Liberation and the Holocaust


The Final Rescue?

Liberation and the Holocaust

mark celinscak

Shall we, when the day of triumph comes, be easy in our hearts, our minds, and our consciences if we see the dead bodies . . . of human lives whom we could have saved, but whom we were not sufficiently strong, or courageous, or determined to rescue?

—Samuel Sydney Silverman, Member of Parliament (UK), May 19, 1943

The rate of extermination is such that no measures of rescue or relief, on however large a scale, could be commensurate with the problem. Every week and every month by which victory is brought nearer will contribute more to their salvation than any diversion of our war effort in measures of relief.

—Osbert Peake, Under- Secretary of State for the Home Department (UK), May 19, 1943

Until recently, the study of the liberation of Nazi camps has been nearly absent from the ever-g rowing field of Holocaust studies. As the field has expanded, scholars have come to understand more about the origins of the Holocaust, the legal repression, resettlement and deportation, the camp system, methods of murder, resistance, and the death marches. However, much less has been known about the point of liberation, in particular, the days, weeks, and months that followed. By examining the period immediately after the Allies reached the camps we can reveal the true complexities of liberation as well as unearth the challenges faced by both survivors and liberators in the immediate postwar period.1

The study of liberation affords us a glimpse into how men and women both thought and acted when confronted by unimaginable suffering. The accounts of Allied military personnel often push against the notion that liberation was somehow a celebratory occasion, resulting in the end of the survivors’ miseries in the camps.


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These accounts help us understand that liberation was not a uniform moment in time; rather, it was a long, often trying process.

From the earliest research into the subject, scrutinizing the experiences of those involved in the Holocaust has been a particular concern for researchers. Raul Hilberg, first in his pioneering The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) and then in subsequent works, presents a triad of agents in the Holocaust known as the perpetrator, the victim, and the bystander.2 For many scholars, these became the primary categories of participants involved in the Holocaust.

Perpetrators were those individuals involved in either constructing or carrying out anti- Jewish measures. At the other end of the spectrum were the victims: those targeted for destruction. Bystanders, undeniably the largest group in terms of sheer numbers, were individuals who were aware that Jews were being targeted by the Nazi regime but who did not actively assist nor persecute them. Neither a perpetrator nor victim, bystanders are a complex and contentious group.

To this triad, a fourth category of participant has emerged as a serious topic of study. Those who are called “rescuers” or “helpers” have become a focal point in contemporary Holocaust studies. In both scholarly research and popular media, rescuers have been elevated in the public consciousness. In Holocaust studies the term “rescue” relates to a wide range of activities that aided Jews during their persecution by the Nazi regime. Accordingly, and as this collection of essays clearly demonstrates, the topic of rescue has become a major subfield in the study and teaching of the Holocaust.

From solitary individuals who assisted Jews to organized groups sheltering those in need, rescue is a broad and diverse category. Often linked to rescue is the act of liberation itself. Across a spectrum of scholarly writing, the concept of rescue is frequently associated with “liberation” and “relief” efforts. Undoubtedly, these types of activities saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. For example, regarding the liberation of the Bergen-B elsen concentration camp in Germany, scholar Elly Trepman writes, “This rescue operation required the diverting of . . . units from the ongoing military campaign . . . [because] ‘the dictates of humanity required quick action.’”3 Likewise, Ulf Zander refers to the “British post-l iberation rescue operation at Bergen-Belsen,” while Ellen  Ben- Sefer calls our attention to the “nurses involved in the rescue efforts” at the camp.4 Meanwhile, Hagit Lavsky notes that Brigadier Glyn Hughes of the British Second Army “organized rescue operations in Bergen-B elsen upon liberation.”5 Lastly, Ben Shephard ponders how “rescuers,” namely the liberators and aid workers alike, initially viewed the sick and starving survivors in the camps.6 For many, the concept of rescue is closely tied to liberation and relief efforts.

Should liberation be viewed as simply another form of rescue? Is it problematic to equate rescue operations with the act of liberation itself? This essay argues that while liberation and rescue helped save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, the two are not necessarily synonymous. Both the elements of choice and risk reveal stark differences between these two activities. Drawing distinctions between liberation and rescue can help us better appreciate the challenges and complexities faced by actors operating in either capacity.

Using the Bergen-B elsen concentration camp as a case study, this essay will compare the concepts of rescue and liberation in the context of the Holocaust. To begin, the topic of rescue will be placed in historical context, identifying how this category is typically defined by Holocaust researchers. Second, Bergen- Belsen will be introduced along with specific examples of the types of rescue operations that occurred at the camp. Third, the liberation of Bergen-B elsen will be examined. How and why was the camp liberated? What was the situation for the survivors in the immediate postwar period? Finally, this chapter concludes by contrasting liberation and rescue operations. How do the two activities compare and what might this reveal about the Holocaust?

Exclusivity of the Righteous Among the Nations

In 1953, the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, passed the Yad Vashem Law establishing the Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. Part of its function was to include “the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to save Jews.”7 The concept of the “righteous” has deep roots in ancient Jewish tradition. In biblical times the “nations” were the non- Israelite tribes. In short, any non- Jew who abided by the Seven Laws of Noah was considered a righteous gentile.8 In 1962, Yad Vashem established the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, which continues to be led by a Supreme Court judge, along with a panel of eminent Israelis that included Holocaust survivors.

Specific criteria must be met before one can qualify as Righteous Among the Nations. Actions must consist of “extending help in saving a life; endangering one’s own life; absence of reward, monetary or otherwise; and similar considerations which make the rescuers’ deeds stand out above and beyond what can be termed ordinary help.”9 Over the years the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous has made difficult and often controversial decisions in bestowing such an honour.10

Currently, more than twenty-s ix thousand people have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. However, does this mean that one should not be considered a Holocaust “rescuer” if unrecognized by Yad Vashem? Clearly, not all rescuers have been denoted by this honorific title. For example, since all Jews were targeted for destruction by the Nazi regime, escaping danger entirely was nearly impossible. For that reason, the choice to be a bystander was never an option for Jews. In contrast, bystanders could decide whether or not to intervene. Again, Jews had no such clear choice. Therefore, Yad Vashem does not recognize Jews as Righteous Among the Nations despite the fact that many clearly participated in the rescue of fellow Jews.

