The ProsenPeople

An Emphasis on Leaders

Friday, June 16, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

Our goal was for The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 to faithfully depict the contributions and achievements of the WJC’s leaders over the course of the past 80 years, including in addition to Ambassador Lauder the WJC’s founders Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Dr. Nahum Goldmann, its longtime secretary-general Gerhart M. Riegner, and its president from 1981 to 2007, Edgar M. Bronfman.

In the interest of full disclosure, a brief personal note seems appropriate. I am not a totally disinterested observer of many of the events and individuals described in the pages of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016. My father, Josef Rosensaft, worked closely with many of the leaders of the WJC between 1945 and 1950 in his double capacity as chairman of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. During those years he developed what proved to be life-long friendships with Goldmann, Riegner, and numerous other other WJC leaders. As a result, I grew up knowing many of these WJC personalities and became aware of the organization’s activities in the international Jewish arena almost by osmosis. Decades later, I ran an international foundation for Ambassador Lauder from 1995 to 2000, and since 2009, as the WJC’s general counsel, I have worked closely with Ambassador Lauder, CEO Robert Singer, Secretary-General Emeritus Michael Schneider, Chief Program Officer Sonia Gomes de Mesquita, and the entire senior lay and professional WJC leadership.

Among the contributors to The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 who share their personal experiences and perspectives are Monsignor Pier Francesco Fumagalli, vice prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, who recalls the WJC’s pioneering role in crafting a new Catholic-Jewish relationship; Gregg J. Rickman, who led the US Senate Banking Committee’s examination of Swiss banks and their treatment of Holocaust-era assets during and after World War II and who depicts the WJC’s key role in forcing Swiss banks to disgorge more than one billion dollars they had wrongfully withheld from Jewish Holocaust victims and their heirs; Eli Rosenbaum, the longtime head of the US Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, who as my predecessor as the WJC’s general counsel oversaw the WJC’s exposure of Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past; Natan Lerner, professor of law emeritus at IDC Herzliya, the director of the WJC’s Israel Branch from 1966 until 1984, who writes about the WJC’s relationship and interactions with the State of Israel; Evelyn Sommer, chairperson of the WJC’s North American Section, who was instrumental in the campaign to rescind the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism; and Maram Stern, the WJC’s deputy CEO for diplomacy, who reminisces about the complexities of attempting to maintain relations with Jewish communities in Communist countries during the Cold War years.

Other chapters in The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 are devoted to, among other topics, the invaluable assistance the WJC provided to the prosecutors at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and the organization’s successful diplomatic negotiations on behalf of Jews from North Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. In the book’s concluding chapters, Ambassador Lauder lays out his vision of the Jewish future, and Robert Singer describes the activities and accomplishments of the World Jewish Congress today.

I am deeply honored that Ambassador Lauder and Robert Singer entrusted me with the task of compiling and editing this book, and am grateful to them for their constant encouragement and support. It is our hope that The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 will become an essential resource not just for an understanding of the World Jewish Congress, but for anyone interested in Jewish political history of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017).

Header photo credited to The World Jewish Congress.

The First Political Body for Jews

Wednesday, June 14, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

In order to place the different essays that make up The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 in their historical context, it is important to understand the origins of the organization.

While the WJC formally came into being at its first plenary assembly in Geneva in August 1936, its roots actually lie in an ad hoc body called the Comité des Délégations Juives Auprès de la Conférence de la Paix – the Committee of Jewish Delegations at the Peace Conference – that was formed in 1919 to advocate at the Versailles Peace Conference for minority rights – that is, primarily, Jewish rights – in eastern and central European countries in the aftermath of World War I.

The Comité des Délégations Juives was an anomaly at the time in that it included representatives from Jewish groups in Canada, Eastern Galicia, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, in addition to B’nai Brith and American Jewish organizations such as the newly founded American Jewish Congress and the 13-year old American Jewish Committee.

This was literally the first time that such an umbrella body representing at least a meaningful segment of world Jewry had come into existence.

