Pictures at an exhibition12 Dec 2014
A new display at an Oxfordshire museum was the starting point for a remarkable reunion. Careline finds out more...
It was always going to be a difficult day. Emotionally charged, traumatic – but at the same time uplifting. Reunions often release feelings long buried, tucked away out of sight, and this reunion was no different. Nine members of Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre made the trip in August to the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. There, the members – five of whom had survived the horrors of Bergen Belsen concentration camp – were reunited with a former soldier who had taken part in the camp’s liberation.
The museum had added a new exhibition, depicting scenes from the camp, and it seemed the perfect opportunity to reunite one of the surviving liberators with a few of those he had helped. Gilbert King, 96, served in the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, and was a 28-year-old attached to the British 63rd Anti Tank Regiment which freed the camp on April 15 1945. Now a frail old man, he still carries with him the dreadful memories of the sights that greeted him and his fellow soldiers upon entering Bergen Belsen. “It has brought back memories that I have never forgotten, should never be forgotten. To see bodies that were just skin and bone littered all over the compound – one just can’t forget that. Every dug-out was full of bodies, it was too terrible to describe.”
The HSC members had a chance to meet Gilbert in a quiet room, away from the public. Shaking his hand, they thanked him and his colleagues for having the conviction to step into the camp filled with typhus and cholera.
The museum is geared towards families, so the Bergen Belsen display has been created with an inner room to shield younger children from the more graphic images. It also provides a space for quiet contemplation and reflection. Along with pictures, there are various artefacts on display including a typewriter used to write letters to families of those who survived.
For HSC member Rene Salt, the exhibition stirred up a range of emotions, including shock, when she spotted a photo of her parents on a display board. Her mother died two days after liberation, and Rene herself would have perished had it not been for the timely intervention of the British soldiers. “I was unconscious when we were liberated and would have died if they had come a day later,” she said. “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.”
For Rene, and the other survivors, what they experienced is more than just a display of fading photographs. They need to keep the memory of those they lost alive, and it is a tribute to their strength of spirit and endurance that they still do all they can to ensure their stories are not forgotten. As Rene said: “Seeing the exhibit brought back very vivid memories although we have to live with this all the time.”
Museum vice chairman Colonel Tim May said that he felt “privileged” to welcome the survivors to the 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.”
But those liberators were undoubtedly regarded as heroes by those who survived. As Susan Pollack said: “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.”
Survivor Freda Wineman believed that the museum display is not only cathartic for those who endured the concentration camps, but also for those remaining soldiers who took part in their liberation: “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 Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum has given the liberator a space to talk about his experience, just as we do.” And when there are no more soldiers left to tell their stories, then the pictures at the museum will have to do that job for them.