Moreover, Yad Vashem does not recognize those who gained financially from helping Jews. “Reward” rescuers do not meet their strict criteria. In other words, Righteous Among the Nations is an altruistic designation. Nevertheless, scholars have begun to challenge this type of categorization, arguing that it is far too simplistic as it ignores the complexity of certain situations.11 Unquestionably, rescue efforts can fall into grey zones.

Lastly, Yad Vashem designates only individuals and never groups. For example, the Dutch resistance is not labeled as Righteous Among the Nations despite their successful rescue operations. While individual members of resistance organizations can be recognized, they cannot be nominated as a collective. Nevertheless, the rescue efforts of a number of organizations were highly effective.

It is clear that for many Holocaust scholars the criteria presented by Yad Vashem are both narrow and stringent. To be considered Righteous Among the Nations, motivations for rescue must be altruistic, with the individual putting his or her life, and the lives of those around them, in jeopardy. As a result, there are those who helped Jews but are not deemed rescuers by Yad Vashem.

Rescue in Historical Context

According to Christopher Browning, scholars of the Holocaust have generally studied four broad categories of rescue activities.12 One category is international rescue, which relates to the role performed by global organizations and governments. For example, Œuvre de secours aux enfants (Children’s Aid Society) rescued Jewish refugee children from France and across Western Europe during the Holocaust. Similarly, between 1938 and 1940 child refugees fleeing Nazi persecution were admitted into the United Kingdom. Known as the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport), the operation rescued nearly ten thousand children, the majority Jews.

A second kind of recue activity operated at the national level. This involved governments protecting their Jewish populations during Nazi occupation. The most successful was the rescue of Jews in German-o ccupied Denmark. Danish authorities and citizens helped protect the vast majority of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, representing one of the highest survival rates in Europe.

A third type of rescue operation functioned at the group level. This involved small communities or underground organizations that worked together to help Jews escape maltreatment. In south- central France, for example, the commune of Le Chambon-s ur- Lignon became a refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazi regime. Likewise, the underground organization Żegota in Poland provided financial support, forged identity documents, and offered hiding places for Jewish men, women, and children.13

A fourth type of rescue activity involved the individual. This generally consisted of the solitary person jeopardizing his or her personal well- being to save Jews. Perhaps the best- known example is Oskar Schindler, who sheltered more than one thousand Jews in his factories located in Nazi- occupied Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

The most ideal type of rescue operation during the Holocaust was helping Jews escape German- occupied Europe.14 It was also the most difficult and the least likely form of rescue. Due to the dynamics of the war and Nazi occupation, there was a greater chance of emigration from Western Europe than in the East. Still, most European Jews found themselves trapped with no hope of escape.

If emigration was not an option, another possibility was for Jews to somehow evade their enemies within Nazi-o ccupied Europe.15 In this type of rescue operation, Jews might obtain false papers, allowing them to assume the identities of gentiles. Forgers, clergymen, and foreign diplomats could thus become rescuers as Jews attempted to conceal their identities within occupied lands.

Often the last resort was to physically hide. For example, some Jewish children were accepted into convents. In other instances, neighbors allowed Jews to hide on farms, in bunkers or barns. The most famous example is Anne Frank and her family. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, the Frank family hid in concealed rooms in the building where Anne’s father worked. Most Jews who hid from their persecutors, like Anne Frank, her sister, and mother, did not survive.

It is difficult to estimate the total number of rescuers during the Holocaust. While Yad Vashem has designated more than 26,000 individuals as rescuers, many have not and may never be identified. Some were killed during rescue operations and have never been recognized. For others, their stories have yet to be unearthed.

The total number of non- Jewish rescuers ranges from 50,000 to as high as 500,000 people.16 Mordecai Paldiel, the former director of the Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, estimates that approximately 250,000 European Jews were rescued by gentiles during the Holocaust.17 This figure, of course, pales in comparison to the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. When considering courageous acts of rescue it is critical to keep this stark contrast in mind. Far more Jews were killed than rescued in the Holocaust.

Like many of the examples of rescue listed above, liberation and relief efforts unquestionably saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Accordingly, liberators, like rescuers, are often viewed as moral counterweights to the brutality of the Holocaust. As the remainder of this chapter demonstrates, contrasting the challenges faced by rescuers and liberators can reveal essential differences. To uncover this complexity, let us turn to the example of Bergen- Belsen.

The “Horror Camp”

The Bergen- Belsen concentration camp was located on the Lüneburg Heath in northwest Germany. Originally built to house laborers, in 1940 the camp began accepting prisoners of war. By 1943 parts of the Bergen- Belsen complex were transformed into a concentration camp. Upon the directive of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the Schutzstaffel (ss) set up an “exchange camp” inside Bergen- Belsen.18 The German Foreign Office planned to exchange Jews for Germans interned by enemy nations or for much-n eeded foreign currency. As discussed below, the existence of the exchange camp in Bergen- Belsen became an opportunity for international rescue.

During its comparatively brief existence as a “concentration camp,” Bergen- Belsen held approximately 120,000 men, women, and children. At the time of its liberation in April 1945, there were nearly 60,000 prisoners in the camp, and many were terribly ill. Of the prisoners still alive when the Allies reached Bergen-B elsen, approximately 60 percent were Jews. The prisoners included an assortment of nationalities, with Poles and Russians making up the largest ethnic groups, and women making up slightly more than half of the prisoner population.