The participation of the American Jewish Committee in the Comité des Délégations Juives was particularly noteworthy since it was otherwise categorically against any association with other Jewish groups in any endeavor that could be interpreted as an international Jewish politically oriented initiative, as opposed to one that was strictly American and philanthropic in nature.

Following the end of the Peace Conference, the Comité des Délégations Juives remained in existence under the leadership of a prominent Paris-based Russian Zionist named Leo Motzkin, and continued to make representations on behalf of Eastern European Jews before the League of Nations and other international bodies.

At the same time, throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of the founders of the American Jewish Congress, called for the establishment of a world Jewish Congress – over the fierce objections of the American Jewish establishment, in particular the American Jewish Committee.

In August of 1927, 60 delegates from the US, 12 other countries, and Mandatory Palestine gathered in Zurich for what was billed as the World’s Conference on Jewish Rights. Again, the purpose of this conference was to find some means of coordinating efforts to help Jewish minorities in central and eastern European countries where they were being discriminated against if not actively persecuted.

Wise continued his quest for a world Jewish congress over the next several years, as Hitler’s Nazi Party was becoming increasingly powerful in Germany.

In August of 1932, the first of three World Jewish Conferences took place in Geneva, this time with 94 delegates from 17 countries, but without the participation of the American Jewish Committee, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, or the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden, the umbrella body of Germany’s Jewish community. By then, Wise had enlisted a young Russian-born German Zionist leader, Dr. Nahum Goldmann, to organize the event. It was the beginning of a friendship and political association between the two that would last until Wise’s death in 1949.

Two more such world conferences followed, both taking place in Geneva after Hitler’s rise to power.

By the third World Conference in 1934, Wise and Goldmann were planning the formation of a World Jewish Congress, modeled on the American Jewish Congress, as a mechanism to counter Nazi anti-Semitism, and in August of 1936, the WJC formally came into being as an organization.

This was the first time that Jewish leaders from different countries joined together as a decidedly political, rather than philanthropic, body, for the express purpose of representing Jews around the world. And over the following several years, the fledgling organization rapidly became the most outspoken defender of Jewish rights, both publicly and in behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017). Check back on Friday to see more from Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

Header photo credited to the World Jewish Congress.

WJC: An Organization with a Personality

Monday, June 12, 2017 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribes series.

The World Jewish Congress has published a comprehensive history of our organization’s activities and achievements from its founding in Geneva in August 1936 to the present. Fittingly, we timed the release of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 to take place during the WJC’s 15th Plenary Assembly, April 23-25, held in New York for the first time in the organization’s eighty-year history.

Organizations, very much like individuals, have distinct personalities which are, for the most part, a direct function of the men and women who lead these groups. The World Jewish Congress is no exception.

About two years ago, when World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder and CEO Robert Singer first told me that they wanted to publish a history of the first eighty years of the World Jewish Congress, we rapidly came to the conclusion that such a book had to reflect the diversity of voices that has always characterized the organization and, indeed, the Jewish people. Instead of asking a historian to write an academic, chronological study based primarily on archival research, we opted instead for a mosaic, with chapters about specific episodes or themes written either by individuals who had personally played a role in the WJC’s activities and accomplishments in question, or by scholars with a particular interest in and knowledge of the subject matter.

For the past ten years, the WJC’s persona has been shaped primarily by Ambassador Lauder who has imbued the organization with his vision and with a distinct sense of purpose focusing on the challenges confronting the Jewish people and Jewish communities across the globe in the 21st century. Prior to assuming the presidency of the WJC in 2007, Ambassador Lauder had a distinguished career first as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Affairs and US Ambassador to Austria under President Reagan, and then as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and president of the Jewish National Fund. In 1987, he established the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation which revitalized Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe through a network of Jewish schools, kindergartens, camps and community centers.

