When on September 6, 2022, President of Israel Isaac Herzog and German President Franz-Walter Steinmeier passed through the memorial site of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany, they were accompanied by a carefully checked delegation consisting of government officials, diplomats, clergy, camp survivors and two of over 2,000 children born in 1945-1950 in the nearby Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp – Yochevet Ritz-Olewski from Israel and Menachem Rosensaft from New York.
For me, as a German Jew and as Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress, the presence of Menachem Rosensaft in Bergen-Belsen was particularly important. Menachem, Deputy Executive Vice President and General Counsel of the WJC, is not only my colleague and friend. He lectures on the law of genocide at the law schools of two prestigious universities, Columbia and Cornell; he wrote extensively about Bergen-Belsen both before and after his liberation; and chairs the advisory board of the foundation that oversees the Second World War memorials in Lower Saxony, especially Bergen-Belsen.
Menachem was born here on May 1, 1948.
It is the importance of Bergen-Belsen as the largest displaced persons camp in post-war Germany and the identity of Menachem as his father’s son that makes his presence there alongside Presidents Herzog and Steinmeier so significant.
Contrary to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Babin Jaru and Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen is not only brutal m*rder and suffering. Of course, Belsen was the place where tens of thousands of Jews died a terrible, painful d*ath in the last months of the Holocaust. This is evidenced by the mass graves at the memorial site. But the displaced persons camp was also a place where survivors not only returned to life, but also regained their identity as human beings and as Jews.
For five years after the end of the war, the displaced persons camp, under the leadership of Father Menachem, functioned as an autonomous Jewish enclave – as if a Jewish mini-public – with Jewish schools, a Yiddish newspaper, rabbinate, Zionist political parties, two theaters, cultural and sports clubs, and even its own the police.
It was there and in other camps for displaced persons that Jewish life in Germany revived. Judenrein, get rid of the Jews. And it was there that Jewish Holocaust survivors, Jewish displaced persons, announced their intention to control and decide about their future.
Josef Rosensaft was widely known as a defender of the memory of the Holocaust, and in particular of the legacy represented by Belsen. After his d*ath 47 years ago, in September 1975, Menachem took on this responsibility and made it his own.
When President Ronald Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl arrived in Bergen-Belsen on their way to the Bitburg military cemetery where members of the Nazi Waffen-SS are buried, Menachem organized and led a protest demonstration of the survivors’ children. “President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl embarked on a gruesome journey through Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg, an obscene transaction,” he declared at the Jewish monument in Belsen on May 5, 1985, just minutes after both leaders left for Bitburg. “Today we tell them that they can either honor the Belsen victims or honor the SS. They can’t do both. And on entering Bitburg, they profane the memory of all those who were m*rdered by the SS and all those they pretended to remember here in Belsen.
Since then, Menachem has repeatedly returned to Belsen and has played a key role in establishing a museum commemorating both the concentration camp and the displaced persons camp. In doing so, he forged a close partnership with the German memorial staff, working with them to make the history and heritage of Bergen-Belsen an integral part of both German and Jewish consciousness. And he engaged in a dialogue with post-Holocaust Germans to explore their common history, albeit from dramatically different perspectives. These relationships and dialogues will be crucial for the future of Holocaust remembrance.
Therefore, the presence of Menachem alongside Presidents Herzog and Steinmeier was crucial. I sincerely hope that their joint meeting in Bergen-Belsen on September 6 marks the beginning of a series of new and different joint Jewish, Israeli and German educational initiatives that are rooted in everything Bergen-Belsen means: both the destruction during the Shoah and the subsequent defiant revival. Jewish life in a displaced persons camp in a way that will resonate with the Jews, Israelis and Germans of tomorrow.
Maram Stern is the executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
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