After her own relatives died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Hadassah Bimko could have easily given up hope, yet she found the strength to love and care again
She had been a daughter, a wife and an adoring mum – but by the time Hadassah Bimko arrived at the death camp of Bergen Belsen, every one of those roles had been ripped away.
The 33-year-old lost her parents, husband and five-year-old son, Benjamin, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Most people would have lost all hope too.
But Hadassah clung on to the love she could no longer give her own son and decided to become a mother again – to all the children who had lost their parents.
She risked her life to create a children’s home for Belsen’s orphans. One of them was the then 14-year-old Mala Tribich and speaking ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day today, she says Hadassah saved her.
“She was the mother of Belsen,” says Mala. “But I never knew she lost a child of her own. I owe my life to her, we’d not have survived without her care. Me and my cousin Ann, who was seven, arrived at Belsen alone. We had lost our parents and I had been caring for Ann for two years.
“I knew at Belsen there was no way we would survive, then I heard about this lady.
“It was terribly overcrowded but I remember her saying, ‘I am sure we can manage these two little Jewish girls’.”
Hadassah passed away in 1997 but with tears in her eyes Mala, now 85, is telling her story as she meets Menachem Rosensaft – a man she views as a brother in many ways, because he is Hadassah’s son.
Although she was grieving for the child she had lost, she found the strength to love again in Belsen. In the Displaced Persons Camp created after its liberation by the British Army, she met Josef Rosensaft, a survivor who had lost his wife.
They married and she had Menachem in the camp, where she kept on working, in 1948. “For my parents, me being born was a new beginning,” he says, sitting close to Mala. “It was a spark of life.”
Reaching out to her, he adds: “Meeting Mala means so much. These children my mother helped are my brothers and sisters. She never spoke very much of that time.
“But I’m certain, because she’d been unable to protect her own child, she felt the needed to do that for others and always considered them as her own children.”
Hadassah, also known as Ada, and her family were from Sosnowiec, Poland, where she was a dentist. The Nazis deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1943.
Menachem says: “Upon her arrival, she was separated from her parents, her husband and her son, who were all sent directly into one of the gas chambers.”
Hadassah spoke of that terrible final moment with her son in her memoirs – Yesterday, My Story. She wrote: “One SS man started the selection. With a movement of his finger, he was sending some to the right and some to the left. Our son went with his father. He asked, ‘Mummy, are we going to live or die?’. I didn’t answer.”
Menachem recalls his mother’s devastation, saying: “As the Germans intended, she felt disoriented, humiliated and deprived of her sense of self.”
She could have given up then – but she was given a purpose. Due to her medical training the notorious Josef Mengele, Birkenau’s chief medical officer, chose her to work as a doctor. The camp’s infirmary simply patched up weak and injured inmates for more labour. But Hadassah used the opportunity for good.
“She would camouflage inmates’ wounds and send them out when she knew gas chamber selections were expected, so they’d avoid them,” says Menachem.
In November 1944, Mengele sent Hadassah to work at Belsen. There, she found the Nazis cared much less – but she realised she could use the desperate conditions to her advantage.
“In December, she and some other women found 49 Dutch children outside their barracks,” Menachem explains. “The parents had been taken away. So she took them in. One SS doctor said, ‘What is this?’ but my mum said, ‘We are taking care of them’. He just walked away.
“By February, they had 150 – and 149 survived until the liberation. This children’s house became a project.”
Among the children were Mala and her young cousin, Ann Helfgott. Mala and her family, who were Jews from Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, had been herded into a Nazi ghetto.
Her mother and sister were murdered in an SS round-up while her father was at work. Mala survived because her mother pleaded with the guard that she was ill. But her reprieve did not last long.
The guards returned and rounded up Mala, her father and brother, and Ann. They were deported to a labour camp and then to Ravensbruck concentration camp.
She never saw her father again – he was shot on a death march. Thankfully, her brother survived but she did not find out until after the war. For now, the young, scared girls were alone.
When they were sent to Bergen-Belsen in February 1945, they were close to death. On hearing of “Dr Bimko’s” children’s home, Mala took Ann there in desperation.
“At 14, I knew I was probably too old,” she admits. “The barracks were overcrowded but she made it happen. I’ll never forget her. She gave us a feeling of security, as much as you could have in that place.”
When the British liberated the camp, Hadassah stayed on and testified in the first Nazi war crimes trial. Mala married and had two children, settling in Sweden then the UK. Ann emigrated to Australia.
Hadassah and her new family eventually moved to New York, where she rarely spoke of those times or the family she had lost.
But Menachem says she did talk about her “other children” in Belsen. “She spoke about singing to them and getting food and medicine for them,” he recalls.
In 1981, at a Holocaust memorial, Mala was finally able to see her again briefly. But she says only now, through Menachem, can she express the real weight of her thanks.
After all, they share an unbreakable bond. “Because in that camp she was my mother, too,” she smiles.
For more information about the Holocaust Educational Trust visit www.het.org.uk