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Reclaiming a National Jewish Identity After the Holocaust

The son of two Holocaust survivors reflects on the British liberation of Bergen-Belsen, and the fight for identity, rights, and better conditions in Displaced Persons camps

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
September 14, 2016
The Liberation of Bergen-belsen Concentration Camp, May 1945. Crowds watch the destruction of the last hut at Belsen two days after the camp was finally evacuated. The hut was set on fire by a British flamethrower.Wikimedia
The Liberation of Bergen-belsen Concentration Camp, May 1945. Crowds watch the destruction of the last hut at Belsen two days after the camp was finally evacuated. The hut was set on fire by a British flamethrower.Wikimedia

This article is adapted from the keynote address by Menachem Z. Rosensaft at the annual dinner of the Holocaust Education Trust in London, England on September 14, 2016.

I have long been an admirer of the Holocaust Educational Trust and its groundbreaking work in educating young people across the United Kingdom about the somber, gruesome realities of the genocide that was perpetrated against European Jewry during the years of World War II.

However important Holocaust education may have been in 1988, when the Holocaust Educational Trust was founded, it has become incrementally more important and more relevant for a succession of reasons.

First, of course, we all, collectively, owe it to the slaughtered millions to remember not just that they were murdered and how they were murdered, but who they were and how they lived. They must be remembered not as anonymous, abstract statistics, but as men, women, and children who had names, careers, who loved and were loved, who had dreams and aspirations that were cruelly cut short by adherents to an ideology that considered Jews to be inferior and Germans, Aryans if you will, to be “superior.”

But let us also not forget that we live in an age, more than 71 years after the end of the Holocaust, when racial, ethnic and religious hatreds—against Jews, to be sure, but against other minorities as well—have become frighteningly commonplace across the globe. And one of the many praiseworthy achievements of the Holocaust Education Trust is that it is focused on the present as much as on the past, and that it thrives to teach tolerance toward “the other” in a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant with devastating consequences.

Being in London evokes many memories for me, and so I would like to look back on the complex, sometime volatile relationship between the survivors of Bergen-Belsen and their British liberators, which was sparked when British troops first entered that camp on April 15, 1945.

The photographs of the devastation they encountered there became seared in the consciousness of much of the world as the earliest graphic evidence of the barbarity perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Long before Auschwitz became the defining symbol of the Holocaust, Belsen epitomized its horrors.

And yet, I grew up with a much different concept of Belsen in my mind.

When I was a child, my parents, especially my father, told me stories of Belsen, but these were not traumatizing accounts of what British soldiers called the “horror camp.” On the contrary, the stories my father told me were upbeat adventure stories of the other Belsen—of the Displaced Persons camp that existed for more than five years, where my parents met shortly after the liberation, and where I was born—as were more than 2,000 other Jewish children between 1945 and the summer of 1950 when the Bergen-Belsen DP camp was closed.

In a lecture describing the conditions the British officers and soldiers encountered at Bergen-Belsen, Lieutenant Colonel M.W. Gonin, who commanded the 11th Light Field Ambulance, 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.[1]

Several days after 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, who had studied medicine in France, 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, 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 under the command of Lt. Colonel James Johnston 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. Lt. Col. Gonin described my mother (whose post-liberation role at Belsen is depicted in Ben Shephard’s superb book, After Daybreak) as “the bravest woman I have ever known, who worked miracles of care, kindness and healing with the help of no medicines but the voice and discipline of a Regimental Sergeant Major of the guards.”[2]

Simultaneously, within days of the British arrival at Belsen, the healthier among its Jewish survivors wrested control of their lives, of their destiny, from any and all outsiders. They were grateful to the British for ending their captivity, but unwilling to obey their or anyone else’s orders blindly. As soon as the yoke of persecution was lifted from them, they elected a political leadership of their own, headed by my father, Josef (Yossl) Rosensaft, who had survived Birkenau, months of incarceration and torture in the notorious Block 11 at Auschwitz, and Dora-Mittelbau before being brought to Belsen in early April of 1945. These Jewish survivors of Belsen had had a national Jewish consciousness before the war; now they insisted on transforming that consciousness into— and having it recognized as—a national identity.

In order to contain a raging typhus epidemic and to remove the liberated inmates of Belsen from the spread of disease, the British officers in charge of Belsen commandeered a German Army military base, a Wehrmacht tank training school, located about a kilometer from the concentration camp and moved the survivors there as rapidly as they could into what became an enormous emergency hospital and what would in short order become the largest Displaced Persons camp in all of Germany. And on May 21, 1945, a little more than a month after the liberation, the concentration camp barracks were burned to the ground, leaving only the mass graves as a stark reminder of what had happened there.

