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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