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.
- Reading List: Auschwitz
- Reading List: Holocaust Fiction and Nonfiction
- Auschwitz Report by Primo Levi
- Photography and Remembrance by Nat Bernstein
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, and editor of The World Jewish Congress, 1936 – 2016 (World Jewish Congress, 2017).