We find ourselves in extraordinarily troubling times. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all of us.
Perhaps, now more than ever, it is important to remember defining moments of our collective history, in the hope we might be inspired by the actions of individuals who risked their lives to save others and take heart from the courage and strength of those who faced horrific challenges and survived in spite of extreme hardships.
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by the British army on April 15 1945 which freed the 50,000 innocent men women and children – mainly Jews – incarcerated there. UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education today publishes a series of blogposts by Jonathan Dimbleby – whose father Richard Dimbleby was with the troops as a war correspondent, Lord Pickles and our own Arthur Chapman to mark this anniversary.
Nothing prepared the war-hardened British soldiers from the 11th Armoured Division for the terrible scenes that they would face when they entered the camp. Many would never get over the trauma. Thousands of unburied bodies lay strewn across the camp, while the living, ravaged by starvation, typhus and dysentery, clung desperately to life as best they could.
Nazi guards had abandoned the camp in order to escape capture as the Allied forces closed in. They left the prisoners who, due to neglect, cruelty and poor conditions, were already dying of starvation and infectious diseases with no food, water supply nor basic sanitation. The British army division’s initial task was to restore the water supply, feed safely people suffering from malnutrition, reduce the high mortality rate, curb the spread of infectious disease and manage the burial of the dead. The media who followed the army into the camp brought home the full horror of Bergen-Belsen exposing to the British public the images and footage of an unprecedented crime of mass murder. The Belsen images have lingered on in cultural consciousness ever since and become emblematic of Nazi tyranny.
UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education has collaborated with The Holocaust Educational Trust on a special government-funded project to mark the anniversary in schools. The project, Belsen75, has led site visits to Bergen-Belsen for hundreds of teachers and students across the country discovering the significance of the liberation from the space itself. It also hosts a website which provides teachers with free, easily downloadable online lesson plans, assembly kits, ideas for legacy projects and resources to support teachers host online lessons /tutor group sessions and delivering whole school assemblies to mark the anniversary and reflect on the significance of this history. All these materials can easily be used for teaching online.
One of the resources is a five minute film featuring Belsen survivors Mala Tribich and Susan Pollock. Now approaching their 90th birthdays. Both were just 14-year-old girls when they were liberated. They were also both dying of typhus. Susan speaks of the British arriving ‘finally’, in the nick of time, and the tender way a British soldier found her and saved her from almost certain death. She recalls how she met the soldier again sometime after the war at which point, she asked him: ‘What put that goodness into your heart that you picked me up so gently?’ Mala states that the soldiers appeared ‘..like a miracle..’ and that it was the compassion of the young soldiers that not only brought them back to life but restored their humanness.
Britain’s response to the Holocaust is of course a complex one and it is important to consider what Britain did or didn’t know, should and shouldn’t have done. But there can be little doubt that those British soldiers who came upon Bergen-Belsen 75 years ago, acted with great care and compassion. Together with the medical corps’ doctors, nurses, medical student volunteers and chaplains they set about a relief effort, the likes of which had not been confronted ever before. Many of these servicemen and women knowingly risked their own lives to treat the Bergen-Belsen survivors who were fighting for their life from typhus which spreads quickly through lice infestation. Despite the efforts of the relief workers, thousands of the people found alive at liberation continued to die in the weeks and months that followed, such was the extent of their weakened condition.
Whilst it is neither useful nor appropriate to draw parallels between the horrors of the Holocaust and the threat we find ourselves in today, the actions of human beings to put themselves at risk in order to preserve life resonates and is inspirational. NHS medical and auxiliary staff such as Mala’s grandson, who works as a junior hospital doctor caring for Covid-19 patients, nurses, clinicians, the British army supporting paramedic teams and other front-line workers do their job with courage and strength.
It is these examples, past and present, which give us optimism to face the future with positivity and hope just as Mala and Susan have done since the day they were liberated 75 years ago.
Ruth-Anne Lenga is Programme Director, UCL Centre for Holocaust Education.
Learn more about Mala and Susan’s stories Voices that Witnessed Liberation materials and others in the Belsen75.org.uk/resources hub