“There is an old Hasidic tradition,” Ambassador Lauder writes in the concluding chapter of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016, “that inside every Jew there burns a flame. Sometimes that flame is obscured, and the person can’t see it. But it is always there, it is always burning. All you have to do is dust it off your heart and you will find it. . . . And this is the job before us now. We have to help our children and our grandchildren dust off their hearts. We have to help them rediscover that Jewish flame inside them.”

The WJC today also reflects the personality and priorities of Robert Singer, the organization’s CEO since May 2013, who had previously served as senior educational officer of the Israel Defense Forces, followed by twelve years with the Office of the Prime Minister in Israel in a number of senior posts, mostly dealing with the Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, and fourteen years as the CEO of World ORT, one of the world’s largest non-governmental education and training network. Under Robert Singer’s professional leadership, the WJC has undertaken numerous major initiatives in fighting both anti-Semitism around the world and the ever-increasing efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936-2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017). Check back on Wednesday to see more from Menachem Z. Rosensaft.

Header image credited to the World Jewish Congress.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 27, 2015: A Poem

Friday, January 30, 2015 | Permalink

During this past week's ceremony at Auschwitz to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation, Menachem Z. Rosensaft penned a poem to commemorate the memorial, which he shares with JBC readers below.

Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 27, 2015

no longer visible flames
still burn
will always burn
have burned my brother's tiny body
for seventy-one years
five months, twenty-three days
since he became only a memory
my, our mother's memory
now my inheritance
in a huge tent we sit
three thousand of us
warmly dressed
and I see where
my mother was unable to kiss
her child
one last time
I cannot feel him shiver
I cannot hear him cry
I cannot smell the gas
perhaps I am breathing
his ashes

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is the editor of the recently published book God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing).

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Dawn Follows Even the Darkest of Nights: A Legacy of Remembrance

Friday, January 16, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Menachem Z. Rosensaft wrote about Holocaust remembrance and life after catastrophe. He is the editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing) and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, as we are approaching the 70th anniversaries of the liberation of the other Nazi death and concentration camps and the end of World War II, we are at a transitional moment. For the past seventy years, the survivors of the Shoah kept the memory of what had been done to them, to their families, and to European Jewry at the forefront of their society’s consciousness. Sadly but inevitably, they are now fading from the scene. The critical question, therefore, is how their absence will change the nature of Holocaust remembrance.

Historian Lucy Dawidowicz once described my father, who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, months of torture in the notorious Block 11 at Auschwitz, the cavernous underground tunnels of Dora-Mittelbau where Wernher von Braun’s V-2 rockets were manufactured, and Bergen-Belsen as “our Ancient Mariner, who passes, ‘like night, from land to land,’ with ‘strange power of speech’ to tell his tale to whomsoever will listen.”

And so it was for many of the survivors, each haunted by, at times obsessed with, his or her own memories. Some were able to impart them to others. Many were unable to translate them into words. And when they did speak, they lit a fire within us who were privileged to listen to and learn from them.

But now, they have entrusted the principal responsibility for preserving and perpetuating their memories to their children and grandchildren as a hallowed inheritance that we in turn must transmit to our and future generations, Jews and non-Jews alike, not with their fervor and intensity but with our own.

My mother died hours after the end of Rosh Hashanah in 1997. In my introduction to God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, the newly published book I had the privilege of compiling and editing for Jewish Lights Publishing, I describe how six months later, I took our daughter, Jodi, then a college sophomore, to Poland for the first time. She and my mother had been very close and had spent a great deal of time together as Jodi was growing up. We went to Warsaw and Krakow, and then to Auschwitz. It was a grey day, with a constant drizzle. I showed Jodi Block 11 at Auschwitz, the death block where my father was tortured for months, and then we went to Birkenau. We walked in silence past the decaying wooden barracks. After 15 or 20 minutes, Jodi turned to me and said, “You know, it looks exactly the way Dassah [which is what she called my mother, Hadassah] described it.” In that moment, I realized that a transfer of memory had taken place. My daughter, born 33 years after the Holocaust, had recognized Birkenau through my mother’s eyes, through my mother’s memories which Jodi had absorbed into her consciousness.

