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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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Sometimes when I hear this laughter I have the impression that it will suddenly turn into a wild cry, into the painful longing wail of a woman’s soul, a woman who tries to find in the eyes, hands, and smiles of a stranger some small trace of the beloved man she once knew. From all the corners of the yard, from all the rooms, I can hear the sounds of gaiety and laughter. “Look, I have forgotten!” the cheerful voices call. But it is enough to look into the women’s eyes to know something different.

The eighteen- and nineteen year-old girls laugh earnestly and unaffectedly. How clever and wonderful life is! As if afraid that the nightmare they have just lived through might destroy their tender, young, newly awoken bodies, Life has taught them to forget. Easy, pleasant forgetfulness. Is it their fault that in their dreams they see the reflections of their parents’ faces, or the smiles of their sisters and brothers, or shudder at the horrors they have so recently survived? During the day the girls flutter busily about singing, drawn from every barrack and courtyard to those who will teach them for the first time the language of love. The words may be strange, but they understand the gestures and the kisses. And then there is the sweetness of chocolate to bring back memories of their distant and yet not-so-distant childhoods.

Some women sell themselves to the soldiers simply and knowingly, just for the taste of a slice of white bread.

June 30
We must record and register every detail, even the most insignificant, of what has happened. It is a duty, an obligation, a compulsion. But around me there is sunshine and beauty and the carefree freedom of summer. I do not have the strength to resist it all. This is my first summer. Is it not poisoned to begin with? I postpone the writing from day to day.

I wonder if there will ever be an all-encompassing literary masterpiece that recreates the past. I doubt it. I recall my conversations with Shayevitch in the ghetto, when he was writing his long poem. I told him that such an epic has to be written from a certain perspective. Time has to elapse. He had no way of knowing then how his long poem would end, or that it would remain unfinished. He told me: “Our lives have to be recorded as they are happening. I am letting the story of our daily lives drip off the tip of my pen. We do not need anything else.” Today I realize that it could not have been otherwise. The perspective will grow with time; it will stretch out and grow thin. Who then will bring back the terror of those ghetto days? Days like those can only be described as they are happening—with sharp, bated breath. Just as the writers and painters did in the ghetto. When one has distance, one can only remember fragments of the whole. But that memory lacks the pulse of the trembling, feverish present.

How can one construct an artistic history of the ghetto? Would such a work not mask the raw immediacy with which one must approach this topic? Is not the form of the novel too elegant, too peaceful, too comfortable, too quiet? I feel that to write such a novel would be an insult to my dear ones and also to myself.

July 1
I again saw Bunim Shayevitch in my dream. He was radiant with the same light that used to shine so often on his face when he was happy. We communicated with each other without words, just through thoughts alone. “I am very tired,” he said. “But I’m happy.” He was standing in his wooden shack. From somewhere he produced a big parcel of manuscripts. “Did you save them?” I asked him. He answered with his radiant smile: “I saved enough. Only the long poem, Israel Noble.” He started to read the poem.

Suddenly he began to prepare for another journey. I told him: “We have been evacuated already, don’t you remember?”

Where are you, Bunim? Where are all our friends? Where are the writers and painters and musicians of the ghetto? We are lonely. We are all together and yet each one of us is alone. What are we going to do with this gift of life? The world is closed to us. Somewhere there is a new beginning. For us time stands still. Long days and nights take us back to the past. The world is rewriting the history of the injustice that has been done to us.

July 5
From everywhere men flood into the camp. They are looking for their women. Every knock on the door makes us tremble with anticipation. With each knock someone new comes into our barrack. They come to ask if we have any news, if we know the whereabouts of their loved ones. They look at us with pleading eyes. “Maybe you know something about … ? Please, try to remember. Think hard.” They describe their dear ones. Don’t they know that the picture they carry in their hearts has long ago been altered, that every day of the many that were spent in the camp changed one’s appearance beyond recognition? We too make inquiries. The men answer brusquely, absentmindedly. We tell them what we know, but they have no patience. They jump up and run to another barrack looking for information. From an open door comes the sound of spasmodic sobbing. Bad news! An already forlorn heart has lost its last glimmer of hope. Or perhaps these are the sounds of joy, of a long-cherished dream come true? The sudden emotion has released the pent-up tears so that they gush forth in a stream of joyful relief. For whom does this person cry, for the living or the dead?

We cannot stay still for long. We run downstairs. There is commotion everywhere, as the men move from barrack to barrack. They stand before the open windows and call out long lists of women’s names—wives, daughters, sisters. Then they wait to see if the miracle will happen, if from the depths of the rooms there will appear a beloved face. But they are greeted only by the eyes of strangers staring at them from the windows.

—Where do you come from?

—Perhaps you know … ?

No, he does not know.

—And you, young lady, perhaps you remember my little daughter?

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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