Bergen-Belsen Diary, 1945
The great Yiddish writer Chava Rosenfarb records the first days after her liberation, in a stunning document of survival
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enter The Tattler’s invented world of advertising, where Philip Roth, Mila Kunis, and other MOTs rescue failing brands