As we look ahead to international commemorations taking place at Bergen-Belsen on Sunday 26th April, Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich MBE reflects on her time at the camp.
This year we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp by units of the British Army, which was on 15th April 1945; and as a survivor I am pleased to have been invited to the commemoration ceremony at Belsen as a guest of the German government. Apart from the commemorative wreath-laying ceremonies on the last day of the programme there are visits to several historic Holocaust sites to choose from, and an orchestral concert.
Of course the old camp to which I and my seven year old cousin Ann were deported from Ravensbrück concentration camp in mid-February 1945 no longer exists. The site now consists of a landscaped area containing a Museum and Documentation Centre; but when we arrived it was quite different. It was so overcrowded that we were put up in a large tent on bare ground - and this in mid-winter with temperatures well below freezing. During the night someone stole my last remaining possession, a small piece of bread that I was saving for Ann, wrapped in a bit of cloth, and I remember that although distressed by the loss, I was even more affected by the thought that someone in the same boat could have done such a thing to a fellow victim.
In the morning we entered the main camp, and the scene that faced us was like something out of hell. There was a kind of smog and smell, and skeletal figures shuffling along aimlessly like zombies. There were dead bodies everywhere, large piles of twisted naked decaying corpses. Ann and I were allocated to a barracks, but the accommodation was so overcrowded that a building which should have held 80 people might contain several hundreds. Then quite by chance I heard that there was a children's home somewhere in the camp so I set out with Ann to find it. When we got there we were interviewed by the people in charge, Dr Bimko and Sister Luba, and at first they would not accept us because they, also, were overcrowded, and said that I, being fourteen, was too old. So I asked whether they would at least take Ann, since she would never have survived outside, but she adamantly refused to be parted from me, having lost her father and been separated from her mother more than two years earlier. So I said I would go away and try to persuade her, and come back the following day, which we did, but it was useless. Luckily Dr Bimko eventually relented, and agreed to admit both of us.
This was one of the factors which saved my life; because although the conditions in this children's home were marginally better, I went down with typhus and was extremely ill. If I had been in one of the ordinary barracks I would certainly have died, and as it was I became unaware of my surroundings for quite some days, and presumably I was delirious. I must have been starting to recover when one day from my upper bunk by the window I saw some emaciated people running towards the gate, and all I could think of was to wonder how they had the strength to run. This was the moment of liberation, when British troops entered the camp.
A hospital was quickly set up in part of the German barracks which had been used as a sick bay, and we were washed and disinfected, and transferred to proper beds with clean bed linen. When my stretcher arrived and the orderlies wanted to lift me on to it I insisted that I could walk, and tried to stand up, but I was so weak that if they hadn't caught me I would have fallen on my face. I still remember the dedication and kindness of the doctors and nurses, to whom I owe my life, after so many years of deprivation and brutality.
I also remember being visited several times by Rabbi Hermann Helfgott, better known by the name he adopted when he immigrated to Israel, Zvi Asaria. Although not an official chaplain he stepped into the breach and worked tirelessly to improve our conditions, and his contribution should be much better known.
After I had recovered, and been discharged from the hospital to a relocated children’s home, some of the troops, in an attempt to raise our spirits, arranged an outing into the country and a picnic. Among them were several instrumentalists, who formed a small combo, and played such popular hits as ‘Over the border, down Mexico way.’
From among the adult survivors a professional choreographer and a pianist organised a musical show, and trained some of us to perform as a high kicking chorus line to the song ‘Sweet Sue,’ and as sedate ballerinas to the Barcarolle from the Tales of Hoffmann.
In July, after I had recovered, Ann and I were sent to Sweden with a group of children, but that is the beginning of another story, and another life.