In Bergen- Belsen the death rate was incredibly high. At the time of liberation, thousands of withered corpses were strewn around the camp’s grounds as the crematorium was overtaxed by

  1. Bergen- Belsen environs, 1944. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

the number of dead. Between January and March 1945 approximately 35,000 people were killed at Bergen- Belsen.19 The death rate continued to accelerate, and in the month of March 1945, another 18,000 people were murdered in the camp. In total, 50,000 people died in the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp prior to Allied personnel arriving at the camp. Starvation and disease were the principal reasons for death.

Bergen- Belsen and International Rescue Efforts

Prior to British forces and their Canadian counterparts arriving to liberate Bergen-B elsen, there was opportunity for international rescue by Allied governments. Between July 1943 and December 1944 approximately 15,000 Jewish prisoners were brought to the “exchange camp” at Bergen-B elsen, including nearly 3,000 children. These inmates were temporarily exempted from deportation to the extermination centers in order that they might eventually be exchanged for Germans held abroad.

According to Rainer Schulze, three categories of Jews held at Bergen-B elsen were available for exchange and rescue.20 The categories consisted of the previously mentioned “exchange Jews,” a second group of Jews from either neutral countries or those allied

  1. Bergen- Belsen concentration camp, 1944. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

with Nazi Germany, and, lastly, Hungarian Jews who arrived by transport and whose release was being negotiated by journalist and lawyer Rudolf Kastner. Ultimately, in late 1944, more than 1,600 Jews from the Kastner transport arrived safely in Switzerland.21

As for the other two groups available for exchange, few Jews were ever rescued. For several reasons, saving Jews from deportation to the extermination camps was not a priority for Allied governments. First, the Allies generally viewed such exchanges as blackmail or extortion. Second, the Allies feared that negotiating with the Nazi regime would undermine the war effort both at home and at the front.22 Last, it was the belief of many that the best way to save as many Jews as possible was an outright victory over Nazi Germany. It was argued that anything that took focus away from the goal of winning the war was ultimately detrimental to the Allied cause.23

In the end, decisions made by the British Foreign Office, the U.S. State Department, and their respective intelligence agencies either delayed or thwarted the opportunity to save Jews at Bergen- Belsen.24 Of the nearly 15,000 prisoners available for rescue between 1943 and 1945, the ss released approximately 2,560 exchange Jews.25

  1. British soldiers accepting the surrender of a German officer in Bergen-B elsen. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft.

Schulze suggests that had the Allies made it a priority, many more Jews could have been rescued from the exchange camp at Bergen- Belsen.26 Due to this reluctance, the victims of Bergen- Belsen had to wait for Allied forces to liberate the camp.

The Liberation of Bergen- Belsen

Under the approval of Himmler, on April 12, 1945, Col. Hans Schmidt and other representatives from the First German Parachute Army crossed into British territory and revealed that inmates at a nearby camp were sick with typhus.27 The Germans were concerned that if any inmates escaped due to the fighting they might infect the local population. German representatives were led to the headquarters of the British Army’s VIII Corps at Winsen. Discussions regarding the handover of the camp were held between the VIII Corps chief of staff and the chief of staff of the First Parachute Army, Military Commandant Bergen. Signed on the morning of April 13, 1945, the agreement recognized a neutral area of forty- eight square kilometers around Bergen- Belsen and the nearby military training grounds. Subsequently, this led to the decision that the camp would come under the command of Lt. Col. R.I.G. Taylor of the British Army’s Sixty-Th ird Anti- Tank Regiment. Due to fighting in the vicinity of Bergen- Belsen, the Allies were delayed from entering the camp by two days.

On April 15, 1945, the Sixty- Third Anti- Tank Regiment arrived in the neutral zone set aside in the agreement. At 1500 hours, the leading party of Taylor’s regiment, the 249th (Oxfordshire Yeomanry) Battery, commanded by Maj. Benjamin Barnett, arrived at Bergen- Belsen. Lt. Col. Taylor instructed Capt. Derrick Sington and two other noncommissioned officers, Sgt. Eric Clyne and Lance Corporal Sidney Roberts, to enter the camp with an armored car equipped with a battery of loudspeakers. Entering the camp, Sington quickly announced that while the inmates were now free of Nazi tyranny, no one would be allowed to leave Bergen- Belsen.28


Before examining British relief efforts at Bergen- Belsen, let us consider the impetus, if any, for coming to the aid of Jews during the war. According to Yad Vashem, motivations for rescue must be altruistic because they often place an individual’s life, and those around them, in jeopardy. Did the fate of European Jews prompt the average British soldier to become involved in the war effort and subsequent liberation activities?

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Britons could read in national newspapers about the crimes of Nazi Germany. However, properly evaluating the scale of terror was difficult. Alan Rose was born into a Jewish family in Dundee, Scotland. He was a sergeant in the Seventh Armored Division when he and his men from the Third/Fourth County of London Yeomanry entered Bergen- Belsen. Rose recalls that his decision to enlist was “prompted, first of all, because whilst nobody knew what Hitler was doing, we all knew what terrible things were happening in Europe.”29 Certainly, news about the treatment of Jews in German-o ccupied Europe was being followed by various communities in Britain, although much was still to be discovered.

Rose remembers that during the war military personnel gradually became aware of the deportations and murder. “I had heard on the radio,” Rose explains, “on the bbc, that a concentration camp had been liberated in Eastern Europe. . . . One heard the horrors, but of course it was quite impossible to comprehend.”30 While news was being received by men at the front, grasping the enormity of devastation was a challenge. According to Rose,

I mean, we had no idea in those days what deportation meant. I mean, it was inconceivable to us still in those days. And, you must remember, I lived in a very small world: I lived in a tank, and I heard the bbc news every night. . . . But, at that time, we had no knowledge of the gas chambers and the genocidal intention of the Nazis. At least, I didn’t. I’m sure the Allied powers had. But, I’m the very lonely soldier sitting in a tank, with a very limited horizon.31

News of Nazi crimes certainly found its way to the men fighting at the front, albeit to a limited extent. For the average soldier in battle, securing victory as soon as possible was their priority. Additionally, surviving the war and returning home in one piece were often on most soldiers’ minds.

