A Bergen-Belsen Correspondence
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It is 1944. Esther Mossel is walking with her father, holding his hand high above her head. She is six years old. There are so many people lying about. They are all naked. She asks him, “Why are they sunbathing?”

Her elder sister had been a sickly child, and long before they were sent to Bergen-Belsen she could remember them lying bare under a sun-ray lamp, to get her well again.

Bergen-Belsen was in operation from March 1943. It was originally intended as a transit camp or Aufenthaltslager for the internment of some 10,000 Jewish prisoners of various nationalities, who had been promised emigration in exchange for ethnic German immigrants. Supposedly a preferential camp, the prisoners were not initially made to work, and forced labour was only partially introduced from 1944. The camp was divided into separate sections, including one for the Dutch – the Sternlager, in which, as at Westerbork, prisoners wore their own clothes with the Star of David. This also contained an Infectiebarak, or isolation hospital, set behind barbed wire, which was run by Dr Siegfried Emmering (a survivor of the camps who lived to his nineties). Here Esther’s sister Yett spent most of her time ill with tuberculosis. Little is now known of the Infectiebarak – it does not appear in standard histories and maps of Bergen-Belsen. It is clear from Yo and Else‰s exchange of letters with their daughter that Jewish women prisoners, and some men, served as nurses in the hospital. It is unlikely that they had any medicines, but the food appears to have been slightly better and the conditions cleaner and warmer.

Yo’s brother Zadok, with his wife and two daughters, had also come from Westerbork by the same train. There was also the Birnbaum family. Joshua Birnbaum had fled from Berlin to Holland with his wife Hennie and six children, three boys and three girls. They were all sent to Westerbork in its earliest days. There he made it his practice to meet every incoming train, in case it carried children who had lost their parents – the children who had gone into hiding, been betrayed, and caught. He created an orphanage for them. In Bergen-Belsen Esther was often looked after by the Birnbaums – she remembers them shaving off all her hair to get rid of the ubiquitous lice, burning her infested clothes and giving her something red to wear. She also remembers having a brown coat, a small blue blanket which was her comforter, and a little bag in which she kept her belongings. Among these was a cotton-reel with which she did French knitting, using wool the grown-ups unravelled for her from worn-out clothes. She made yarmulkes (the Jewish skull-cap) from the yarn, and plaited reins to play at horses with the other children.

Else worked occasionally in the kitchens. Yo and his brother Zadok were sometimes detailed to the shoe-commando, ripping apart the shoes of the dead for re-cycling. Yo continued to teach Hebrew in preparation for the promised emigration to Palestine. Zadok was also a Rabbinical scholar. While others doubled their work-rate to cover for them, both would sit and teach. If a guard came in the forbidden books were slipped inside their clothes and hidden by the prisoners huddling together.

Although this section of Bergen-Belsen was devoted to the Dutch, Esther has a vivid, much honoured memory of a group of young Tunisian boys, very religious youngsters with peyess (the ritually uncut sidelocks). These children would refuse to eat camp food that was not Kosher. If the soup had horse-meat, they would reject it. That left them little but bread and water. With their teacher, Ladi, they used to walk round the camp singing a song of rejoicing, so constantly that Esther can sing it to this day. They died of starvation very quickly.

She remembers the ground – not grass or mud, but grey gravel. She remembers the watch-towers – but you would keep well away from them. She remembers the long hours spent in Appel, in lines of five, being counted by the guards. Some were kind, like Kuck-in-die-Luft (an equivalent of Little Johnny Head-in-Air), who would always say, Stimmt! (Correct!) There was a red-head nicknamed Rooie Muller. But others enjoyed it when people passed out. Foremost among them was a woman guard nicknamed De Griet, the G pronounced, in Dutch, with a harsh, guttural H. The name sounds horrible to English ears, even though it is just an abbreviation of Marguerite, and means “the girl”. De Griet used to beat the prisoners viciously. Another witness records her attacking Ben. Once when Else flung out some dirty water from cleaning the barrack, she was caught by De Griet and severely punished. She was thrown into the bunker, thick walled, concrete, and very cold, for three days without food or water. At the end of that time Esther remembers others pointing her out in Appel, telling her, “That’s your mother”. But Esther couldn’t get near to her. She was very sad for her – she looked so far away, like a person already in another world.

[Read the surviving correspondence of the Mossel family in Areté issue 1]

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