Holocaust Survivors' reunited with soldier who liberated them

07 Aug 2014

Five members of Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors' Centre (HSC) visited Oxfordshire Museum to meet with one of three surviving soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945. 

The visit came about after the museum contacted a member of Jewish Care's Camp and Ghetto committee as they were adding a new section at the museum, including a display on the Oxfordshire soldiers who were involved in the liberation of Bergen Belsen. When the HSC contacted the museum as they wished to visit, the museum explained that there were still three liberators alive, one of whom was well enough and local who would be delighted to meet the survivors.

Nine of our members attended, five of whom were in Bergen Belsen.

Liberator Gilbert King (97) met in a quiet room with all our members who wanted to shake his hand and thank him and his colleagues for having the conviction to step into the camps which were disease ridden with typhus and cholera. Members recalled their memories of being liberated and Gilbert recalled how he could never get out of his head the person who kissed his boots! He was quite emotional describing how the newer camp inmates came to meet them but as they walked deeper into the camp there were ‘piles of bodies everywhere, you couldn’t define male from female and all you could see was skin and bone. Every dug out was full of bodies, it was too terrible to describe’. He went on to say;

‘We done what we could, little really as we had no real medical supplies to begin. It was like giving a baby baked beans’

Colonel Tim May CBE. TD. DL welcomed the guests on behalf of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry Trust.

’We are privileged to have survivors of Bergen Belsen here today to meet Gilbert King and to see how we have worked with many other organisations to bring about this exhibition.  Our soldiers are not to be seen as heroes but soldiers facing particular challenges. They could not afford to let their emotions overcome them as they had a job to do’

HSC member, Susan Pollack responded;

I am a Bergen Belsen survivor; I was liberated there. As the soldiers came in I recall thinking; here come the battle worn people, here come the battle worn soldiers. The kindness they showed the generosity. They picked us up from death, they put us into beds, and they brought ambulances. Such true generosity. That has been a candle all my life and I thank you (the liberator).’

This is a family museum so the Bergen Belsen display has been created with an inner room to protect younger children from the graphic images but also to provide a space for quiet contemplation and a private place to reflect. Gilbert King reflected how the Yeomanry had held in their feelings and like many survivors had never spoken of their emotions.

We then visited the displays; the Liberators of Bergen Belsen showed pictures of individuals, what the soldiers found and their feelings at the time.   Artefacts including the typewriter used to write letters to families to explain who may still have been alive were displayed’

As she was walking around, Rene Salt cried out ‘It’s my parents’ when she saw a photo of them together.

Rene Salt commented on the Liberators; 

‘People don’t realise what we owe the Liberators. They also suffered in the camps, and caught typhus. My husband was a Liberator and he too spoke very little about what he saw. He helped people to write to their families, tried to get them to write in Polish, not Yiddish as the post was screened. My husband Charles recalled how a 21 year old Red Cross girl died of typhus.  I was told all this as I was unconscious when we were liberated and would have died if they had come a day later.

We thought the liberators were being cruel because all they gave us was a quarter of a slice of bread and a spoon of stewed apple. Later when we saw others dying from eating too much we realised they had saved us by giving us tiny portions.

My mother died two days after liberation. Tomorrow I will be 85; meeting a liberator and seeing the exhibit brings back very vivid memories although we have to live with this all the time. Seeing my parents in the exhitbition was a complete surprise’

Joe Kiersz commented;

‘My mother was blonde but they let her go even though she was Jewish. Two of my family children survived because they hid in a Catholic home and lived a Catholic life. I just remember being held down  in the camp and being  beaten so severely that I nearly died’

Taube Biber (Bergen Belsen survivor)

Today, the 7th August would have been my wedding anniversary. We were married in Bergen Belsen in 1946. I am so sad because all through the war I was with my oldest sister and then she died; she died two days after liberation and I have never ever got over her dying.’ I am glad today is over as it is so emotional as it took me back years  but also happy to see how our suffering is shown to all’

Freda Wineman said;

‘The liberators need their own voice. They also couldn’t speak and it was left too late in a way. It is so important that the SOFO museum has given the liberator a space to talk about his experience just as we (the survivors do)’ 

Aviva Trup (Service Manager), Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors Centre commented;

“The staff of the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum were hugely sensitive to the survivors and made them welcome. The day was emotionally charged as survivors are very keen to meet any liberators and the bond between them is immense. Because there are so few liberators alive, we worked rapidly with Harry Staff (Historian) and the SOFO museum to bring this meeting together within a month. The personal contact with Gilbert King, the Liberator, and Bergen Belsen survivors brought out different emotions for each person. The survivors need to keep the memory alive of their lost ones and  the legacy of the holocaust in the forefront to repel holocaust deniers.

Seeing a new exhibit in a museum containing pictures of their loved ones, traumatic images of their experience and having the opportunity to share joint emotions with the Liberator Gilbert enabled survivors to feel their struggles were not in vain. They were uplifted and thrilled to have gone to Oxfordshire despite the emotional exhaustion which goes with reliving traumatic experiences. The Museum were very successful in portraying a terrible time in history in a peaceful surrounding. Seeing people of all generations looking at the exhibits provided the survivors with a sense of continuity.”

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