A space for featured guest bloggers and members of the Holocaust Educational Trust team to comment and reflect on timely issues.
We entered Bergen-Belsen in early 1945 through heavy, soggy snow-covered mud. The camp was a wild, open complex surrounded by searchlights and barbed wire, a huge expanse of long, shell-like barracks with openings for windows. We were packed into these barracks like sardines, one on top of the other. Some barracks had bunks, but there were none in mine, just bare wooden floors and a dim light bulb in the ceiling.
Mother and I collapsed into a corner, hot and tired from the walking. In the morning, when daylight broke, I saw people wandering about outside. They looked thin and emaciated, starved and disease-ridden.
Outside, bodies were everywhere. The barracks were sandwiched close together and it was easy to lose oneself in the crowd. I could see nobody I knew, and after a while I found myself in a hospital barrack. I had always had a flair for nursing. It had been my ambition to study medicine until the war came along and destroyed my dreams. Here was an opportunity to learn more, so I talked my way into a job at the hospital.
The hospital was strictly for the Germans, and there was no medical help or treatment available for our people. Concentration camp inmates had no rights. Meanwhile, an epidemic of typhus was sweeping through the camp. It spread through the lice which lived on people’s bodies in the barracks. These lice were everywhere, crawling from bunk to bunk, person to person. Reports came into the hospital every morning of the numbers of inmates who had died in the night. On some nights three hundred people died, on others five hundred. If it was a hundred people, we would say, ‘Thank God. It’s only a hundred.’
While the British Army was fast approaching, life was going on much as normal for us in Belsen: processions of transports, more shootings, more bloodshed. It seemed as if the war would last forever, it never crossed our minds that freedom was just around the corner.
When the British first entered the camp, 68 years ago today, I was at work in the hospital. The Nazis were still standing by me, fully armed. I couldn’t express any emotion at the scene outside. I couldn’t show my feelings of joy that somebody had come to release us. I was still scared, I just had to carry on with my work and not say a word.
When the British troops came to the hospital we gave them some water to wash their hands. The Nazis were still there, with pistols in their holsters, and we were still afraid. It was a strange combination and we couldn’t understand it.
When I came to work the next day, I found a lot of ammunition lying around the hospital: pistols and rifles and piles of Nazi uniforms, the SS and the guards must have changed into civilian clothes before making their getaway.
On the second day of liberation I met an army sergeant who had come to the hospital to search for SS soldiers. His name was Norman, and, as he spoke German, we conversed together. I think he liked my way of speaking. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him I’d been working as a nurse. I liked him and was impressed when he told me about his work trying to track down the Nazis and to see justice done. Apart from one day when he was ill, Norman kept coming in every day and made a point of seeing me. I grew fond of him, and he grew fond of me.
One day he invited me to the Officers’ Mess for dinner, I took my friend, Tola, with me and off we went. When we arrived, the tables were laid with crisp white tablecloths and wonderfully decorated flowers – a sight I hadn’t seen for many years. I said to Norman: ‘What is all this? Are you expecting special guests?’ He said: ‘You are the special guest. This is our engagement party.’ And yet he never actually proposed! He took it for granted that I would accept.
Two days later Norman had to leave for Plön. He left me with a ring on my finger and a document written in English which explained that I was engaged to a British sergeant, that help would be provided for me in his absence and that I should wait for his return to get married. I was the happiest woman in the world.
Life in the camp improved under the supervision of the British Army. However after three months I had lost all trace of Norman. I’d written several letters but heard no word of his whereabouts. However, finally he returned to Belsen and we were married on 7th October 1945 in Lübeck at a Synagogue which the Germans had used as a stable during the war. I wore a wedding dress made out of British Army parachute silk. I was only sad that my Mother was too sick to make the journey and so could not be present.
Ours was the first post-war wedding to take place at the Synagogue. We were married by Rabbi Leslie Hardman, who was the first British Army Chaplain to enter Bergen-Belsen. He later said that he saw our wedding as a symbol of life after death.
We arrived in England on 10th November 1945. All of Fleet Street had heard we were coming, and dozens of reporters and photographers were waiting for us at St Pancras Station. The papers were full of headlines: ‘The Bride from Belsen is here!’ I felt as if I had come from outer space. In 1946 my Mother’s immigration papers came through and she was able to move in to a flat on our floor. Seeing her again was the joy of my life.
It is difficult to describe the meaning of freedom: to be able to walk where you want to walk, do what you want to do, say what you want to say... it is a wonderful, wonderful feeling.
Sadly Norman passed away in 1995 just two months before their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Gena now lives in Stanmore and has three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She speaks regularly in schools and colleges and was awarded an MBE in 2001.