Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945
The great Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb records the first days after her liberation, in a stunning document of survival
Henia brought me a little sprig full of blossoms. I am lying on the bed now, as pleased with myself as a young mother who has just given birth. The sprig of blossoms stands in a small bottle on the windowsill. When I turn my head I will see it, but right now I do not have the strength. Perhaps later.
Bats fly across windows.
Their wings flutter in a dance of ghosts.
Those lines haunt me. They are from Bunim Shayevitch’s poem about our fate. I can see him standing by the window of his room. Tomorrow he is going away. In the dark corners of the room there still linger the spirits of his loved ones, who are gone. Soon he too will be gone. The last of his family. He is taking a whole generation with him. Nobody will remember them. Nobody will remember him. A nameless end.
But deep in my subconscious, they live on. They wake me at night. They pounce unexpectedly when I am in the middle of a laugh that is too carefree, or enjoy a moment that is too pleasurable. But when I want to bring them back to life, to take them out from their hidden places, then the slightest touch of a warm breeze, or the caress of a golden sunray makes my limbs grow numb with pain and I am seized with a powerful longing to escape them, to forget them all.
I know that back in those days when I was to share their fate, they did not pain me. They were with me, not in fact, but in essence. Somewhere on the way we got separated; at some unknown moment they left me. I went on the road to life. Now when I think about them, when I remember them, something breaks inside me, as if it would destroy me. Then I pray that something more powerful than this pain should come to my rescue. I want to live with them. I must remember them. I pray that time not erase the details of their lives from my mind, that my memory of them remain forever fresh and ready to serve me. But I’m afraid that it will not be so. My longing will remain eternally hungry, and as time goes on, more helpless. Memory will not serve longing. It will not be possible to remember all the little things, the tiny traces of individuality, which by themselves mean very little, but when put together create individuality. What will remain will be an abstract picture, a mere approximation of what once was and now exists no longer.
Last night I had a nightmare. I woke up screaming. I dreamed that we were being chased. We ran across fields. Suddenly I lost Mother. I opened my eyes and for a long time I could not calm down. In the darkness I could make out Mother’s pale face, but I could not bring myself to believe that it was really her. No, we no longer need to run anywhere. It is all over. I walk around all day as if in a fever. Every now and then a shiver passes through me without my understanding why.
What lovely days we are having! Everything is green. Blossoms fall from the trees, gathering into white carpets under every tree trunk. Those trees which have not yet shed their blossoms look like religious Jews, slowly preparing to remove their prayer shawls. But what am I saying? These are just ordinary trees losing their blossoms. It is impossible to compare them to anything else. The sense of awe belongs to those of us who observe them. We are like children. Every day we make new discoveries. The joy of awakening makes us drunk. It is good to be able to breathe, to feel, to see, to hear. It is good to be able to eat, to be able to bite into a chunk of bread. We perform this sacred ritual with wild animal joy and a sense of religious duty.
We spend entire days doing nothing, but we are not bored. A blade of grass, trodden down under heavy boots has a hard job righting itself again and must wait until the sap in its veins starts to pulse with new life. We are that trodden grass. We are preoccupied with ourselves, with straightening our bent bodies. Nothing else is as absorbing or thrilling.
I think about Poland, the country of my childhood. I long for the familiar streets of my hometown. But what will happen if there is no one there to meet me?
I can see my father’s face before me. I can feel his hand caressing my cheek, the same hand which so lovingly and presciently caressed me as we traveled on the train to our final parting in Auschwitz. Tateh, the thought of your warm hand grieves me. Where are you? Where will we meet again on the many roads of this world? Where will you look for us? Where should we look for you?
I went into the forest today. It’s good that they’ve brought us here to recuperate—although it seems to me that no matter where they would have brought us, we would see beauty everywhere. From now on we will always see and feel the value of every beautiful thing that we come across. I lay down on a mound of grass and stretched out my body to its full length, with my arms thrown over my head. I had the feeling that I was covering the whole earth. Above me a thick clump of trees formed a circle, their branches entwined with clasped hands as if they were dancing beneath the blue festive sky. Nothing else happened, but this was enough. The world and life. I turned with my face to the earth and buried my head deep in the grass. The sweet smell of earth permeated my body and intoxicated my limbs. I bit off a blade of grass with my teeth and started to chew it. At this very moment, in distant towns and countries people are drinking wine. Poor fools. They will never know the taste of grass.
Two girls from our barrack did not come back to sleep last night. They arrived in time for lunch, bringing with them cigarettes and chocolates. They are not yet twenty years old. The Englishmen with whom they spent the night are the first men to admire their fresh, newly budding femininity. They are not the only ones in the camp. The forest is full of amorous couples. One meets them strolling along all the roads and pathways. One can hear again the almost-forgotten sound of women’s laughter, a laughter meant specifically for men.
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