In late spring, the Jewish survivors from Western Europe left Belsen and returned to their homes as soon as they could, leaving behind primarily those from Poland and Hungary. Within a few weeks, the camp’s Jewish population stabilized at around 12,000. Most had lost entire families. On their own, they were now forced to come to terms with their shattered universe.

The years the survivors spent in the DP camps were a period of critical transition and resuscitation. As Allied soldiers began to return home in 1945, they, their families—and, we have to remind ourselves, most Jews in countries like the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and even Palestine—wanted only to get on with their lives, with their own agendas. They did not want to have to think about anything that would distract them from their immediate personal concerns. Jewish military chaplains, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, and a handful of Jewish organizations, principally the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, known popularly as the “Joint” or JDC, the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Relief Unit from Great Britain, and ORT, came to the assistance and took up the cause of the Jewish DPs. Otherwise, the human condition of homeless European Jews was a matter of relative indifference for most of the so-called Western world, including the vast majority of the international Jewish community. Thus, the Jewish survivors of the Shoah—the Sh’erit HaPletah, the Surviving Remnant, as they called themselves—were left to cope as best they could.

They coped by creating life in every meaning of the term. As early as June of 1945, the first school was opened in Belsen for the children who had been liberated there, with separate classes in Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian. Other Jewish children from different parts of Eastern Europe soon joined them. In due course, Belsen had a kindergarten, an elementary school, a high school, and a vocational training school, as well as a full complement of Jewish religious education institutions. In addition, the camp had a rabbinate, its own Jewish police force, a library, two theater companies, an orchestra and a host of youth and sports clubs.

Yiddish was the official language of the Belsen DP camp. Zionist politics became the order of the day. The first issue of the Belsen newspaper Undzer Shtimme (Our Voice), which was handwritten and mimeographed, appeared on July 12, 1945. The first book published in Belsen on September 7, 1945 was a listing, in English and German, of the camp’s Jewish survivors to facilitate the reunification of family members and friends. Some 60 other publications followed, including a religious tract relating to the status of Jewish survivors whose spouses were presumed, but not known, to be dead.

Similar scenarios took place in other DP camps throughout Germany and Austria, resulting in the ultimate irony that the very land that Hitler had wanted to make Judenrein became for the years immediately following World War II one of the most vibrant, flourishing centers of Jewish life of all times, with one of the highest birthrates.

To a large extent, my view and understanding of the DP years at Belsen are in the context of my father’s leadership role there. As head of both the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the DP camp, he became the lightning rod for what was an often stormy relationship with the British military authorities.

My father and his colleagues insisted that the Jewish DPs of Belsen be recognized as Jews rather than nationals of their countries of origin, something the British adamantly did not want to do. In May 1945, the British military authorities decided to break up the Belsen camp by sending several thousand Jewish survivors from there to other DP camps near the Dutch border. After the first group of some 1,000 DPs had been taken there, my father went to inspect the new accommodations and discovered that they were significantly inferior. He then demanded that the Jewish DPs be allowed to return to Belsen. When the British refused, my father simply told his DPs to return “home,” as it were, to Belsen, which many of them did, and he prevented a second transport from leaving Belsen. Furious at my father for defying both their orders and their authority, the British put him on trial before a military tribunal. My mother recalled in her memoirs that he told the court: “You liberated us from slavery and we became free people again, so we have the rights of free people to decide about our lives and future. I am representing my people, my fellow Jews in Belsen, and I will not accept orders against them.”[3]

In due course, my father was acquitted, but it was clear to both the British military authorities and the Jewish DPs that he would have gone to jail rather than back down. This incident epitomized the relationship that prevailed for the next five years. In a succession of official British Foreign Office documents, my father is referred to as an “extreme Zionist,” a “dangerous troublemaker,” and “clearly the chief nigger in the woodpile.” “The difficulties our authorities have had in dealing with Jewish DPs in the British zone,” one senior British official complained,” are directly attributable to him.”[4] Already in August 1945, Maurice Eigen, the JDC director in Belsen, reported back to the organization’s New York headquarters that “Rosensaft, a veritable Jewish Lincoln, is a national leader but is always incurring the wrath of the Army officials here. He is always threatened with arrest. Rosensaft had been a labor organizer in Poland and has a tremendous following here. He thinks nothing of flaunting military regulations repeatedly and has made my task of interpreting the committee to the military an exceedingly difficult one.”[5]

