Author's Note: I only first learned of Joseph Bellinger's remarkable narrative "The Lethal Liberation of Bergen-Belsen", a rich source of information about Joseph Kramer, commandant of Bergen-Belsen, after I had written the article "Hitchcock on Holocaust" http://www.examiner.com/review/hitchcock-on-holocaust in the Chicago Judaism Examiner page of www.examiner.com.
Kramer, feared for his predictable unpredictability, conjoined the delight he took in treating prisoners sadistically with his love of flowers and children. Joseph Bellinger notes that Kramer, while in British custody, spoke with a British correspondent and "in an effusion of self-pity and genuine sentimentality" remarked how much he missed his wife and children.
Now before you become too weepy or think that I am, there is nothing special about loving flowers. G-d made them with such a wonderful diversity of colors, scents, shapes and sizes that even a pathological cretin, SS murderer or a camp commandant can love flowers. About children, there is no impossibility between being a "good father" for your children who eagerly await your return home and killing someone else's children while "at work". Research, I believe, would reveal that such children, living on site with their parents, did not know what their fathers did at work.
I think we are presently seeing more stories emerge of German children and grandchildren only now learning what their fathers and grandfathers did during the Second World War. So ashamed are they that some have chosen conversion to Judaism as the only meaningful atonement.
Alan Dershowitz, author of Chutzpah (1991), pointed out the Nazis understood if they were to successfully preclude any Jewish future, they would have to strike hard at Jewish children.This they did approximately one million, five hundred thousand times.
This writer can think of no compelling reason why Kramer should not have missed his own children or, for that matter, loved flowers. The problem is not with either of these claims. It seems an especially baffling conundrum only to those of us who believe that such apparently diametric opposites-killing a Jewish child but loving one's own-should repel each other which, sadly, they needn't. On the contrary, they do often coexist within the same person.
German officers assigned to concentration camps routinely lived with their families in a secluded area well-shielded from the ghastliness to which the officer/father/husband returned each morning. The very fact such accommodations existed reflects an official awareness that such duty was psychologically demanding for which the presence of family: one's loving wife and children might prove helpful.
My point? I revile the Nazis as much as any person of good will, but I am unconvinced that men could routinely carry out such dastardly acts and emerge psychologically unscathed. Mind you, I am not looking for your sympathies or your agreement that history judge these folks leniently-only that we strive for the truth, however inconvenient or distasteful.
A Jewish man who played a central role in the immediate aftermath of the British Eleventh Armored Division's entry through the gates of Bergen-Belsen at 4: 00 p.m. on April 15, 1945 was, according to Bellinger, Captain Derek Sington who arrested Commandant Kramer. In a cynically transparent subterfuge, Kramer had awaited the arrival of the British at the main gate as though welcoming victorious comrades.
Captain Sington, not one to be taken in by this cheap ruse, ordered that Kramer be shackled and deprived of his sidearm. Author Bellinger reports that after a short tour of the horrific conditions and the untold countless men dressed in striped rags and women who dressed themselves in whatever rags they could scrounge up, Captain Sington, who was nearly emotionally overwhelmed, turned to Kramer and said, "You've made a fine hell here" to which Kramer simply replied, "It has become one in the last few days."
Bellinger goes on to discuss the urgent challenges facing the British: 1) determining the proper food substance to prepare and feed the surviving prisoners without contributing further to their catastrophic death rate that remained unabated even after the British had taken over and 2) stemming the tide of typhus that ravaged the camp for days after the commencement of British efforts to organize the mayhem and, in particular, dispose of the thousands of rotting corpses strewn about the camp.
Toward the end of the war when Allied forces were advancing on Germany, the Nazis, in their insane pursuit of a "Judenrein" Europe, began transferring remaining prisoners from Auschwitz and Warsaw to Bergen-Belsen.
No one from outside the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen could have imagined its absolute villainy. Bellinger remarks "Nothing that Dante could conceive of the Inferno we term Hell can exceed in agony the ghastly scenes at Belsen concentration camp, near Bremen. This huge camp was little more than a mass of dead and dying ...."
Its atmosphere permeated with the stench of tens of thousands of unburied corpses-some, if not most of which, in an advanced state of putrefaction, the death camp at Bergen Belsen did not have a gas chamber. Didn't need one. Its infamy lie rather in its swollen prisoner population which, prior to April 15, had reached some sixty thousand souls, a state of affairs about which the local German citizenry denied having any knowledge whatsoever. The nose alone could well have verified what the eye simply refused to see, but their tears, this writer feels, were genuine when the British forced local citizens to see for themselves what the “leaders" of the thousand year "reich" had been doing in their name.
There was one man, however, of whom Bellinger makes no mention; not too surprising an omission when you consider he was one of the estimated sixty-thousand prisoners in the camp when the first tanks rolled on through the main gate at 4:00 p.m, April 15, 1945.
Twenty-two year old Rabbi Meyer Juzint of the famed Slobodka Yeshiva was ready to die by the late afternoon of what turned out to be liberation day. Collapsed into a heap when he simply could not drag a decaying corpse one step further, staring up at the muzzle of the German rifle that would soon end his life, one could only conclude Rabbi Juzint had given up his will to live, the well of faith that had sustained him through countless earlier travails having dried up.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. He had, in fact, not given up but given in to the will of his Creator. G-d, indeed, had other plans for Rabbi Meyer Juzint. In his recently published memoir The Chain of Miracles, Divine Providence in the Midst of Nazi Persecution (Congregation Kesser Maariv, Skokie, Illinois, 2012) Rabbi Juzint explains he had begun to say his last confessional (Viddui) immediately prior to his death when he "heard a resounding call from a microphone: You are free! You are free!" the British announced from their tanks and jeeps.
Rabbi Juzint turned out to be one of the many who confess but do not die.The guard who had threatened to shoot him dropped his weapon.
As much an appropriate occasion for Rabbi Juzint to recite a "shehechianu", the blessing recited upon experiencing a grand event, so too did it become one for thousands of Chicago-area Jewish youth whom Rabbi Juzint taught over the course of fifty years, from 1950-2000 at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy and Hebrew Theological College as a beloved Torah teacher and rebbe.