Address delivered on April 26, 2018, at the annual Holocaust Remembrance Program in the Rotunda of the Supreme Court, New York County, sponsored by the Jewish Lawyers Guild and the Gender Fairness Committee of the Supreme Court, Civil Branch, New York County.
Seventy-five years ago, on April 26, 1943, SS Gruppenführer–a rank equivalent to major-general–Jürgen Stroop reported to his superiors that his shock troops had that day combed through “the entire former living quarter” of the Warsaw Ghetto. “Practically without exception,” Stroop wrote,
the shock troops reported resistance that was nonetheless completely broken through returning of fire or blowing up bunkers. It appears that the ranks are finding the Jews and bandits most tenacious and capable of resistance. Several bunkers were forcibly opened whose inhabitants had not come to the surface since the beginning of the Action. In a series of cases the inhabitants of the bunkers, after the bunkers had been successfully blown up, were scarcely able to crawl to the surface. According to statements of the captured Jews, a large number of inhabitants in the bunkers have become insane due to the heat, the thick smoke and the successful explosions.
This was the eighth day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the first organized urban armed resistance against the Nazis in German-occupied Europe. Stroop wrote that the “result of today’s undertaking” was as follows:
30 Jews displaced, 1,330 Jews pulled out of the bunkers and immediately destroyed, 362 Jews shot in battle. In total captured today: 1,722 Jews. Thereby the total number of captured Jews was raised to 29,186. Beyond that, it is likely that countless Jews died in the 13 blown-up bunkers and through fires.
Seventy-three years ago, on April 26, 1945, tens of thousands of erstwhile inmates of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen near the German city of Hanover were struggling to remain alive. When British troops had entered the camps 11 days earlier, they encountered a devastation of humanity for which they were entirely unprepared. Most of the 58,000 inmates there, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, were too weak even to walk. In the main camp, more than 40,000 prisoners were crammed into barracks that should have held no more than 8,000; between 15,000 and 25,000 more who had arrived in early April from the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp complex were in barracks of a nearby Wehrmacht army base. My mother, who had been at Bergen-Belsen since the previous November when she was sent there from Auschwitz-Birkenau, described the camp in the days prior to liberation as:
an indescribable hell. . . . The camp was overcrowded. Typhus, tuberculosis, and other epidemics raged. In the hospital and throughout the camp about a thousand people a day lay on the floor, starving and dying. . . . The small crematorium could not cope with all the corpses, even though it was kept burning day and night. The unburned corpses were strewn all over the camp. The SS, who felt that their own end was near, cut off the water and electricity. We were given one piece of bread per person only three times a week and one-half bowl of so-called soup daily. On top of this the Germans kept us in mortal fear by telling us that the camp was surrounded by mines and that we would be blown up if we tried to escape. Such was our situation on the eve of liberation. Disease, starvation, despair, fear, and not a single ray of hope.
In a lecture describing conditions at Bergen-Belsen when that camp was liberated, Lieutenant Colonel M.W. Gonin, the British officer who commanded the 11th Light Field Ambulance during the camp’s liberation, said that there were “at least 20,000 sick suffering from the most virulent diseases known to man, all of whom required urgent hospital treatment and 30,000 men and women who might die if they were not treated, but who certainly would die if they were not fed and removed from the horror camp. What we had not got was nurses, doctors, beds, bedding, clothes, drugs, dressings, thermometers, bedpans or any of the essentials of medical treatment, and worst of all, no common language.”
Within a few days following the liberation, Brigadier H. L. Glyn-Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Army of the Rhine, appointed my mother, a not yet 33-year-old Jewish dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, to organize and head a group of doctors and nurses among the survivors to help care for the camp’s thousands of critically ill inmates.
For weeks on end following the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, my mother and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other female and male volunteers, only a few of whom were trained nurses, worked round the clock with the British military medical personnel to try to save as many of the survivors as possible. Despite their desperate efforts — it was not until May 11, 1945, that the daily death rate fell below 100 — the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims at Bergen-Belsen during the two months after the liberation.
The end of the war found the survivors alone, mostly abandoned, just as the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto had been alone, mostly abandoned. “For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” my mother recalled many years later, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”
Last Friday, I returned to New York from Germany and Poland where I participated in commemorations for the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Both events were deeply moving, but they were also marked by an atmosphere of apprehension if not outright alarm regarding the future of Holocaust remembrance in both countries.
