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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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The camp trembles with expectation. We stop every man we meet. It would be so beautiful if one of these men turned out to be our father. How much strength we would need for such an encounter. When I see from the distance a man resembling my father, my knees give way.

Sometimes a couple walks past us. A man and a woman. They are holding hands, awkwardly caught between pain and joy. They are the lucky ones. We look after them with strange expressions in our eyes.

July 8
Tateh, this very moment I am calling you with all the power of my being. If you are alive somewhere then surely you feel my anguish. Surely you hear my call. Do not lose hope. If you are alive there is no road too far for me to travel. If you are sick, do not give in. Wait. We will come. Our joy will bring you back to life. We will make you well. We are calling you, Tateh!

July 10
We scan the lists of names of survivors of the camps. The long pages are crumpled from passing through too many impatient hands. There are finger marks on every single sheet of paper, like anonymous signatures. My fingers wander over the welter of names, my heart thumping wildly. Behind these names are actual human beings, Jews saved from death. They call to us. “Look, I am alive! I am here! Come find me, brother. Find me sister, friend …” How many of these names will not find an echo in any heart? Strange, solitary, lonely names; hundreds of them.

I have found some familiar names, some of people I knew well, some not so well. I’m glad to know that they are alive. But my fingers do not stop at their names, but continue down the list. I am looking for those who are still closer to me. Very often my heart skips a beat. The same name as …! No, it is another man with the same name. I continue the search.

July 16
We are losing our peace of mind. The uncertainty is destroying us. It is painful to catch the eye of the strange men moving about our camp. They are healthy, with strong, tanned, half-naked bodies. I see them and I cannot keep from thinking about the men dearest to me.

July 19, Wednesday
We have news of Father! By chance we stopped a man in the camp and asked him if he knew anything about Father. Yes, he knew. He was with Father until two days before the liberation.

July 20, Thursday
Henia and I are going to look for Father. We left the camp this morning.

August 28
We are back in the camp. Why am I telling all this anyway?

For four long weeks we trudged all over Germany. We got lifts on coal wagons, hitched rides with lorries packed with horses. We walked for miles, tired, frightened, with an uneasy feeling in our hearts. We were not the only ones on the road. We met hundreds of lonely children just like us. Hundreds of wandering fathers, hundreds of solitary wives.

It was all for nothing. Somewhere, perhaps in a forest or in a field lies the mutilated body of our father. Perhaps we passed the very spot, and did not hear the mute call of his body. He did not live long enough to feel our arms around his neck; we never even had the chance to kiss his wounds.

We looked for Simkha-Buniun Shayevitch, but that too was a fruitless search. Perhaps somewhere a breeze blew past us carrying the breath of his burned body. But we did not feel it. When we returned to the camp the bad news was waiting for us, brought by a friend who has survived. We have recovered a friend—but we have lost our father. Joy and sorrow. Why does the poor heart not break in agony? Our friend found our names on the lists. He told us that Father perished a day before the liberation, killed when an American bomb landed on the train that the Germans were using to transport Dachau prisoners deeper into Germany. Shayevitch was taken on the very last transport to the gas chambers. There is nobody left any more for whom to wait.

Sept 1
I do not read the names on the lists any more. I do not go anywhere. I know that I shall never see my father again. Actually I have known this for a long time. I felt it in Auschwitz the day we parted for the last time.

Now I must find all kinds of refined means to deaden my pain. I am going to make a lot of noise. I am going to run, laugh, busy myself with work, do everything I can to stifle the constant longing in my heart. But where does one get the strength for joy? How does one poison longing? Even Nature has lost its charm for me. I am empty of all desires.

I cannot get away from thoughts of my father’s death. I experience it over and over again. I lose myself in thoughts of his lonely suffering—and yet, I am not dying of sorrow. I suppose that there must be still greater depth of pain that I cannot reach.

Last night I had a dream. I saw myself in the concentration camp with Henia. Every day fifty women were taken out of the camp to be shot. Henia and I tried every ruse we could think of to postpone being taken. When it was no longer possible to avoid our deaths, we begged the SS women guards to postpone our execution for just one day, because it was the Sabbath. We knew that we had to die, but could it not be one day later? That one extra day we pleaded for seemed to us to be more beautiful and enticing than our entire lifetimes. We pleaded with the guards and begged for that single day, but they did not want to grant it to us.

They were already preparing the execution grounds, when suddenly Father appeared with a burning staff in his hand. The SS women disappeared and Father told us that he would fight with us. It was true, he said, that we would have to die, but in fighting one does not feel one’s death. We were so afraid for our father. He was talking so loudly, somebody might betray him to the guards. Later I saw us fighting. All the camps rose in one great uprising, Hamburg, Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. I saw a wave of flame sweeping over all of Germany. And we, the fighters, glowed victorious in that flame. It was a night of fire and everywhere I looked I saw my father with the burning staff in his hand. That staff emitted such fierce flames that the Germans sent airplanes to bomb us and we had to run to the fields in order to escape. It was then that Father suddenly appeared next to us, saying that he wanted to die together with us.

Never before had death seemed so attractive as it was in my dream. Later I saw us all in a cellar, but Father was no longer with us. Somebody opened the door. Our eyes were blinded by a grey shaft of light and I felt a great sorrow in my heart. It was the beginning of a new day.

***

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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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