For most other personnel, saving or rescuing Jews was never a reason for enlistment. At sixteen years old, John Gourlay Noble of Edinburgh lied about his age and enlisted in the Scots Greys.32 In 1942 he joined the Special Air Service (sas) as a driver. When the sas stumbled upon Bergen- Belsen in April 1945, Noble admits to being oblivious about Hitler’s camp system.33 He was young, naïve, and when not busy with his military duties he was simply looking for a “good time.”34 Noble reveals that, unlike Rose, he rarely read the day’s news, even while on leave. The horrors of the war were enough. Recognizing the scale of the Holocaust occurred only years after the war.

In short, information regarding the suffering in Europe certainly existed, and many military personnel knew that Jews and other groups were being ill treated by the Nazi regime. However, it is also clear that most British military personnel had no prior understanding of Nazi policy; they were unacquainted with the function of Hitler’s camp system, and they were generally oblivious to the historical events that led to their formation. Therefore, it is fair to say that most British personnel did not enlist in the military to liberate Nazi camps or to save European Jews. “Nobody set out to liberate a concentration camp,” Rose explains. “So the word ‘liberator’ is a misnomer, in a sense. Either we were all liberators or we were not liberators, but nobody specifically spent his or her time thinking, ‘How am I going to liberate a concentration camp?’ First of all, we hardly knew that they existed. I didn’t.”35 In addition, the deliverance of inmates from Nazi camps in Europe was never an Allied military objective during the World War II.

Relief Efforts

Tending to the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of the survivors of Bergen- Belsen was largely the responsibility of the medical corps and chaplains of various denominations of the British Army. The tasks performed by army staff often went far beyond their typical duties. Military personnel found themselves facing conditions that they had not expected, and for which they were not prepared nor trained. As a result, chaplains often became involved in nonreligious activities, such as gathering clothes and medicine from the surrounding area, while medical personnel accepted jobs outside their typical obligations, such as the dispersal of food and water, as well as sanitation work.

The British were clearly ill prepared to handle the large number of survivors who needed urgent care. As the war in Europe continued, British Army staff at Bergen- Belsen were initially lacking personnel, supplies, equipment, facilities, and medications. Plans were soon devised to bury the dead in mass graves and to evacuate the living to the nearby Panzer Training School. Despite these efforts early on, headway was a constant struggle. Evacuation of the barracks was further complicated as healthier survivors intermingled with the ill and near dead.36 Consequently, military

  1. Feeding survivors in Bergen- Belsen after liberation. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

personnel were forced to make excruciating decisions regarding inmate prioritization.

Many of these problems were tackled by military authorities, such as Brigadier Glyn Hughes, deputy director of Medical Services. He arrived at Bergen- Belsen soon after the first Allied personnel entered the camp. Regarding which inmates would be given urgent treatment, Brigadier Hughes initiated a strategy of triage. He explains:

Under the conditions which existed it was obvious that thorough diagnosis and elaborate treatment of individual patients . . . would take up so much time that only a small fraction of them could be dealt with and that to the exclusion of the elementary care of the remainder. The principle adopted was that the greatest number of lives would be saved by placing those who had a reasonable chance of survival under conditions in which their own tendency to recover could be aided by simple nursing and suitable feeding, and in which further infection could be prevented.37

Hughes made a judgment to offer a concerted form of assistance that would guarantee the highest numbers of people were saved. Survivors were separated into three categories: the first two included those who would likely survive and those who would likely die regardless of the care they received; the third were those for whom immediate care could mean the difference between life and death. Thus, the medical teams did not select those who needed the most urgent care. On the contrary, it was a calculated decision to select for evacuation only those who stood the best chance of surviving with only basic medical care. As a result, those who had suffered the most, and who were less likely to survive the next few hours or days, were not necessarily given priority.

Subsequently, stretcher- bearers were dispatched to bring selected survivors from the barracks to the nearby Panzer Training School for medical care. Again, knowing which of the inmates was to be removed from the barracks created yet another problem. In his moving account, Lt. Col. Mervin Willett Gonin, the officer commanding the Eleventh Light Field Ambulance revealed:

The mo went into each hut and marked on the forehead of each patient a cross to indicate to the bearers that this patient would be moved. The mo made no attempt to fix a diagnosis— all he did was decide whether the patient had any chance of living if he or she were moved or what the chance of survival might be if the patient were left in the camp for another week. It was a heart- rending job and amounted to telling hundreds of poor wretches that they were being left to die. But, as I have said, the individual did not count.38 Lt. Col. Gonin, like Brigadier Hughes, experienced the agonizing decisions of prioritizing the sick based on which survivor had the best chance of surviving with limited care. Those barely clinging to life were left behind. The survivors who had the strength would cry out, desperate to be saved. It became an incredibly difficult situation for those making the decisions.

A relief worker with the British Red Cross observed some of these painful choices firsthand. “This was almost an impossible proposition,” Myrtle Beardwell recalls about a doctor who had to make a number of these determinations. “Those whom he

  1. Women and children, many of whom are suffering from typhus, typhoid, and dysentery, in a barracks at Bergen- Belsen after liberation. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft.

knew had only a few hours to live he had to leave.”39 Survivors begged and clamored to get out in hopes of receiving medical attention. According to Beardwell, the situation became so difficult that “they had to have decoy stretchers at one door of the hut whilst the doctor went in at the other and quickly grabbed a sick person.”40 As these heart-w renching scenes continued, the short-s taffed British medical teams were also faced with issues involving their own health.