The right-extremist, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany–or AfD–party is now the largest opposition party in the German federal parliament. A number of its leaders have been accused of Holocaust denial.
Three months ago, Wolfgand Gedeon, an AfD lawmaker in the German state parliament of Baden-Württemberg, objected to the installation of plaques bearing the names of Jewish victims of National Socialism – so-called Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones – in the pavement outside their last residences before deportation. “With their actions, the stumbling stone initiators impose a culture of remembrance on their fellow human beings, dictating to them how they should remember who and when,” Gedeon declared. “Who gives these obtrusive moralists the right to do so?”
The very idea that adherents of any present-day variation of the Hitlerite ideology might be able to influence how the Shoah is remembered in Germany is abhorrent on every possible level.
In Poland, meanwhile, the enactment of a new law that seeks to criminalize holding the Polish nation responsible for the atrocities committed on Polish soil during World War II is widely seen as an attempt to whitewash those Poles who victimized Jews during the years of the Holocaust.
Two sentences of Gruppenführer Stroop’s report on the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto jump out in this connection: “In the event of the capture of a Jew in the Aryan part of the city of Warsaw,” he wrote, “the Polish police was authorized to give to every Polish policeman one-third of the cash in the possession of the Jew in question. This measure has already produced results.”
There is no question that there were Poles who helped and saved Jews at the risk of their own lives, and they fully deserved to be recognized and honored for their heroism. At the same time, there is also no question that there were Poles who betrayed Jews to the Germans during the Holocaust years, who raped Jewish women, and who murdered Jews.
We know full well that there were Germans who resisted the Nazis, but no one of any integrity would dare suggest that they were representative of the German people as a whole. Similarly, the Poles who rescued Jews were the exception, not the norm.
The Polish parliament recently established a national holiday honoring Poles who helped Jews during the Holocaust. The obvious concern is that such a holiday may enable Poles to disregard those of their compatriots who were not, in the words of the bill establishing it, “faithful to the highest ethical values.”
Along the same lines, there are also other well-intentioned but misguided individuals who focus only on the Righteous, thereby creating a false, not to say distorted, version of history. They, too, must be called to task.
Today is not the time, this is not the place, to discuss at length the contemporary political challenges that confront us with respect to the future of Holocaust remembrance. It is critical, however, that we not allow Holocaust remembrance to become politicized. We must insist on absolute historical accuracy in the way the event is chronicled. It is only by rejecting not just Holocaust denial but any type of historical revisionism that we will be able to counter resurgent anti-Semitism and the other forms of racism and bigotry that are now manifesting themselves in the very countries where the Shoah was perpetrated.
Let us also remind ourselves that one paramount reason why we are here today is that we must not, we cannot allow our dead to fade from our consciousness.
On the night of August 3-4, 1943, a little boy named Benjamin arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau with his parents and grandparents. In her posthumously published memoirs, my mother recalled her final moments with her son, my brother: “We were guarded by SS men and women. One SS man was standing in front of the people and he started the selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was sending some people to the right and some to the left. . . . Men were separated from women. People with children were sent to one side, and young people were separated from older looking ones. No one was allowed to go from one group to the other. Our five-and-a-half-year-old son went with his father. Something that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred during those first moments. As we were separated, our son turned to me and asked, ‘Mommy, are we going to live or die?’ I didn’t answer this question.”
Benjamin is one of between 1,000,000 and 1,500,000 Jewish children who were murdered in the Shoah. Since my mother’s death in 1997, he has existed inside of me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut, his final tears. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.
But it is not enough for me to remember my brother. I must transmit his memory, his image, into the future, so that one day my grandchildren will tell their children and grandchildren about Benjamin.
With this thought in mind, allow me to conclude my remarks today with these words that I wrote last week on a train from Berlin to Warsaw:
Meditation on a Ghost Child
through the snow
above the snow
the ghost child
does not know
who he is
who he was
if he was
does not speak
he no longer knows
how to speak
refuses to speak
certainly not prayers
will not sanctify
does not know how many
minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years
he has drifted aimlessly
through the snow
above the snow
drenched by rain
scorched under an august sun
like the last flowers
he saw before
but always between
no longer remembers
only faint echoes
of a lullaby
another ghost child walks
do not see each other
do not touch
they know they once
heard the same lullaby
the same ashes
the same grayness
two ghost children
through the snow
above the snow
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen” (Kelsay Books, April 2021).