Essay from MOMENT MAGAZINE

Menachem Rosensaft

When my mother died in 1997 at the age of 85, I thought I knew everything there was to know about her. Born Hadassah, or Ada, Bimko on August 26, 1912, in Sosnowiec, Poland, to Hasidic parents, she studied medicine in France and became a dentist, returning to her home town to marry and have a child. Upon her arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau in August, 1943, her parents, her husband and her five-and-a-half-year-old son were immediately murdered in the gas chambers.

Ever since I was a small child, I had known that my elegant, soft-spoken, dark-haired mother with her warm smile and twinkling eyes was a heroine. I’d heard many stories—not from her, as she did not speak much about herself—but from friends of my parents and sometimes from strangers. I remember women coming up to my mother at survivor gatherings and saying: “Dr. Bimko, you don’t remember me, but you saved my life.â€? That, I found out, was because when she had been assigned to work in the Birkenau infirmary by the infamous SS Dr. Josef Mengele, she had saved the lives of fellow inmates by performing rudimentary surgeries for them, camouflaging their wounds and sending them out of the barracks on work detail in advance of selections. When we would go to Israel, my mother would get together with groups of young people who would introduce their spouses and children to her as if she was their mother. That, I understood, was because she and a small group of other women had managed to keep 149 Jewish children alive in the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany from December 1944 until liberation by British troops in April 1945.

Early this summer, I flew to Germany for a weekend to review the contents of a new museum soon to be opened on the grounds of Bergen-Belsen. It was a bright sunny day and Wilfried Wiedemann, head of the Lower Saxony Foundation responsible for the maintenance of the Memorial Site of Bergen-Belsen, picked me up at the Hanover airport at about noon. During the 45-minute drive from airport to the camp, we chatted. I asked him whether he knew anything about a film I had read about in Ben Shephard’s outstanding After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945, which was published in 2005. Apparently, my mother had been featured in a British newsreel in late April 1945. I had never even known that such a newsreel existed. Certainly my mother had never mentioned it.

Wiedemann smiled broadly. “Not only do I know about this newsreel,â€? he said, “but we have it in our archives. We are including the part featuring your mother in our permanent exhibition about the liberation. Would you like to see it?â€?

I had always been able to imagine my mother as a girl, as a university student, as a young wife and mother before the outbreak of the Second World War. And I had no difficulty seeing her as the only woman in the senior leadership of the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen that was set up by the British liberators in former military barracks near the concentration camp. But somehow, even though I always understood intellectually that she had demonstrated tremendous courage against seemingly insurmountable odds and under unspeakable conditions, I could not transpose my images of my mother into the actual setting of the Shoah.

Yes, I told Wiedemann, trying to remain calm. I wanted to see it. Desperately and as soon as possible, I added to myself.

We arrived at Bergen-Belsen, now a wide grassy field above the mass graves, punctuated by two monuments: one Jewish, erected in 1946 in the center to the left, the other a tall obelisk at the far end in front of a wall with inscriptions in numerous languages. The clean, windswept expanse is nothing like the Bergen-Belsen my parents knew, the one that by the winter of 1945 was overflowing with thousands upon thousands of Jews who had been shipped there from camps in Poland.

Outside the gate to the mass graves sits a small one-story complex with a temporary museum, archives and an educational center. The new permanent museum, which should be finished by next spring, is being built to the right of the entrance.

While Wiedemann was talking to the young woman who is the curator of the video archive, I found myself thinking of some of the details of my mother’s life that I had discovered since her death. “Ada walked from block to block, found the children, took them, lived with them…. The children were very small and sick, and we had to wash them, clothe them, calm them and feed them,â€? her fellow inmate Hela Los Jafe said of my mother in Sisters in Sorrow: Voices of Care in the Holocaust, a 1998 book by Roger A. Ritvo and Diane M. Plotkin.

“Most of them were orphans, and she was like a mother to them…. Most of them were sick with terrible indigestion, dysentery and diarrhea, and just lay on the bunks; they couldn’t do anything else…. There was little food, but somehow Ada managed to get some special food and white bread from the Germans… Later, there was typhus… Ada was the one who could get injections, chocolate, pills and vitamins. I don’t know how she did it. Although most of the children were sick, thanks to Ada nearly all of them survived…â€?
One of those children, Hetty Verolme, had recently written a memoir, The Children’s House of Belsen. In January 1945, Hetty was almost 15, old enough to be considered an adult by the Germans. The inmates of her barracks were being evacuated to another camp. She remembers my mother, whom she called the doctor, taking her by the hand to ask the camp commandant if she could remain with the other children. “After he had scrutinized me,â€? Hetty writes, “he nodded his approval to the doctor and barked ‘Los!’ (Get going). Before he could change his mind, the doctor and I ran for our lives back to the children.â€?
I had felt a pang of envy reading Hetty Verolme’s account. Like most sons and daughters of survivors, I had always lived in safety, in comfort. I grew up first in a small town in Switzerland and then on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. My parents never had to rescue me from mortal peril. I do not share, could not share in the bond that was formed between Hetty and my mother that January day in 1945. Holding the young girl’s hand, my mother had gone with her to confront inexorable evil. And having prevailed, they had run back together to the relative shelter of the children’s barracks.