Indeed, medical personnel also had to be cognizant of the illnesses present in Bergen-B elsen. While precautions were adopted to guard against diseases in the camp, British medical personnel still caught various illnesses. Attached to the Thirty- Second Casualty Clearing Station, Lt. Col. F. M. Lipscomb revealed that at least ten Royal Army Medical Corps (ramc) personnel contracted typhus while working at the camp. Furthermore, another twenty- three German nurses, ordered by the British to assist at the camp, also contracted typhus. And while none of the ramc staff died, two of the German nurses succumbed to their illnesses.41 Indeed, working in close proximity to the dead and diseased regularly put medical teams at risk.

Dr. D. T. Prescott of the Eleventh Light Field Ambulance similarly highlighted the danger of working near such illnesses in unsanitary surroundings. On a nightly basis, personnel from this unit visited the hospital at Bergen-B elsen to help in the removal of the dead. Prescott explains that typhus “took a toll, of our Unit 10% contracted the disease. . . . [T]hey were all seriously ill for about a week and then recovered only slowly after several debilitating weeks.”42 From his unit at least twenty men became sick, although all, fortunately, survived the ordeal.

British military personnel also had great difficulty relating to the people they were helping. The language used to describe the survivors often betrayed the life-s aving work they were providing. “Human reactions to the unthinkable,” scholars George M. Kren and Leon Rappoport remind us, “are inevitably primitive and visceral.”43 Those working in the camp were shocked and even disgusted by the gaunt, half-n aked inmates in tattered prison uniforms. In addition, language barriers and glaring cultural differences made it challenging for many personnel to relate to and comprehend the survivors they were trying to help. Even when some of those barriers were removed, the encounter with survivors was still trying.

Leslie Hardman was born in 1913 in Glynneath, Wales, to a Polish father and a Russian mother. After a series of attacks on Jewish families by mineworkers in South Wales, the family moved to Liverpool. Hardman later became a chaplain in the British Army. Arriving at Bergen-B elsen two days after its liberation, he did as much as anyone to support the survivors. Reverend Hardman recalls his first encounter with a survivor at the camp. He writes:

I shall always remember the first person I met. It was a girl, and I thought she was a negress. Her face was dark brown, and I afterwards learnt that this was because her skin was in the process of healing, after being burnt. When she saw me she made as though to throw her arms around me; but with the instinct of self- preservation, I jumped back.

Instantly, I felt ashamed. . . . I looked at her; fear, compassion and shame were struggling for mastery within me; but she was the more composed of the two. We walked into the compound, keeping our voluntary “no- man’s- land” between us.44

This might have been a moment for a Holocaust survivor to embrace her liberator. While many inmates had suffered for years in the camps and grown accustomed to seeing one another at their worst, this was clearly not the case for British personnel. Indeed, few had seen so many distressed people in such an enclosed area, surrounded by decomposing corpses. Hardman’s reaction was an illustration of a natural defensive instinct. He spoke of the incident numerous times in interviews, always admitting embarrassment.45

British doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel completed a number of different tasks in Bergen-B elsen. They arrived at the camp unprepared, understaffed, and faced with conditions they had never before encountered. Their assignments were challenging, and some suffered mightily because of the work: dysentery, isolation, depression, and feelings of inadequacy were common. And yet, most accepted their tasks willingly, working with the resources they had around them.

Survivors in the Aftermath

For survivors in camps like Bergen- Belsen, liberation did not mean freedom in the way we normally use the term. Initially, the survivors were not given autonomy to leave the camp and go wherever they saw fit. Instead, in the weeks, and for some, in the months and even years that followed, they continued to live behind the barbed wire in the camps. When places like Bergen- Belsen became Displaced Persons (dp) camps, the survivors were still guarded— only by men in different uniforms.

Moreover, dp camps like Bergen-B elsen were often unpleasant places, especially for Jews who often discovered that they now lived alongside people who had collaborated with Nazi Germany or, in some rare instances, had even fought in German army uniforms. British officials at Bergen- Belsen also refused to recognize Jews as a distinct group, so Polish Jews were treated as Poles and Hungarian Jews as Hungarians. This led to serious tension, animosity, and in- fighting between the various groups. Consequently, since there was generally nowhere else to go, life could be rather grim, mainly for Jewish survivors of the camps.46

British forces were ill equipped to handle a camp of nearly sixty thousand people. Also, the war continued for another three weeks. For the British, the solution seemed obvious: retain as many camp staff as possible. While the ss were soon disarmed and arrested, soldiers from both the German and Hungarian armies remained on site to guard the camp.47 In the days following liberation, several starving survivors were shot dead, mainly by Hungarian soldiers who guarded the kitchen and manned the watchtowers under British supervision. Later on, the Hungarians were employed for a variety of other roles. Therefore it was often difficult for survivors to feel secure following their liberation.

It was not only the use of German and Hungarian army personnel that so unnerved the survivors of Bergen-B elsen. It was also the employment of German doctors and nurses in the camp hospital.48 To alleviate the overwhelming need for additional personnel, local German military doctors and nurses were used in the camp to assist the British medical teams.49 The psychological impact on the survivors was profound. While the treatment they received was generally quite good, the effect of seeing doctors, some still in German army uniforms, was traumatic for many survivors.

If a survivor was healthy enough, why not simply allow him or her to leave the camp? Within weeks of their liberation, many non- Jews did return home. So, too, did Jews from Western Europe. The situation was quite different for Jews from Eastern Europe. For many of these survivors, returning home was generally unthinkable. The fear of antisemitic attacks and the haunting memories of what happened to their family and friends made this an unrealistic prospect. Many survivors wanted to leave Europe in pursuit of a life in a new Jewish state in Palestine. But, how was that possible? Britain had long maintained a policy of limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine, which they had done throughout the 1930s. The British had argued that the interests of the region would be better served by maintaining an Arab majority. Paradoxically,

  1. German nurses from nearby hospitals, who were conscripted to work in the camp, wash and disinfect survivors in Bergen- Belsen. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Madalae Fraser.

the British helped save Jews by liberating them from the concentration camps but then turned around and basically re- imprisoned them in the immediate postwar period.

