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Among the approximately 58,000 prisoners whom British troops liberated at the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany on April 15, 1945, were 149 Jewish children whom my mother and a small group of other women inmates had kept alive despite the gruesome conditions that prevailed there.
Had my mother not been Jewish, she most certainly would have been honored as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national authority for the remembrance of the Holocaust, alongside such individuals as Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who gave visas to Jews in Budapest in 1944; Miep Gies, one of the small group of Christians who provided Anne Frank and her family with a hiding place in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam for more than two years until they were betrayed to the Gestapo; and Pastor André Trocmé of the French village of Le Chambon who inspired his congregants to defy German orders and give shelter to thousands of Jewish refugees.
The heroism of those Jewish men and women who risked their own lives to help and save others even during their darkest hours in the concentration and death camps of the Holocaust deserves equal recognition. One of these altruistic figures was my mother, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft.
On the night of August 3rd to 4th of 1943, when she arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, her parents, her first husband, and her five-and-a-half year-old son were immediately murdered in one of the death camp’s gas chambers.
Two months later, the notorious Joseph Mengele, Birkenau’s Chief Medical Officer, assigned my mother, a dentist from the Polish city of Sosnowiec who had studied medicine in France, to work as a doctor in the camp’s infirmary. Because of her medical training, she was able to save 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.
In November of the following year, Mengele sent my mother, then Hadassah (Ada) Bimko, and eight other Jewish prisoners of Birkenau as a medical team to Bergen-Belsen, in Germany. Once again, the human potential for good in the face of evil manifested itself. Beginning with 49 Dutch children in December 1944, she organized what became known as a Kinderheim, a children’s home, within the concentration camp.
“At that time,” Hela Los Jafe, one of my mother’s fellow inmates subsequently recalled in “Sisters in Sorrow: Voices of Care in the Holocaust” by Roger A. Ritvo and Diane M. Plotkin, “Bergen-Belsen started to be like Oswiecim [Auschwitz]. Transports came from all over, bringing thousands of people. Ada walked from block to block, found the children, took them, lived with them, and took care of them.”
Among them were children from Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere who had been brought to Bergen-Belsen from other Nazi concentration camps. Together with a group of other women prisoners, my mother kept 149 Jewish children alive at Bergen-Belsen throughout the bitter winter and early spring of 1945.
According to Hela Jafe, “The children were very small and sick, and we had to wash them, clothe them, calm them and feed them. . . . Most of them were sick with terrible indigestion, dysentery and diarrhea, and just lay on the bunks . . . . 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.”
Keeping the children alive became a communal endeavor for many of Bergen-Belsen’s inmates. “We sent word of the children to the Jewish men who worked in the SS food depot,” my mother wrote in Yesterday, My Story, her posthumously published memoirs, “and they risked their lives daily to steal food and pass it to us under the barbed wire.” Jewish prisoners in the camp pharmacy smuggled over medicine for the children. When the children “desperately needed warm clothes” during the harsh winter months of 1945, my mother recalled, “ Somebody mentioned that there was a storage room in the camp where clothes taken away from the arriving inmates were kept. I went there with two of the nurses. To my surprise I was greeted and hugged by two Polish women whom I had helped and protected from heavy work in the scabies block in Birkenau. They gave us all the clothes we wanted.”
In my mother’s words, she and the women in her group “had been given the opportunity to take care of these abandoned Jewish children, and we gave them all our love and whatever strength was left within us. . . . We talked to them, played with them, tried to make them laugh, listened to them, comforted them when they cried and had nightmares. When they were sick with typhus, we sat beside them telling stories and fairy tales. I sang songs to them in Polish, Yiddish and Hebrew, whatever I remembered, just to calm them until they fell asleep.”
Where my mother found the strength to help and save others rather than focusing on her own survival has always been a profound mystery to me. Perhaps her devotion to the children at Bergen-Belsen was her way of coping with her inability to protect her own child.
“In the middle of winter,” observed Albert Camus, “I found out at last that there was within me an invincible summer.”
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse Universities.