I was never able to imagine where my mother had found the strength to save others rather than focusing on her own survival. How could she not have been overcome by grief? Was her devotion to the children at Bergen-Belsen her way of coping with her inability to protect her own son? Was it that she felt she had nothing left to lose? These are only some of the questions I had never dared to ask her when I had the chance.
Wiedemann took me on a hard-hat tour of the new museum. We wandered through the partially completed structure, discussing the exhibits being planned to educate visitors about the concentration camp, the liberation and the Displaced Persons camp. Finally, we went to an old building and into a small featureless room in the archive, which was equipped with a VCR and a television-sized screen.

While the curator set up the video, I felt a sense of trepidation. I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that when British troops had entered Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, more than 10,000 bodies lay scattered about the camp, and the 58,000 surviving inmates—the overwhelming majority of whom were Jews—were suffering from a combination of typhus, tuberculosis, dysentery, extreme malnutrition and a host of other diseases. Most were too weak to walk. Two days later, the British appointed my mother—who spoke fluent French and was able to communicate with the British officers—to organize and head a group of doctors and nurses from among the survivors to help care for the thousands of critically ill inmates. For weeks on end, she and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other volunteers, only a few of whom had any medical training, worked round the clock with British military medical personnel. Despite their desperate efforts, nearly 14,000 people died at Bergen-Belsen during the two months followings the liberation.

In After Daybreak, I discovered the recollection of Lt. Colonel James Johnston, the Senior Medical Officer at Belsen, who had described how my mother and her assistant, Dr. Ruth Gutman, “had managed, without any assistance from the authorities and without any medical or other equipment, to maintain some sort of order out of the chaos that prevailed around them. The hut in which they lived was the only clean hut in the entire camp…. In the midst of this mass of human squalor and degradation these two women, physically clean, mentally whole, calm, serene, and dignified, stood out as shining examples to their fellow internees, a personification of the triumph of good over evil.â€? I also read in After Daybreak that Lt. Colonel Mervyn Gonin, the British officer commanding the 11th Light Field Ambulance, considered my mother “the bravest woman I have ever known, who worked miracles of care, kindness and healing with the help of no medicines but the voice and discipline of a Regimental Sergeant Major of the Guards.â€?

My mother likened to a Regimental Sergeant Major of the Guards? I could not imagine her that way. And how could she have remained so composed and serene in the chaos that was Bergen-Belsen?
When the screen flickered, I was transported back to two weeks before V-E Day, the end of World War II in Europe, when British Movietone News had come to record the evidence of Nazi Germany’s crimes. I couldn’t help but think how surreal it was that I should be watching this newsreel for the first time on the very site where it had been filmed.

And there she was. I recognized her but she looked totally unlike the mother I had known. She was 32, not pretty in a classical sense but striking and magnetic with dark hair, dark eyes and pale white skin.
Dressed in a white medical coat, she looked straight into the camera and spoke clearly, unemotionally, in fluent German. “Today, the 24th of April 1945,â€? she introduced herself, “speaks the senior doctor of the women’s camp of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.â€? She didn’t give her name, which is why, I later discovered, the archivists at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, who knew my mother well, had not associated her with the newsreel. I was seeing and hearing her for the first time as tens of thousands saw and heard her in the spring of 1945, one of the first survivors to describe the horrors of the Holocaust to the world.

“It is difficult for me to describe,â€? she said, “all that we inmates experienced here in the camps. As a small, very small example I can relate that we inmates were thrown onto the earth of a filthy, lice-filled camp, without blankets, without bags of hay, without beds. We were given a twelfth of a piece of bread daily and one liter of turnip soup so that almost 75 percent of the inmates were swollen from hunger. A severe typhus epidemic broke out, and the hunger and the typhus devoured us.â€? Through the camera she told the world how the Germans had refused to give starving inmates food shipments sent by the Red Cross until shortly before the arrival of British troops, and how the camp’s SS commandant had stolen large quantities of chocolate intended for Jewish children to enrich himself on the black market.

My mother spoke forcefully and defiantly. She chose her words carefully, without faltering, and was utterly self-assured, radiating a determination to expose the crimes that had been committed against her, her family and her people. Her voice was firm. Her entire demeanor made clear that she had never succumbed to despair. The Germans had been unable to break her spirit or to dehumanize her.

I was struck by the absence of even a trace of self-pity. She stood erect, unbowed, a defiant tone in her voice. Her medical coat was spotless. I wondered if she had washed it that morning.

I wanted to interrupt her, catch her attention, talk to her. I longed to ask: What are you thinking? Where were you earlier today? How many patients did you visit? How many hands did you hold? What did they say to you? How many of them died?

She spoke for a couple of minutes. I watched the video again, and again, and again. I was mesmerized at seeing and hearing my mother the way Hela Los Jafe, Hetty Verolme and Lt. Colonels Johnston and Gonin had known her in 1945. For the first time in my life I could visualize the person she had been then, before my
parents had even met. I suddenly realized I was watching the attractive, strong-willed young woman who was to meet my father not long after and with whom he would fall in love.

This, my mother had told me about. Within days of the liberation, my father, Josef Rosensaft, universally known as Yossel, had emerged as the preeminent political leader among the survivors of Belsen. My mother met him in early or mid-May 1945 at a meeting of the Jewish Committee of the Belsen Displaced Persons camp. When she had arrived, my father was singing a Yiddish song called In the Desert. He had a magnificent voice and it was a song about seeing mirages of forests, fields and trees, about the fragility of elusive hopes and dreams. My parents were married in 1946 and I was born in Bergen-Belsen on May 1, 1948.
And so it was that on a June afternoon in Bergen-Belsen, I was reunited, if only for a few minutes, with my mother. I now know her better. And I know better than to think that I will ever really know her.