For many survivors, the way forward was Aliyah Bet, the code name given to illegal immigration by Jews to Mandatory Palestine. By 1948 more than one hundred thousand people had taken this route, including more than seventy thousand Holocaust survivors. However, the journey was not an easy one. Over 90 percent of the ships on their way to Palestine were intercepted by the Royal Navy. The refugees seized were moved to detention camps. By 1948, for example, the British held more than fifty thousand Jewish refugees in internment camps on Cyprus.

In rare instances, British liberators of Bergen-B elsen were later assigned to search these ships bearing Jewish Holocaust survivors in the postwar period. It was an astonishing turn of events. Men who a few years earlier had entered camps like Bergen-B elsen later searched ships to prevent those very same survivors—n ow refugees—from arriving in the only place they  felt they could call home. While some of these soldiers merely

  1. British soldiers transfer the refugees from the Exodus 1947 to the deportation ships. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Murray T. Aronoff.

claimed they were doing their jobs, for others it created a crisis of conscience.50


Should liberation be viewed as another type of rescue? As has been demonstrated above, there are commonalities between rescue and liberation. For example, both were attempts to aid Jews and alleviate some of their hardship. Indeed, upon liberation, relief teams rushed into camps like Bergen-B elsen to provide food and medicine. To the best of their ability, military personnel removed inmates from the squalor of the barracks and helped sanitize the facilities, with these efforts saving many lives. Likewise, Holocaust rescuers often provided food and shelter to Jews in a variety of situations. In times of distress, both liberators and rescuers attempted to make a positive impact on those in desperate need.

Furthermore, rescue and liberation activities loom large in the public imagination. The rescuer and the liberator, rightly or wrongly, have become moral counterweights in one of the darkest periods of human history. During the Holocaust, they were the ones who worked in constructive capacities, demonstrating hope and humanitarianism in an otherwise bleak time.

Still, liberation should not be conflated with rescue, for they are not synonymous.51 Indeed, there are important distinctions to be made between the two activities. The threat of danger is frequently referenced when discussing the work of Holocaust rescuers. Many individuals clearly put themselves and their loved ones at risk while attempting acts of rescue. This is primarily why Yad Vashem places an emphasis on the degree to which an individual endangers his or her own life. However, as Agnes Grunwald-S pier has argued, some “rescuers did a great deal without doing anything so risky.”52 While this should not diminish their efforts, there were a range of activities during which the threat to the rescuer was somewhat limited. Moreover, as discussed above, British medical personnel also put themselves at risk while working in close proximity with survivors suffering from a variety of ailments.

Yet the question of danger is still an important one when distinguishing between rescue and liberation. Rather than focus on the rescuer and liberator, a better distinction can be made regarding the rescued and liberated. When a Jew was rescued during the Holocaust, the threat of Nazi persecution remained. In other words, rescue was always temporary. The danger did not evaporate; rather, it was a momentary reprieve. For example, a “rescued” Jew could later be revealed to be hiding on the property of a gentile, a false identity could one day be discovered, even those who emigrated could conceivably be sent back to a place of persecution. However, when a Jew was liberated by Allied forces, the danger, the direct threat posed by the Nazi regime, was typically removed. In short, rescue falls along a continuum, one where peril constantly waits, lingers, lurks. The act of liberation, in contrast, is an end in and of itself. While challenges still remained for those liberated at camps like Bergen- Belsen, their issues had little to do with any continued threat posed by Nazism. In camp after camp across Europe, Allied armies emerged victorious, effectively removing the danger posed by the Nazi regime.

Furthermore, when considering the agents of liberation and rescue, we can make another important distinction. Choice plays a significant role in Yad Vashem’s decision to designate an individual as Righteous Among the Nations. A rescuer, like a bystander, has a choice to make—h owever difficult. While some operations were less risky, most acts made by rescuers put their lives and the lives of others in some degree of jeopardy. As David P. Gushee explains,

Rescuers were those who chose to abandon relative safety and throw their lot with the Jews. Their decision to work for Jewish survival meant that their own survival was threatened. In the eyes of the Nazis, the rescuers’ decision to help Jews reduced them to the status of Jews. . . . Once embarked on rescue, then, the Righteous were also forced to redirect their lives toward the quest for survival— both for themselves and their Jewish charges. . . . The fight for survival required that rescuers practice a most earthly ethic. They needed to learn how to be cunning and clever, how to lie and deceive, how to operate by stealth and by night, sometimes even to kill.53

Regardless of the level of risk, rescuers made the dangerous decision to become involved in the aiding of Jews.

Meanwhile, the majority of liberators made no such choice. We have already discussed that most British liberators did not enlist to help save Jews from Nazi persecution. As far as the liberation of Bergen- Belsen, military personnel received instructions from headquarters that a nearby camp had been surrendered, and they were instructed to take charge of it. As Ben Shephard reveals, Lt. Col. R.I.G. Taylor, who became commandant of Bergen-B elsen, was “less than overjoyed” at the assignment.54 His desire was to continue to fight in the war. Indeed, military personnel often wanted no part of the liberation of Nazi camps. It was generally viewed as humanitarian work and not part of the war effort. As a result, the assignment at Bergen-B elsen was not something most soldiers requested. The majority of military personnel were stationed at the camp because of direct instructions from headquarters. Effectively, the decision had already been made for them.

Therefore, due to the threat posed to Jews even after rescue and the choices made by the rescuers themselves, liberation should not be conflated with acts of rescue. The elements of choice and motivation, along with the protracted threat of danger, clearly distinguishes rescue from liberation. While both activities belong to the category of helping Jews during the Holocaust, significant differences remain.

