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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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June 13
For four long weeks the fever boiled in my blood. It scorched my eyes and dulled my brain. From under steep mountains I saw my loved ones coming towards me. They talked to me as they used to talk in the past. They smiled at me as they used to smile in the past and pleaded for my life. They cried through my eyes and squeezed my thin, bony hands. I embraced them in the emptiness. I snuggled my hot body into their fleshless arms, pressed my swollen, living lips to their lifeless faces. I stretched my thin fingers out into the shadows of the sweaty night and thought I was caressing their hair. I felt my own burning breath scalding my face and thought that they were blowing hot air onto my cheeks. They were all there with me. I saw my friend Yakov Borenstein, just as he was on that winter day when he prepared to leave on his last journey. His eyes were burning: “Don’t be sad, my friend. We will meet again…” Suddenly, my lips started to tremble. “Come with me; come with me, my dearest friend. We will go for a long walk.” “I am coming, I am coming,” I called back. But my other friend, Kuba Litmanovitch, took hold of my hand. “Bring me an apple…” I went with him to the cemetery. All our comrades were there. From a far-off pathway there suddenly appeared Esterl and Moniek. They were holding hands and running towards us. “Wait!” Esterl shouted. Then she laughed in my face. “So now you know that I don’t have much time.” Moniek lifted her into his arms and placed her in the grave, as if he were putting her to bed for the night. Then he lay down beside her.

I inched myself closer to the wall near my hospital bed and made room for them all. But they angrily pressed me even closer to the wall. Suddenly their mood changed and they became kinder. I saw the whole ghetto street full of people coming towards us in a happy festive mood. Bunim Shayevitch came too. Then I was left alone. My bed swayed like a swing at the end of a long chain that stretched from heaven to the abyss, from life to dream, from dream to death. Bunim was standing by the window of my hospital room, just as he used to stand in his home at 14 Lotniche Street, his hands in his pockets, his grey eyes squinting from behind the lenses of his glasses. He looked through the sky, through me and beyond. “I have perished,” he said. He took hold of the edge of my bed and swung it round. The earth started rocking. The sky began to shake. My body was on fire with the flames of the setting sun. I took off the checkered jacket that I was wearing and used it to fan myself as I went back and forth on the swing. I did this for a long time—so long, so long, so endlessly long, until my hands detached themselves from my body, and, with my fingers still clinging to the jacket, they fell into the depths of the night. I wanted to look down, to see where the jacket had fallen and where my hands had fallen, but tears blinded my eyes. Next to me stood my father, crying. His lips were very white and glued together, yet I could hear his voice. “Daughter,” he said. “I brought you some lovely broth. Boiled potatoes and carrots all mashed up into a tsimmes. Take it and eat. Open your mouth. Look how tasty it is and how good it smells.”

The taste of something sweet and refreshing made me open my eyes. On my bed sat my mother. She whispered something. I could not make out what she was saying, but her words dripped like balm into my soul. The tears from her tired eyes cooled my burning body. At the foot of my bed stood my agonized sister. Her frightened eyes blinked a prayer at me, entreating me to live. Yes, I must live. Some blessed justice has preserved me for their sake and they for mine. I want to give this justice its due; and I want to pay it back for all the injustice that has been done to us, for our loneliness.

June 18
Nearly six weeks in hospital. I have returned to life again. My body rejoices; my soul weeps. I suspect that it was not my body but my soul that was so ill. Helpless, hopeless, I feel like someone who has spent a long time in a dark cellar and has suddenly come up to the light. I am dazzled, drunk. I squint at the light, without the strength to absorb it.

It is spring. The spring of liberation. The sun breathes life into everything. And yet, beneath its blue skies there is emptiness. The sun’s rays search in vain for so many faces, so many bodies that belong to those faces. They are nowhere to be found. The rays embrace a void, except when they settle, here and there, on a few solitary, half-starved individuals.

I lead a double life. One part is thin, fragile, trembling, young and yearning for joy. The other part is deeper and more painful, full of memory and sorrow. The first is full of shame and guilt; the second is stormy, tortured and full of fury. The first trembles on the edge of the second, but never penetrates it. The second, however, often steals into my new young life, disturbing, destroying, poisoning the least glimmer of joy. It demands attention constantly.

June 20
I am learning to walk. Today, Mother helped me down the stairs and took me into the yard. She found an old canned goods box and sat me down on top of it. A pity that there is so much dirt everywhere. Papers litter the ground; empty boxes, broken shelves and bed frames, discarded furniture soil the fresh green of the grass. Why can nothing be clean around us? Why is there no orchestra playing music to the rhythm of my heartbeat? Why is everything and everyone so indifferent? I am learning to walk! At least the sky is decorated with a sparkling sun. I look up at the sky. We are good friends again. It is good to be alive. It is delicious, a delight. I don’t want to think about anything. I want my body to acquire flesh. I want my legs to recover their strength. I want to sing. I want to roll in the grass. I want to run carefree through the fields.

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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