Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp was liberated by British Forces on April 15, 1945. Rev Leslie Hardman, a young Jewish Chaplain, arrived two days later. Sixty-thousand prisoners were found there, most of them seriously ill. A further thirteen thousand unburied corpses lay strewn around the area, which was dubbed ‘the camp of horror.’
The intervening 67 years have seen dozens of wars and innumerable atrocities committed by many regimes in killing fields worldwide.
My ‘factional’ story attempts to show new generations, whom I consider to be unhealthily obsessed with ‘Gothic Horror’, that while the lessons of the Holocaust continue to be studied, they are never truly learned.
Out of the silence came a crazed, wracked voice. But Leslie Hardman did not know it was his own.
“... Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which ... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them …”
But for Rev Hardman, British Armed Forces chaplain, pious Orthodox Jew, there were no moments to lose. He began work by tiptoeing around the shards of humanity left by the Nazis at Bergen-Belsen, tending the budding shoots of springtime liberation he was sowing as he went.
First he gazed upon the “staggering mass of blackened skin and bones, held together somehow with filthy rags.”
Next he tried music. But the words of nascent Israel’s anthem, Hatikva (The Hope) – stuck in a dying woman’s throat.
Then as the tears welled and the lump in his own throat rose, Rev Hardman laid down his despairing head for relief. But his reverie was brief.
“… Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days …”
“Rabbiner, Rabbiner (Rabbi, Rabbi),” wailed an inmate – a piteous creature who fingered the double star emblem on his military tunic to ensure it was real.
“Let me comfort you as you have heartened us. You are our own Messiah. May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Much later, Rev Hardman would recall how he cherished the terrible moment. “Like everything else about my hours in that wasteland, it was sanctified simply because it was beyond belief.
"If all the trees in the world turned into pens,” he said “all the waters in the oceans turned into ink and the heavens turned into paper, it would still be insufficient material to describe the horrors these people suffered under the SS."
Most difficult was the burial of thousands of corpses, ensuring they were laid to rest according to Jewish custom with the recital of Kaddish – the traditional mourners’ prayer.
The dead, said Rev Hardman, must be granted the dignity which they had been denied on earth. What’s more, he insisted, the ‘living dead’ – the survivors – should be given the solace of both witnessing, even helping, to ensure that the work was complete.
"This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
Epilogue – 1
‘Closing The Circle’
Somehow, many people managed to secure a semblance of normality after the war. Rev Hardman returned to pastoral work at a London synagogue, but also performed duties at a local psychiatric unit and on behalf of the Holocaust Education Trust.
He was a fervent Zionist and one of his daughters settled in Israel. Recently his grandson, attorney Yoel Hadar, a legal adviser to the Israel Internal Security Ministry, had a chance meeting with a Belsen survivor, Mordechai Chekhnover, now aged 88. "This meeting has closed a circle for me," said Mr Hadar.
Epilogue – 2
The debate continues. Some people, like journalist, Philip Hoare believe the fashion for Gothic horror and its ilk “reflects deeper contemporary fears of the apocalyptic and the macabre: of bad science and corrupt power. It reflects dark times, too, and offers escapism from austerity or insecurity – a safe, containable way to be scared. Most of all, perhaps, it addresses dark themes of psychosexuality.”
I don’t believe the problem’s that profound. I suggest it means that creative writing is at a troubling watershed and that even the world’s best writers are finding themselves unable to create believable three-dimensional characters in life-like situations.
Now I feel angry enough to discuss it in public after spotting a ‘conversation’ between prize-winning novelists, Margaret Atwood (Canada) and Naomi Alderman (U.K.) who are collaborating in writing The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, an online serialised novel being published in 13 instalments from now until January next year.
I have decided not to treat readers to the contents. But I will add this:
By an uncanny co-incidence Ms Alderman’s father, historian Geoffrey Alderman, wrote an obituary to Rev Hardman when he died, aged 95, in October 2008. The rest, I venture, must revert to silence.
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 02 November 2012)