When the military authorities refused to give permission for the first congress of liberated Jews in the British Zone to take place in Belsen, my father convened it anyway in September 1945, sending formal invitations to prominent Jewish leaders from England. Two months later, he infuriated the British military authorities even further by denouncing the living conditions in Belsen in, of all places, the pages of The New York Times. His accusations were specific and detailed:

In this camp, according to Dr. [sic] Joseph Rosensaft, chairman of the Jewish committee for the British zone, there is no provision for heating the buildings and many inmates still have only the one suit of threadbare clothes in which they entered the camp. Hundreds have no shoes or socks and almost all lack overcoats, he said. At night, in the cold, damp dormitories, half the inmates have only one blanket. There is a grave shortage of medicines. Although the camp’s inmates are freezing, they are not allowed to go out to chop wood, Dr. Rosensaft said. . . . Jewish nationalists and Zionist activities are discouraged, Dr. Rosensaft added, charging that the British exerted censorship over the inmates’ news sheets in that the Jews are not allowed to proclaim in print their desire to emigrate to Palestine.[6]

One must bear in mind that this was November of 1945, a scant six months after the end of the war. The British Zone was under military occupation. Movement by the DPs was restricted. My father spoke not one word of English. How on earth, the British military authorities must have asked themselves, did he manage to make his case in the powerful American media? The resulting political pressure from the United States considerably strengthened the survivors’ hand. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the British considered this “the last straw.” While they considered my father’s New York Times charges to be “grossly exaggerated,” they begrudgingly acknowledged that they were losing the public relations battle.

In a dispatch dated November 25, 1945, five day after the article appeared, they noted that “Jews seem to be using Belsen as a focal point for world agitation to emigrate to Palestine. If we move Jews from Belsen they will not be able to use the magic word Belsen in connection with this propaganda.”[7] By this time, however, it was already much too late. My father and his colleagues understood full well the dramatic news value of the Belsen name, and were not about to surrender it. When the British formally declared the camp’s name to be Höhne, the leadership of the Jewish DPs just ignored the new designation. Official communications sent by the British military authorities to my father at “Höhne” were responded to on stationery that gave “Bergen-Belsen” as the Central Committee’s address.

In December 1945, when my father was invited by the JDC to address the first post-war conference of the United Jewish Appeal in Atlantic City, he was notified by the military authorities that he was free to leave the British Zone, but that if he did so, he would lose his DP status, would be forced to give up the chairmanship of the Central Committee, and would not be allowed to come back. He traveled to the United States anyway, without official permission. He reported to the assembled leadership of American Jewry in Atlantic City about the state of European Jewry, emphasizing, according to a report in the New York Herald Tribune, that their sole hope was emigration to Palestine, the only place in the world “willing, able and ready to open its doors to the broken and shattered Jews of war-ravaged Europe.”[8] The following week, speaking at an emergency conference on Palestine at the Manhattan Center in New York City, he declared: “We know that the English are prepared to stop us with machine guns. But machine guns cannot stop us.”[9] In January 1946, he returned to Belsen, still without official permission, and resumed his leadership role.

He repeatedly and publicly criticized the British government’s anti-Zionist policies. Testifying before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine in early 1946, he told its members that if the survivors would not be allowed to go to Palestine, “We shall go back to Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, and you will bear the moral responsibility for it.”[10] In 1946, when the British sought to prevent thousands of Polish additional Jewish refugees from entering the British Zone, my father and his Committee openly defied the Military Government by giving them sanctuary in Belsen. Small wonder that the British were frustrated and kept trying, without success, to get rid of him. The local commanding officer wrote to headquarters of the Prisoners of War and Displaced Persons division on March 12, 1946, “It is felt that unless Mr. Rosensaft is removed from the Brit. Zone and forbidden to return, under pain of imprisonment, it will not be possible to control his activities satisfactorily.”[11]

And yet, my father’s relationship with the British, especially in London, was actually mostly positive, characterized by mutual respect. This was in large part due to his close and extremely warm relationship with the leaders of the British Section of the World Jewish Congress, in particular Dr. Noah Barou and Alex Easterman. From early on in 1945, they provided my father with a political lifeline through which he was repeatedly able to get objectionable military orderscountermanded in Whitehall.