Many children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors have experienced this type of epiphany. For Stephanie Butnick, it came on a visit to what had been the concentration and Displaced Persons camps of Bergen-Belsen where “I learned about my grandparents from the friends they had made at the DP camp, who would become lifelong friends after they all immigrated to the United States. I heard stories—and saw archival photographs—of a theater troupe my grandparents were a part of, and I ate meals in the same dining hall they would have eaten in after liberation. Here, in this strange, unsettling place, I felt closer to them than I ever had.”

Dr. Eva Fogelman remembers sitting with her father on Cape Cod when he told her that the rose hip bushes beside them reminded him of the berries he had eaten as a partisan in the forests of Belarus. Aviva Tal recounts a story her mother once told her of how she and a group of other women inmates at the Ravensbrück concentration camp laughed while being forced to carry heavy loads of coal when one of them began to sing, in Yiddish, “I thank you Gottenyu, dear God, that I am a Jew.”

When Dr. David Senesh was a prisoner of war during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he thought of his aunt, the legendary poet Hannah Szenes, who had been captured, tortured and executed in wartime Budapest. “In October of 1973,” he recalls, “I felt myself, like Hannah, to be in the midst of a deadly vortex. There was no way of knowing who would survive that dreadful Yom Kippur and who would perish, who would die by water and who by fire, who by bullet and who by a shrapnel, who by a wound and who by imprisonment.”

Former New York Times reporter Joseph Berger remembers his father telling him at the Western Wall in Jerusalem that he was angry at God for taking away his sisters. And yet, Berger writes, “when I think about that conversation now, what stands out is not his anger but that he still maintained his relationship with God, like a child fleetingly furious at a parent but knowing the bond will never be broken.” In contrast, Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer recalls that his grandmother told her family in Melbourne, Australia, that, “If God takes such a good man as my husband, I’m not going to follow his laws.”

These and other defining memories and narratives are the sparks behind the essays in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes. Each of the contributors to this book received a unique legacy, and each put into words how this legacy has shaped his or her life, thoughts, mindset and career.

In the course of editing the book, I realized that despite their authors’ starkly different perspectives, they had one wholly unexpected common characteristic: an almost unfailing optimism. What seems to me to unite the diverse contributors - regardless of religious or political orientation - is a conviction that the legacy of memory we have received from our parents or grandparents is a source of strength rather than despondency, and a determination to apply that legacy in constructive, forward-looking ways that might inspire not just Jews but all human beings, especially those whose families have been the victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, or other dire catastrophes. The resilience of the survivors upon emerging from the Nazi death camps and other sites of persecution and oppression and their ability to not just rebuild their lives but teach their children and grandchildren by example to continue to have faith in humankind is evidence, to me at least, that a dawn follows even the darkest of nights.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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Preserving the Mystery

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Menachem Z. Rosensaft wrote about life after catastrophe. He is the editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing) and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote an article about Holocaust remembrance entitled “Preserving the Mystery” for the Forward. It was published there on April 28, 1995. I had all but forgotten it, but happened to reread it recently and was struck by its – to me at least – continued relevance and validity. My concerns 70 years after the Holocaust remain much the same as they were on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. And since I am quite certain that no one else will recall it, I decided to republish it here.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, our perspective on the past is undergoing a subtle yet perceptible transformation. Time has not diminished our grief. Our questions, whether addressed to God or to humankind, remain unanswered. But somehow, our horror and outrage seem to have eased, if not lessened. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, Babi Yar, the Warsaw Ghetto. Gas chambers, selections, partisans, yellow stars of David, crematoria, mass-graves. Names, terms and concepts that entered our vocabulary in a dramatic explosion of emotion have become almost too familiar. The sense of awe that once characterized even the most oblique reference to the annihilation of European Jewry has evolved into standardized, often impersonal reactions.