Still, for many Holocaust survivors, liberation did not mean absolute freedom but a protracted experience of internment. In the Bergen- Belsen dp camp, months after liberation, conditions were still lacking. A U.S. Army lieutenant perhaps put it most succinctly. Lt. Abraham Klausner was the first Jewish chaplain to enter the Dachau concentration camp after its liberation. He was instrumental in establishing services for survivors and bringing their problems to the attention of the wider world.

After the war in Europe ended, Klausner visited fourteen displaced persons camps in Germany. In June 1945 he submitted a report concerning the state of the survivors in the dp camps. He wrote, “Liberated but not free, that is the paradox of the Jew. In the concentration camp, his whole being was consumed with the hope of salvation. That hope was his life, for that he was willing to suffer. . . . [But] no new source of hope has been given him. Suffering continues to be his badge.”55 Indeed, by liberating Europe, Allied armies put an end to Nazi tyranny, but were unable to bring an end to Jewish suffering.

Questions for Further Discussion

  • What might be some differences between rescue during wartime and rescue immediately after wartime?
  • Traditional ideas of Holocaust rescue involve a friend, neighbor, or perhaps stranger providing relief or protection— despite a danger to themselves. How is this similar/different to military victors providing aid?
  • What challenges would survivors of the Holocaust have been facing immediately after liberation? What needs did they have? (Think about physical, emotional, psychological, and other types of needs.)
  • Consider these factors for determining if a rescuer is “righteous”: extending help to save a life, risking one’s own life, absence of a reward, and verifiable proof of the events. Do these requirements seem reasonable? Would you add others?
  • You can learn more (including reading featured stories and exploring the database of Righteous Rescuers) at: http:// www .yadvashem .org /righteous .html. A sad fact is that most rescue attempts were unsuccessful. Even with help, the circumstances working against Jews and other persecuted individuals and groups were, most often, simply insurmountable. While Yad Vashem also recognizes rescue attempts that were unsuccessful, there is frequently no one to testify to these efforts. What does this information add to our understanding of Holocaust rescue?
  • What other Holocaust rescuers have you heard about? What category would you place them in?
  • Because British military personnel and “liberators” were unaware of what they would encounter in the concentration camps, they were also unprepared for it. Discuss the ways in which liberators were likely unprepared (supply-w ise, emotionally, and so on). Consider contemporary disaster relief efforts. What kind of training and supplies do today’s relief workers have that the military liberators did not?
  • The example of medical teams choosing not to treat those who were least likely to survive is an example of a moral dilemma posed by the Holocaust. Lessons and materials regarding “choiceless choices” in the Holocaust can be found at www .facinghistory .org.
  • Communication and transportation resources were limited at this time. Discuss how the British troops would have gone about requesting needed supplies, and how long these would take to reach them. Due to the urgency of the situation, the troops often “liberated” supplies from nearby German towns. The townspeople were required to bring food, linens, clothing, and other items. How do you think the liberators justified these actions?

Do you believe these actions were justified? Why/why not?

  • One of the reasons survivors were “re-i mprisoned” was because they had no place else to go. As explained in the text, they could not or would not return to their prewar homes. Immigration to Palestine was severely limited. What were the immigration policies of other nations at this time? Research the refugee and immigration policies in the post–W orld War II period (1945– 48) in the United States, Australia, South American countries, and others.
  • The years spent by liberated Jews in the dp camps are a fascinating period. Learn more by visiting the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website (ushmm .org) and searching terms such as “displaced persons,” “displaced persons oral history,” “dp camp vocational schools,” “dp camp weddings,” “dp camp births.” Yad Vashem has an online exhibition with stunning photographs of the dp experience: http://www. yadvashem .org /yv /en /exhibitions /dp _camps /index .asp.


