The United Nations Department of Public Information in partnership with
the United Kingdom Mission to the United Nations
Remarks at the screening of the film
“The Relief of Belsen”
2 May 2011, United Nations Headquarters
Remarks by Menachem Rosensaft following the screening of "The Relief of Belsen"
When British troops entered the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, they discovered, in the words of Lt. Colonel Mervyn Gonin who commanded the 11th Light Field Ambulance unit, “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”.
My mother, then Dr. Hadassah, or Ada, Bimko, a dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, who had studied medicine at the University of Nancy in France, organized and headed a team of doctors and nurses from among the survivors who worked for weeks on end alongside the British military doctors. Lt. Col. Gonin, one of the protagonists of The Relief of Belsen, described her 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”.
To fully grasp the significance of my mother’s role in the post-liberation drama of Belsen (described in detail in Ben Shephard’s After Daybreak, the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945), we need to go back almost two years in time, to the night of August 3rd to 4th of 1943, when my mother arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau together with her parents, her first husband, and her son – my brother. In her memoirs that she finished writing shortly before her death, my mother recalled her final moments with her child: “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 5 1/2-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”.
“Man”, wrote Jean-Paul Sartre, “is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be”. A human being, he went on, “is nothing other than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself; therefore he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life”.
After her arrival at Auschwitz, devastated by the loss of her child, her husband and her parents, my mother – like most of her fellow inmates and as the Germans intended – felt utterly disoriented, humiliated, and deprived of her sense of self. She was forced to wear prison clothes, her head was shaved, and her name was replaced with the number – 52406 – that was tattooed on her arm. “I always felt humiliated and ashamed”, she wrote. “I hated sleeping in my clothes. I was ashamed to admit that I was hungry. I was ashamed to go to the bathroom and to be exposed half naked in front of so many other women. I was ashamed of the way I looked. I seldom spoke”.
But then a cathartic, almost surreal event occurred. “One morning, after the roll call”, she recalled, “a torrential rain came down. We wanted to return to the barracks but instead were forced by the SS women to sit there for hours. As the rain fell down over our bodies, I realized that we were utterly helpless. Tears came to my eyes, the first ones since my arrival. When they mixed with the rain and I sat there sobbing, I found myself again”.
Because of her medical training, the notorious Joseph Mengele, Birkenau’s Chief Medical Officer, assigned my mother in October of 1943 to work as a doctor in the camp’s infirmary. There, she was able to save the lives of fellow inmates by performing rudimentary surgeries for them, camouflaging their wounds and sending them out of the barracks on work detail in advance of selections.
“I spent more than a year and three months in Birkenau”, my mother wrote. “It was a time of humiliation, torture, starvation, disease, fear, hopelessness and despair; a time when Nazi brutality and sadism reached their height. ... I often wonder why there were so few suicides. It would have been so easy just to touch the electrified barbed wire. But what is suicide? Is it an act of courage or weakness”?
In November of 1944, Mengele sent my mother and eight other Jewish inmates of Birkenau as a medical team to Bergen-Belsen, in Germany. Once again, the human potential for good in the face of evil manifested itself. Beginning with 49 Dutch children in December 1944, my mother organized what became known as a Kinderheim, a children’s home, within the concentration camp. “At that time”, Hela Los Jafe, one of my mother’s fellow inmates subsequently recalled, “Bergen-Belsen started to be like Oswiecim [Auschwitz]. Transports came from all over, bringing thousands of people. Ada walked from block to block, found the children, took them, lived with them, and took care of them”. Among them were children from Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Some had been brought to Belsen from Buchenwald, others from Theresienstadt. Together with a group of other women prisoners, my mother kept 149 Jewish children alive at Bergen-Belsen throughout the bitter winter and early spring of 1945.
According to Hela Jafe, “The children were very small and sick, and we had to wash them, clothe them, calm them and feed them. . . . Most of them were sick with terrible indigestion, dysentery and diarrhea, and just lay on the bunks . . . . There was little food, but somehow Ada managed to get some special food and white bread from the Germans . . . Later, there was typhus . . . Ada was the one who could get injections, chocolate, pills and vitamins. I don’t know how she did it. Although most of the children were sick, thanks to Ada nearly all of them survived”.
In my mother’s words, she and the other women in her group “had been given the opportunity to take care of these abandoned Jewish children, and we gave them all our love and whatever strength was left within us. . . . We talked to them, played with them, tried to make them laugh, listened to them, comforted them when they cried and had nightmares. When they were sick with typhus, we sat with beside them telling stories and fairy tales. I sang songs to them in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew, whatever I remembered, just to calm them until they fell asleep”.
Where my mother found the strength to save others rather than focusing on her own survival has always been a profound mystery to me. Perhaps her devotion to the children at Bergen-Belsen, and then, in the weeks following the liberation, to the thousands of critically ill survivors, was her way of coping with her inability to protect her own child.
“In the middle of winter”, observed Albert Camus, “I found out at last that there was within me an invincible summer”.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants