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Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945

The great Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb records the first days after her liberation, in a stunning document of survival

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A group of women at the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. (George Rodger/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army on April 15, 1945. Conditions at the camp were so horrendous that the British burned it down in order to stop the spread of typhus and other diseases. They relocated the survivors to a former German Army barracks, two kilometers from the original camp. This new camp was called Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp.

This diary by Chava Rosenfarb appears to have been written in this DP camp, when Rosenfarb was 22 years old. The following extracts were published in Yiddish in 1948 as an addendum to Rosenfarb’s first collection of poems, Di balade fun nekhtikn vald (The Ballad of Yesterday’s Forest). It is translated here by Goldie Morgentaler, Rosenfarb’s daughter and a professor of English at the University of Lethbridge.

Bergen-Belsen, May 6, 1945
Father, where are you?

Today, for the first time, I hold a pencil in my hand. My fingers tremble over the white sheet of paper. Where is your warm, sure hand to cover my trembling fingers and lead them again to open the sacred doors of our Yiddish aleph-bet? When I was a little girl, you guided my hand over the neat white lines. We wrote the word “Tateh” and there arose such a light from those five small letters that the word itself acquired a soul, and I saw that soul reflected in your loving smile: “Tateh.”

I sit near the window. The branches of the large chestnut tree outside reach up to the second floor where we are staying. Today I can see the sky and it is of the purest blue. Perhaps it is just an ordinary blue sky with nothing remarkable about it. But I see this sky as it must have looked to the first human being when he suddenly recognized God and genuflected before the beautiful blue expanse that stretched above his head. I want to write: “How beautiful you are, blue sky,” but instead I see your luminous eyes. I can feel your blessings and your dreams, your smile and your longing.

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Below my window I hear a commotion. It is nothing serious. Soup is being distributed. Everybody will get a portion. People are impatient, still haunted by the anxiety of yesterday that lives on in them. Although they know that no one will go away without his portion of soup—if not at this window, he will be served at the next—but still they all try to be served first. They want to be sure of that little bowl of soup, to stir it with a spoon. There is a man standing opposite my window. He emerges from the tangled crowd holding his bowl in his hand. He does not go to his room. He does not sit down at the table. Leaning against the stone wall he gulps down the soup as fast as he can. God, how hungry he is! For years he has been hungry and for years he has been frightened. He is very thin. A heavy coat hangs from his shoulders and reaches to his ankles. Between one slurp of soup and the next he wipes his face with the sleeve of his coat. He is tired but happy. I can see his eyes dance with pleasure as they glance away from his pot to embrace everything around him, from the green grass beneath the window to the tall chestnut tree. He is so happy. What is he thinking about, this man, this Jew, this tortured emaciated Jew? Most likely, he is not thinking anything at all. Even so, I know and his limbs know and his body knows that soon he will cast off his heavy black overcoat. Soon the flesh will grow on his bones. Life has arrived!

I shut my eyes. Deliberately I put out of my mind the man standing opposite. And suddenly I see you, Father. It is you. I can see how the strength is returning to your body. You are alive. Perhaps you too are standing somewhere at this very moment with your bowl of soup, leaning against another wall. Is it possible? I ask my heart, but it trembles with uncertainty.

May 7
Wherever I look I see you. No matter what other thoughts come into my mind, you are always there. Where are you, Tateh? Will I ever be able to caress you and beg your forgiveness? I showed you so little kindness in the lost days of my feverish past. I told you very little of my innermost thoughts. You were so thirsty to know my feelings and I was so stingy in sharing them with you. Where are you now, Tateh? I want to tell you everything!

Did you hear the firing of the guns? The shots are meant to tell the world that peace has come, that the hour of freedom has arrived; those very days for which you so longed when you were shut up in the darkness of the ghetto. Have you lived to see them? The uncertainty is torturing me. My only hope is that a miracle has saved you. You were so tired after those five years in the ghetto. But then, cut off from us, how could you have survived the still more terrible atrocities of the camps? Perhaps the longing to see us again helped you to survive? Tateh, we are here. The fire is glowing, but you are missing from our joy.

May 8
It is over. Our liberation has come, but she wears a prosaic face. No one has died of joy. No one has gone mad with excitement. When we used to dream of freedom, we bathed her with our tears. We crowned her with the garlands of our smiles and dreams. Now that she is here, she looks like a beggar, and we have nothing to give her. With what desperation did we call for her in those dark days. With what power did her far-off shimmer flesh out our thin bodies? Now she is here and she beckons to us from every corner. She is right before our eyes, yet we cannot see her. She begs us: “Touch me … enjoy me …” But we are tired. Our past, like a hawk, circles overhead, fluttering its black wings, devouring our days with horrible memories. It poisons our nights with terror. Poor, sad Freedom! Will she ever have the strength to free us from those dark shadowy wings?

Bats circle outside the window. Their wings flutter in a ghostly dance. My unfinished ghetto poem torments my mind. It used to accompany me in the camp. With its words on my lips I used to drag myself through the snows in the early winter mornings to work. I penciled the verses on the ceiling above my bunk. Each day a few more lines. In my mind, I hear them constantly.

Through the open window I can hear the loudspeaker announcing that today the war is officially over. Where are you, Tateh? I want to hug you. The air trembles to the distant salvos of guns. Thin clouds of smoke waft through the air. We celebrate this festive moment with a chunk of dry bread. We have nothing better.

May 10
At night when I open my eyes, I see Mother and Henia. They are wiping the sweat from my forehead and they constantly ask how I feel. We tremble over each other’s wellbeing. I want to comfort them. I want to tell them that we do not need to be afraid anymore. We are free now. But how can we protect ourselves from death? No, we are still very helpless.

I have a fever. Perhaps it is a cold. Or is it, perhaps, typhus?

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Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945

The great Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb records the first days after her liberation, in a stunning document of survival