  1. For recent studies, see Dan Stone, The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath (New Haven ct: Yale University Press, 2015); John J. Michalczyk, Filming the End of the Holocaust: Allied Documentaries, Nuremberg and the Liberation of the Concentration Camps (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014); and Mark Celinscak, Distance from the Belsen Heap: Allied Forces and the Liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).
  2. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961) and Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933– 1945 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993).
  3. Elly Trepman, “Rescue of the Remnants: The British Emergency Medical Relief Operation in Belsen Camp, 1945,” Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps 147 (2001): 282.
  4. Ulf Zander, “To Rescue or Be Rescued: The Liberation of Bergen- Belsen and the White Buses in British and Swedish Historical Cultures,” in The Holocaust on Post- war Battlefields: Genocide as Historical Culture, ed. Klas-G öran Karlsson and Ulf Zander (Malmö: Sekel, 2006), 353; and Ellen Ben-S efer, “Surviving Survival: Nursing Care at Bergen-B elsen, 1945,” Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing 26, no. 3 (March– May 2009): 102.
  5. Hagit Lavsky, New Beginnings: Holocaust Survivors in Bergen- Belsen and the British Zone in Germany, 1945– 1950 (Detroit mi: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 97.
  6. Ben Shephard, The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 101.
  7. Mordecai Paldiel, The Righteous Among the Nations (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2007), xi.
  8. The Seven Laws of Noah are as follows: 1) Do not deny God; 2) Do not blaspheme God; 3) Do not murder; 4) Do not engage in illicit sexual relations; 5) Do not steal; 6) Do not eat of a live animal; 7) Establish courts/legal system to ensure law obedience, https:// www .jewishvirtuallibrary .org /the -seven -noachide -laws.
  9. Moshe Bejski, “The Righteous Among the Nations and Their Part in the Rescue of Jews,” in The Catastrophe of European Jews, ed. Yisrael Gutman and Livia Rothkirchen (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976), 584.
  10. For example, Richard L. Rubenstein, “Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a ‘Righteous Gentile’?,” International Journal on World Peace 17, no. 2 (June 2000): 33– 46.
  11. For example, see Istvan Pal Adam, “Tipping the Rescuer? The Financial Aspects of the Budapest Building Managers’ Helping Activity during the Last Phase of the Second World War,” S:I.M.O.N.– Shoah: Intervention. Methods. Documentation 2 (2015): 4–1 4. Also see Adam’s Budapest Building Managers and the Holocaust in Hungary (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave 2016), esp. chap. 5.
  12. Christopher R. Browning, “From Humanitarian Relief to Holocaust Rescue: Tracy Strong Jr., Vichy Internment Camps, and the Maison des Roches in Le Chambon,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 30, no. 2 (Fall 2016): 211.
  13. Browning, “From Humanitarian Relief to Holocaust Rescue,” 212.
  14. David P. Gushee, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: A Christian Interpretation (Minneapolis mn: Fortress Press, 1994), 76.
  15. Gushee, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, 76.
  16. Gushee, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, 9.
  17. Mordecai Paldiel, Saving the Jews: Amazing Stories of Men and Women who Defied the Final Solution (Rockville md: Schreiber, 2000), 9.
  18. More can be learned about the various camps within Bergen-B elsen here: https:// www .ushmm .org /wlc /en /article .php ?ModuleId = 10007778.
  19. Paul Weindling, “Belsenitis: Liberating Belsen, Its Hospitals, unrra, and Selection for Re- emigration, 1945– 1948,” Science in Context 19, no. 3 (2006): 403.
  20. Rainer Schulze, “‘Keeping Very Clear of Any ‘Kuh- Handel’: The British Foreign Office and the Rescue of Jews from Bergen- Belsen,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 19, no. 2 (Fall 2005): 229.
  21. Randolph L. Braham, “Rescue Operations in Hungary: Myths and Realities,” East European Quarterly 38, no. 2 (2004): 175.
  22. Schulze, “‘Keeping Very Clear of Any ‘Kuh- Handel,’” 231.
  23. Hansard Parliamentary Debates, 5th Series 389 (May 19, 1943), col. 1120. In particular, see the remarks by Osbert Peake, undersecretary of state.
  24. Max Paul Friedman, “The U.S. State Department and the Failure to Rescue: New Evidence on the Missed Opportunity at Bergen- Belsen,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 19, No. 1 (Spring 2005): 27; Schulze, “‘Keeping Very Clear of Any ‘Kuh- Handel,’” 243.
  25. Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation, Bergen- Belsen: Wehrmacht pow Camp, 1940– 1945- Concentration Camp, 1943– 1945-D isplaced Persons Camp, 1945– 1950, project coordinator, Marlis Buchholz (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2010), 185.
  26. Schulze, “‘Keeping Very Clear of Any ‘Kuh- Handel,’” 244.
  27. Paul Kemp, “The Liberation of Bergen- Belsen Concentration Camp in April 1945: The Testimony of Those Involved,” Imperial War Museum Review 5 (1991): 30–3 1. 28. Derrick Sington, Belsen Uncovered (London: Duckworth, 1946), 7– 11.
  28. Alan Rose, “Transcript of Interview with the Holocaust Documentation Project,” sv257-s v259, March 17, 1982, Canadian Jewish Congress Records, Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives, Montreal, 2.
  29. Rose, “Transcript of Interview with the Holocaust Documentation Project,” 5.
  30. Rose, “Transcript of Interview with the Holocaust Documentation Project,” 5–6 .
  31. Gavin Mortimer, Stirling’s Men (London: Cassell, 2004), 101.
  32. Interview with John Gourlay Noble, March 7, 1987, Imperial War Museum (hereafter, iwm), London, UK, 18175.
  33. Interview with John Gourlay Noble.
  34. Rose, “Transcript of Interview with the Holocaust Documentation Project,” xx.
  35. Ben Shephard, After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-B elsen, 1945 (New York: Schocken, 2005), 53– 6.
  36. Brigadier Glyn Hughes, “Report on Medical Aspects of Belsen,” 10, Contemporary Medical Archives Collection, Wellcome Library, Royal Army Medical Corps (hereafter, ramc), London, UK, 1218/2/13.
  37. Private papers of Lieutenant Colonel M. W. Gonin dso, iwm, Department of Documents, 3713.
  38. Myrtle F. Beardwell, Aftermath (Ilfracombe, UK: A. H. Stockwell, 1945), 39.
  39. Beardwell, Aftermath, 39.
  40. Account given to Royal Society of Medicine by Col. Lipscomb, June 4, 1945, National Archives, War Office, London, UK, 222/201.
  41. T. Prescott, “Reflections of 40 Years Ago— Belsen, 1945,” Contemporary Medical Archives Collection, Wellcome Library, ramc 1790.
  42. George M. Kren and Leon Rappoport, The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980), 125.
  43. Leslie H. Hardman and Cecily Goodman, The Survivors: The Story of the Belsen Remnant (1958; London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2009), 2.
  44. Interview with Leslie Hardman, September 22, 1997, iwm, Sound Archive, 17636.
  45. Hadassah Rosensaft, Yesterday: My Story (New York: Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Survivors’ Memoirs Project, 2005), 58.
  46. Private Papers of E. Fisher, February 1, 1995, iwm, Department of Documents, 3056.
  47. For a more detailed discussion of these debates, see Susan Armstrong-R eid and David Murray, Armies of Peace: Canada and the unrra Years (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 249– 86.
  48. Lyle M. Creelman, “With the unrra in Germany,” Canadian Nurse 43, no. 7 (January 1947): 556.
  49. Arieh O’Sullivan, “Dad’s Army: John Burrows’ Search for His Non-J ewish Father’s Machal Exploits,” Jerusalem Post Magazine, May 18, 2001, 10.
  50. My thanks to Paul Morrow and Istvan Pal Adam for their input.
  51. Agnes Grunwald- Spier, The Other Schindlers: Why Some People Chose to Save Jews in the Holocaust (Stroud, UK: History Press, 2010), 152.
  52. Gushee, The Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, 89– 90.
  53. Shephard, After Daybreak, 34.
  54. Abraham J. Klausner, “A Detailed Report on the Liberated Jew,” June 24, 1945, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, RP068.

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