In late September, early October, I spent a week on Lüneburger Heath. Through Airbnb, we had found a cosy apartment in a half-timbered farmhouse, in a tiny hamlet near the town of Eldingen. An autumn break, for hiking, birdwatching, reading, sleeping - nothing out of the ordinary, but really welcome.
A few weeks before we left, I took a closer look at the map and noticed that our holiday apartment was only a stone's throw - or two - away from the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Today, it’s a Gedenkstätte or memorial place. It’s the place where Anne and her sister Margot died, in early 1945, and I had never been there before. Such a coincidence - or perhaps it wasn’t - that we had picked a holiday home near Bergen-Belsen this time!
I have been working for the Anne Frank House for more than 35 years, the last few years in the roles of project manager in the Education department and chairman of the Works Council. Before long, in February 2020, I will retire. My working life has been determined to a large extent by Anne and her diary.
In all the years that I have worked for the Anne Frank House, I have visited many former concentration camps. Sometimes in the line of work, but often just out of interest. Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Bełżec, Neuengamme, Vught, Majdanek, Amersfoort... the bizarre list is too long to include here. Horrendous, terrifying places that keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. In Poland and the Czech Republic in particular, I visited old Jewish cemeteries in numerous villages and towns. Dozens and dozens, in all. But, strangely enough, I'd never been to Bergen-Belsen before.
‘I'm going to say goodbye to Anne in person’, I had decided in the weeks before we were going on holiday. I plan to say goodbye to my colleagues and my job at the beginning of 2020, but this was the time to say goodbye to Anne. She lived for only 15 years, but I've worked for her for 35 years. Or, more accurately, I’ve been employed by the foundation that bears her name and promotes her ideals. If she had only known...
The first day of our break was a drizzly autumn day. Not suitable for hiking, and without a bird in sight, except for a few cranes that we heard calling in a nearby meadow. And so, we set out for Bergen-Belsen on that very first day of our holiday. To get the ‘saying to goodbye to Anne’ bit out of the way straight away.
The contrast between the lovely region we were driving through - an open agricultural landscape, small villages with many large, half-timbered farmhouses, quaint and typically German - and Bergen-Belsen is sharp. It’s a bare and oppressive place. The (symbolic) tombstone of Anne and Margot was easily found; I put a stone on top of it, among the many that were already there. We wandered around the large site of the former camp; only a number of large burial mounds and a single scale model tell the story of the horrors that took place here. It was very quiet; there weren’t even any birds to be seen or heard while we were walking around.
The Bergen-Belsen museum made even more of an impression if that’s possible. Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp; it was, particularly in the last year of the war, an ‘unorganised hell’. In the few months that Anne and Margot were locked up in there, in late 1944 and early 1945, there was nothing there, almost literally. No food, hardly any shelter. Only guards, cold, hunger, disease, and death. The photographs and film footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen shown in the museum were hard to take in - the piles of corpses, the emaciated bodies... On several occasions, I couldn’t help turning away.
Over the years, I’ve visited many other Second World War sites, and no matter how poignant some of them were, I was usually able to deal with the emotions. This visit was a blow, though; it hit me hard, whatever the expression is. I slept badly for three nights, haunted by terrifying dreams. In the daytime, it still felt like a holiday, but the images from Bergen-Belsen would still pop up, and I often thought of Anne, her last months, and her many fellow-sufferers. Even in spite of the beautiful, quiet heath, the many cranes, and our wonderful surroundings. The Lüneburger Heide is a region that is beautiful, quiet, and quaint, where nothing ever happens, or so it seems. It’s hard to imagine the sharp contrast between what happened here seventy years ago and what the area looks like today.
Fortunately, after three days, the worst nightmares were gone. But in the days and weeks that followed, I often thought back to this intense farewell.