet.

A number of newspapers and websites have published articles marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, on April 15th 1945. In The Independent, 90-year-old Belsen survivor Mady Gerrard recalls the day British troops discovered the camp and its thousands of surviving inmates, and particularly a British army officer named John Randall, who gave her immediate assistance. Decades later, in 2005, Gerrard chanced upon a newspaper interview with Randall, and was able to begin a friendship that lasted until his death in 2016. You can also see a short video interview with Mady Gerrard.

British Army veteran Ian Forsyth, now 96, recalls his involvment in the liberation of Belsen in 1945 for the BBC. Forsyth, who took part in the commemorations to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in January, describes the scene he and his comrades found at the site of the camp. “When we got to first part of the corrugated iron fence that was around the camp there were bodies everywhere,” he says. “Somebody who did not see this would not believe what it was like.”

Holocaust Educational Trust Chief Executive Karen Pollock writes about the liberation of Belsen. Survivors of Belsen who work with HET, including Mala Tribich and Susan Pollack, have featured prominently in media commemorations of the liberation, and Karen Pollock reflects on the uncertainty that faced people like them as they contemplated life after the Second World War. Pollock writes that “freedom means something very different when you have nowhere to go.”

BBC History Extra explores the history of Bergen-Belsen, with a detailed article by historian Jens-Christan Wagner. The article explains the complexity of the camp, which, as with most well-known camps of this kind, was actually a network of camps with different functions. It is also well known as the place at which Anne Frank died, a fact that Wagner explores in further detail.

A detailed article at The Daily Beast describes the work of doctors at Buchenwald concentration camp, whose liberation by the US Army was also marked last week. One particularly interesting aspect of the prisoners’ experience detailed in the article is the antagonism between prisoners of different nationalities. Many of the prisoner doctors were French but, as the article explains, prisoners from East European states such as the USSR and Poland sometimes viewed them with contempt or suspicion due to the perceived willingness of France to capitulate in 1940.

Philippe Sands writes in The Guardian about the son of a high-ranking Nazi, whose fate following the end of the war in explored in his new book The Ratline. Otto von Wächter was, during the Nazi occupations of Poland and present-day Ukraine, the governor of Krakow and later Galicia, where he oversaw atrocities and the brutal treatment of the regions’ populations. When the war ended, he escaped capture but died soon after in mysterious circumstances. Sands began exploring the story after being introduced to Wächter’s now-elderly son, who maintains that his father was, in spite of his Nazi service, a good man. The Guardian has also made available an extract from the first chapter of the book in audio, and the book follows on from the popular BBC podcast of the same name.

The Times of Israel reports on how Holocaust survivors in Israel are coping with the enforced isolation brought by the coronavirus. Interviewees include Naftali Pirset, who appeared in a famous photograph of survivors in bunks at Buchenwald concentration camp, shortly after its liberation. He says, bluntly: “You’re home? Do you have a blanket? Do you have anything to eat? Nobody is hitting you? Do you know that your daughter and grandchildren are healthy? So it’s not bad.”

The New York Times carries a similar report, which highlights the way in which the restrictions of the present crisis can trigger traumatic memories and feeling for survivors. As the article explains, anxieties that can resurface naturally within the minds of older people are being exacerbated by the present crisis. “It is the same fear of what will happen to us … (that) we had at the beginning of our lives, and now at the end,” says Olga Weiss, whose family hid for two years from the Nazis in occupied Belgium.

If you have seen a relevant article that could be included in next week’s reading list, why not get in touch via the contact page, or on Twitter, @holocaustreader?

Inclusion of articles on this list does not necessarily indicate endorsement of opinions expressed within them.

Images in this post are used under the principle of fair use for the purposes of review, education and study, and will be removed at the request of the copyright holder(s).

Header image shows women receiving bread rations after their liberation at Bergen-Belsen. is from the collection of The Imperial War Museum, found on Wikipedia, and used in the spirit of the usage rules given there.

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