Not too long ago, the study of the Holocaust was the domain of an isolated few, most of whom saw their task as a solemn obligation to the dead. Now, historical accounts and memoirs devoted to this cataclysm, better ones, worse ones, are published regularly. Steven Spielberg's monumental motion picture, "Schindler's List," has made the subject truly fashionable, even trendy. Then there are the countless lectures, courses, sermons, articles. Life in the ghettos, faith in the camps, hidden children, love in the shadow of death, accusations of collaboration with the enemy, death marches, watching loved ones disappear forever, emotional reunions in displaced persons camps, survivors coming to terms with their loss, post-Holocaust trauma. No aspect of the Holocaust is left untouched, undissected.

While many of these works are important and factually accurate contributions to the historical record, others are flawed in a variety of ways. In a desire for drama, an author will occasionally expand on the truth. A minor participant in an uprising may be tempted, in writing his memoirs, to embellish his own role. A publisher, seeking to enhance a forthcoming book's appeal, may urge the writer to add some romance to an otherwise colorless episode. A less than meticulous historian may transpose a given occurrence from Auschwitz to Treblinka in order to streamline a particular argument.

As much as any other event, if not more so, the Holocaust requires the chronicler to be scrupulously accurate. The historian who misrepresents it commits a greater transgression than one who shuns the topic altogether. The witness who testifies falsely, who distorts his or her experiences in any manner for even the most benign reason, effectively becomes the accomplice of those who try to deny that the Holocaust ever took place.

This is not to suggest that the current widespread interest in the Shoah is not welcome. But the greater the popularity of this subject, the greater the need for vigilance regarding the treatment it is accorded.

In Washington, D.C., the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum brings the full magnitude and complexity of the Holocaust into the consciousness of thousands upon thousands of Americans every single week. More than 4 million visitors have been to the museum since its opening two years ago. Most of them are non-Jews. Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that American public schools and church groups would make reservations months in advance to visit a Holocaust museum? Who among us could have predicted 20 or 30 years ago that serious scholars would make Holocaust studies a respected academic discipline?

Why, then, is there also a sense of unease? Why am I, for one, not altogether comfortable with the popular appeal that the Holocaust has acquired? Perhaps because the experience must not be allowed to lose its aura of mystery. Objective, cognitive analysis alone is insufficient. As my friend and mentor Elie Wiesel has written, “Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied had none.”

The Holocaust transcends ordinary human experience. It is the unprecedented, the unfathomable, and, above all, the inexplicable. Sober chronologies of dates, events and statistics are critical to our understanding but provide only one dimension. Histories of the Holocaust based exclusively or even primarily on German documents convey the intent and actions of the perpetrators but do not adequately reflect the experiences of the victims. Thus, ghetto diaries, underground newspapers and survivors' recollections are essential to any comprehensive narrative. And no one can penetrate the nocturnal universe of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen without absorbing songs, poems, nightmares and prayers that defy all standard historiographic methodology.

A barrack wall at Auschwitz contains the following inscription: “Andreas Rapaport—lived sixteen years.” Try to imagine this boy, realizing that he was about to die, as he tried to leave a sign, a memory of his existence on earth. In truth, Andreas Rapaport was the author of his own eulogy: Andreas Rapaport—lived sixteen years. Andreas Rapaport—abandoned, alone, afraid. Andreas Rapaport—hungry, in pain. Andreas Rapaport—with gas-filled lungs. Andreas Rapaport—burning flesh in the crematorium, black smoke, ashes.

With the passing of time, our mental pictures go out of focus, our collective memories become blurred. We all have memories, even we who were born afterwards. And they were once fresh. When my father told me how he was shot by the Germans while escaping from a moving train bound for Auschwitz, when he told me how his 80-year-old father died in his arms, when he told me how he was tortured in Auschwitz, every one of his experiences was sharply recorded in my mind. He died almost 20 years ago. And I no longer remember his words as clearly as I once did.