My father even intervened directly at least twice with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, and both times he came away convinced that while vehemently anti-Zionist, Bevin was not, in fact, an anti-Semite. The first time, my father obtained visas to Palestine outside the quota for Jewish children from Belsen. The second time he met with Bevin was after four members of the paramilitary anti-British Irgun ha-tzvai ha-leumi had been sentenced to death by a British military court in Germany for plotting to place explosives on the railway tracks between Berlin and Hanover. I do not have the time this evening to discuss my father’s arguments to Bevin in detail, but suffice it to say that the death sentences were commuted.

As Alex Easterman subsequently recalled:

Many a time and oft, my late colleague, Noah Barou, and I were awakened during the night by telephone calls from Josef Rosensaft. Now there was a problem of the refusal of the Central Committee to have armed non-Jewish guards. Then, there was a dispute about enclosing the camp with barbed wire. Next, there was the resistance of the Committee against military search of homes and premises for alleged concealment of arms or the hoarding of illegal supplies. Again, there was conflict concerning assemblies against Ernest Bevin’s Palestine policies and actions. And a hundred more issues requiring negotiation, tact and patience, but always involving rights and resistance to infraction of liberties.[12]

And in later years, the memory of the tremendous rescue operation following the liberation was far more powerful than any political confrontations and disagreements, with the result that my parents enjoyed life-long friendships with Brigadier Glyn-Hughes, Lt. Col. Johnston, Rabbi Isaac Levy, who had been Senior Jewish Chaplain of the British Armed Forces, and journalist Sam Goldsmith, among numerous others.

My parents liked coming to London. They were comfortable here. To a large extent, I have inherited their almost instinctive affection for the United Kingdom. For many years, the British Army maintained a NATO base in what had been the DP camp of Belsen, and its commanding officers regularly attended the annual commemoration of the liberation. I was one of the Jewish children born in the Glyn Hughes Hospital at Belsen, and although I have never been a British subject, I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the officers and soldiers of the British Second Army of the Rhine who freed the inmates of Belsen on April 15, 1945, and who undertook the superhuman task of saving the lives of the thousands who would have died otherwise. And standing here this evening, I also reflect on my father’s British allies and adversaries of the post-war year with a fondness reserved for honorable protagonists in a historical drama that merits remembrance as much as the horrors that preceded it.

More than 71 years after the end of the Holocaust, we remain engaged in the daunting effort to not just commemorate the tragedy but to place it in its proper historical context. Our efforts to bring Nazi war criminals to justice were and are meant to ensure that the perpetrators of other atrocities will similarly be held accountable for their crimes. Our ongoing fight against those who deny or trivialize the Shoah is part and parcel of our fight against anti-Semitism, racism and all other forms of bigotry. But as we face contemporary challenges, we must never lose sight of the human dimension of our shared past.


[1] Lieutenant Colonel M. W. Gonin, quoted in Paul Kemp, “The British Army and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, April 1945,” Belsen in History and Memory, ed. Jo Reilly, David Cesarani, Tony Kushner, and Colin Richmond (London, 1997), p. 137.

[2] Ben Shephard, After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945 (New York, 2005), p. 49.

[3] Hadassah Rosensaft, Yesterday: My Story (New York & Jerusalem, 200 5), p. 27.

[4] Joanne Reilly, Belsen: The Liberation of a Concentration Camp (London and New York, 1998), pp. 100, 105.

[5] Quoted by Henry Friedlander, “Darkness and Dawn in 1945: The Nazis, the Allies, and the Survivors,” in 1945: The Year of Liberation(United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 27.

[6] “Displaced Jews in Worse Plight,” The New York Times, November 20, 1945, p. 6, col. 5.

[7] Incoming Secret Cyber Message from Concom to Bercomb, 25. Nov. 1945, PRO FO 1049/195. (With thanks to Professor Rainer Schulze for making me aware of this source and the one cited in note 11 below.)

[8] New York Herald Tribune, December 16, 1945, p. 3, col. 7.

[9] New York Journal American, December 24, 1945.

[10] S.J. Goldsmith, “Yossl Rosensaft: The Art of Survival,” in Twenty 20th Century Jews (New York, 1962), p. 90.

[11] Comd 30 Corps District to PW&DP Div Main HQ CCG (BE), 12 Mar 1946, PRO FO 1062/282.

[12] Alex L. Easterman, “They Were Liberated—But not Free,” Belsen (Israel, 1957), pp. 92-93.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.