Bergen-Belsen – A Son Remembers

Today, I read a series of incredible tweets by Daniel Finkelstein (@dannythefink) about his mother’s release from Bergen-Belsen Camp 75 years ago. I am sharing them here exactly how he tweeted them.

“This week I will be tweeting about my mother’s release from Belsen, 75 years ago.

75 years ago today, my grandmother Margarethe Wiener appeared before German medical examiner at Bergen-Belsen to prove she was medically fit to be used in a prisoner exchange. She was almost too weak to stand but with freedom at stake for her girls she somehow managed to pass. 

The Germans wished to avoid the allied countries seeing how ill and weak the Belsen prisoners were. 20 January 1945.

At 9 am on the 21st January 1945, my grandmother and her three girls, Ruth and Eva (my aunts) and Mirjam (my Mum then 11 years old) are taken from their barracks and placed in a quarantine area. Then they were taken for a shower. The stood waiting not knowing what would come out.

It was water. They are given a meal. It is soup as usual, but it had “actual bits of potato in it” my mother remembers. It’s a proper train not a cattle truck. Their false Paraguayan passports, even though they have expired seem to have done the trick.

The documents have made them eligible for exchange with Germans who wish to return from allied occupied countries. 50,000 people died in the supposed exchange camp of Belsen. But little more than 300 people are ever exchanged. This train carries some of these few.

But the story isn’t over yet.

January 22nd 1945. My Aunt Ruth had been keeping a diary. She’d won a pocket one in a magazine competition just before arrest. So she made little short entries, just a few words because the pencil was tiny and if it ran out she wouldn’t be able to get another one.

She had recorded camp events such as “special meal: peas soup” or somehow making a homemade belt for my mother’s 11th birthday. Days of sickness and many punishments are recalled. On 20 December 1944 through the barbed wire Ruth notices friends in the next door camp section.

She writes in her diary. “Margot and Anne Frank in the other camp”.

On this day, 22 January 1945 as the train heads to freedom, she writes only “train trip via Berlin”.

On 23rd January 1945 there is a calamity. The Germans decide they have too many people on the train. More than half will have to leave the train before freedom in Switzerland. My Aunt records them in her diary as being at Ravensbruck camp on this day.

My mum remembers it as bitter cold and that expulsion from the train surely meant death for them all.  By this point my grandmother was desperately weak and ill. An SS Guard comes through their carriage and says to the “Off!”.

Ruth (the oldest sister) says they cannot get off. Their mother is too ill to move. They cannot move her. The guard pauses, shrugs, says “Stay then” and passes on to the next carriage. In this moment their lives are saved.

24 January 1945. There is one more day before the train reaches freedom. Today some more of the prisoners are moved to a civilian internment camp, where many survive the war, but some do not. The Wiener family continues to the border. Tomorrow will come the end of the story.

25 January 1945 the train crosses into Switzerland. Margarethe has sacrificed everything, given every scrap of food to her children, protected them against all but she has seen her girls to freedom.

My grandfather is in New York securing the supply of his library on the Nazis, which is to provide one of the main sources of evidence at the Nuremberg trials. A telegram has been sent to him carrying the news.

Margarethe died at 1:15 am on 26th February (I think Daniel Finkelstein meant January here). Her daughters sail to America and all remember the moment they see the Statue of Liberty. Mirjam meets my father, a survivor himself of deportation to Serbia. She becomes a maths teacher and together they have a happy and long life.

She was never bitter and neither was he. They loved life and freedom and this country. So it’s traditional to finish a thread with the word ends/. But at this moment of freedom I finish the thread with begins/.”

(NOTE: Daniel Finkelstein’s grandfather is Dr. Alfred Wiener, founder of the Wiener Library (London and Tel Aviv)).

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