BERGEN-BELSEN

3. BELSEN DATES 2*

There was still something I could do: I could tell the world.
Leslie L. Hardman, ‘The Survivors: The Story of the Belsen Remnant’.

A couple of years ago, with my sons Lindsay (who lives and works in Germany) and Reuben and grandson Josh, I visited the site of Bergen Belsen concentration camp, an hour’s drive from where Lindsay and family live. We walked along the gravel paths that bisected the terrain, now reclaimed by grass and trees. The August day was pleasantly warm and had we been walking anywhere else in the gentle countryside in that part of Lower Saxony, the air of tranquility would have been appropriate to both weather and surroundings.

But every few meters there were reminders of what once had been in place there. Individual gravestones and granite memorials recorded the 50,000 deaths of prisoners interned between 1938 and 1945. Most of them were Jewish, but Belsen also housed  Russian prisoners-of-war, Gypsies, homosexuals and survivors of the Warsaw Rising.

But of the horrors revealed after the liberation of the camp in 1945, the most graphic relics by far were the mass graves. Great featureless barrows covered with couch and tufted hair-grass amongst which wild flowers – harebells, daisies and celandines – grew, they lay around the perimeter of the site. Each one was surrounded by a low retaining wall, across the shorter end of which was inserted a raised flat eminence engraved with the number of the dead. Along the top of each eminence visitors had placed stones, some of them marked with scribbled names.

The main pathway led directly to a tall, tapering pylon made from slabs of granite set on a raised platform accessed by a wide span of shallow steps. Behind it was a long wall of the same materials bearing inscriptions commemorating ‘those who died in this place’. Its embossed lettering was filled and topped with the same collections of variegated single stones,

Returning towards the entrance area, we went into the museum building. Constructed out of huge square blocks, it managed an extraordinary synthesis of the forbidding and the dignified. Long rows of ceiling-high panels bore documentary evidence – photographs, official documents, identity papers, handwritten statements of personal witness – of life and death within Bergen-Belsen. And let down into the floor of the walkway between the panels were reinforced glass-covered chambers, each about the size of a packing crate and illuminated from the sides, in which were contained artefacts found beneath the huts when they were destroyed after the emptying of the camp.

A great deal of thought and planning had gone into the manner of the preservation of Bergen-Belsen. The absence of any of the accommodation huts, the vehicle parks, the workshops, the guards’ quarters, the administrative buildings that had once filled the grim estate and the restitution of the heathland and copses that had gone under their foundations creates a powerfully moving sense of a territory both haunted by the unendurable horrors of the past and yet now salved and dignified by nature. It’s an extraordinary place – an eloquent testimony both to utter destruction and tenacious survival. I shall never forget our quiet, slow day amongst the harebells and the graves.

12. MEMORIAL PATH

THE PATH TO THE MEMORIAL.

13. TO THE MEMORY...*

THE MEMORIAL WALL.

11. SINGLE GRAVESTONE 1

A SINGLE GRAVE.

8a. STONES ON GRAVE TOP 2*

STONES ALONG THE ENGRAVED WALL OF A MASS GRAVE.
(Anne Frank and her sister Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen).

28.RELICS 4*

25. RELICS 1*

TWO OF THE DISPLAY CABINETS SET INTO THE FLOOR DISPLAYING ARTEFACTS FOUND BENEATH THE  BURNED-DOWN HUTS. 

:::

ARTEFACTS

There is the heaped equality
of spectacles, the comfort
of linked arms –
wire, gold and tortoiseshell,
the white opacity
of the tilted lens.

There is the kicking scramble
of empty shoes, piled
like bean pods, shelled
of movement, scuffed and dusty
from the longest walk
in the world.

There is the hollow clothing,
the empty-handed gloves,
the headless hats and cap,
the hanks of hair, bagged,
sprung teeth in boxes,
stamped and labelled.

Bones we know;
we scrambled up and out
of the millennium
on bones.  These clothes,
these artefacts endure,
undiminished, unconsumed.

About Dick Jones

I'm a post-retirement Drama teacher, currently working part-time. I have a grown-up son and daughter, three grandchildren and three young children from my second marriage. I write - principally poetry but prose too, both fitfully published. My poetry collection Ancient Lights is published by Phoenicia Publishing (www.phoeniciapublishing.com) and my translation of Blaise Cendrars' 'Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France' (illustrated by my friend, the artist, writer and long-time blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff) is published by Old Stile Press (www.oldstilepress.com). I play bass guitar & bouzouki in the song-based acoustic/electric trio Moorby Jones, playing entirely original material (https://www.facebook.com/moorbyjones?ref=aymt_homepage_panel + http://www.moorbyjones.net/). I play the same instruments in the Celtic/English/Americana/acoustic ambient trio Escher's Dream. (https://www.facebook.com/Eschers-Dream-102838891097545/?modal=admin_todo_tour) I have a dormant blog with posts going back to 2004 at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages - http://patteran.typepad.com - and I'm a radio ham. My callsign is G0EUV
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4 Responses to BERGEN-BELSEN

  1. Carroll says:

    I am moved nearly to tears just reading this, Dick. Being there, seeing it with your own eyes, breathing the now fresh and fragrant air…? Astonishing is not the right word, but I can think of no others. May we never forget the dead, and may we never repeat such atrocity.

  2. Dick says:

    It was an extraordinarily powerful experience, Carroll. The visit came at the end of a wonderful weekend for Reuben and I with Lindsay, Vanessa and Josh. From Belsen we drove straight to the airport and thence home. And all the way I cherished my family and couldn’t wait to get through the door.

  3. sackerson says:

    All this has been at the forefront of my mind recently, having just finished reading Sebald’s Austerlitz. It makes me wonder where we are now. A US President who can’t bring himself to criticise white supremacists, the KKK still active, Nazism enfeebled but still alive in Europe, the casual racism of BJ in Britain…

    As for the current spate of allegations against the Labour Party… Rant deleted. I write as someone who aspires to be philosemitic, who considers antisemitism (and this is what makes me angry) to be a far too awful thing for anyone to play politics with. I’m appalled by the thought that anyone might make vexatious allegations of antisemitism merely to discredit them.

  4. sackerson says:

    All this has been at the forefront of my mind recently, having just finished reading Sebald’s Austerlitz. It makes me wonder where we are now. A US President who can’t bring himself to criticise white supremacists, the KKK still active, Nazism enfeebled but still alive in Europe, the casual racism of BJ in Britain…

    As for the current spate of allegations against the Labour Party… Rant deleted. I write as someone who aspires to be philosemitic, who considers antisemitism (and this is what makes me angry) to be a far too awful thing for anyone to play politics with. I’m appalled by the thought that anyone might make vexatious allegations of antisemitism against someone merely to discredit them.

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