We all have memories of when we first realized the enormity of Hitler's Final Solution of the Jewish question, of the first time we tried to imagine members of our own families gasping for air in a gas chamber. But the years have mellowed our reactions. It used to be that we could not sleep for days after seeing a film about the Holocaust. Now, such films are shown on television late at night and no longer have the same impact.

As our knowledge of the Holocaust steadily increases, we must be careful not to become desensitized. As we perpetuate memory, we must also prevent it from becoming commonplace. There are times when even scholars must abandon their dispassion. Remembrance without emotion is hollow, and the dead deserve our anguish.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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Monday, January 12, 2015 | Permalink

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and editor of the newly published God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“The Messiah,” wrote Franz Kafka in one of his parables, “will only come when he will no longer be needed; he will only come on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.”

On January 27, 1945, when the soldiers of the Red Army entered the three-camp complex of Auschwitz, Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II), and Buna-Monowitz near the southern Polish town of Oświęcim - collectively often referred to simply as Auschwitz - only around 7,000 inmates, many of whom were dying, remained in what had been the largest, most efficient, most diabolical killing site in history. An estimated 1.1 million men, women and children, the overwhelming majority of them Jews but also Poles, Roma and Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war and others, had been systematically murdered there. Among them were my grandparents, my five-and-a-half-year-old brother, and most of the members of my parents’ families. My mother spent over fifteen months at Birkenau. My father, who was first deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in late August of 1943 and then, after escaping and being recaptured, was tortured for months in the notorious Block 11, also known as the Death Block, at Auschwitz.

The liberators had come too late for the dead. And even the living who had passed through Auschwitz-Birkenau were left with unspeakable memories. Upon arrival at Birkenau, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier testified before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, “We were led to a large shed, then to the disinfecting station. There our heads were shaved and our registration numbers were tattooed on the left forearm. Then we were taken into a large room for a steam bath and a cold shower. In spite of the fact that we were naked, all this took place in the presence of SS men and women. We were then given clothing which was soiled and torn, a cotton dress and jacket of the same material.”

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, men, women and children were herded into gas chambers to suffer an agonizing collective death. Here, the corpses were incinerated in huge crematoria. Sometimes not only the corpses. “One night,” Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier recalled at Nuremberg, “we were awakened by terrifying cries. And we discovered, on the following day … that on the preceding day, the gas supply having run out, they had thrown the children into the furnaces alive." 

To be sure, Auschwitz was not the only Nazi death camp where Jews had been gassed as part of what German government officials euphemistically termed the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.” Treblinka, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec and Sobibor were the other principal annihilation centers the Germans had set up in Poland. But it is Auschwitz-Birkenau that has come to be symbolic of absolute evil: it epitomizes the horrors of both the Holocaust specifically and the broader monstrosities that have become categorized as genocide.

As World War II came to an end, Allied troops liberated other Nazi camps, mostly in April and May of 1945, among them Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau on April 11, Bergen-Belsen on April 15, Sachsenhausen on April 22, Dachau and Ravensbrück on April 29, Mauthausen on May 6, and Terezin on May 8. And in each of these camps, the newly freed prisoners were confronted with a grim and frightening new reality.

“The hand of Adonai came upon me,” declared the prophet Ezekiel. “He took me out by the spirit of Adonai and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live again?’ And I replied, ‘O Lord Adonai, only You know.’ And he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones and say to them: O dry bones, hear the words of Adonai.’ Thus said the Lord Adonai Elohim to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.”

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, 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. She had been sent to Bergen-Belsen from Auschwitz in November 1944 and, together with a group of other Jewish women inmates, had kept 149 Jewish children alive despite the lack of food and a raging typhus epidemic. 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 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.

Ezekiel continued, “And He said to me, ‘O son of man, these bones are the whole House of Israel.’ They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: ‘Thus said the Lord Adonai: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the Land of Israel . . . . I will put My breath into you and you shall live again ….’”

In due course, Ezekiel’s prophecy would come to pass, but it would take time, considerable time. The end of the war found the survivors 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.”

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.

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