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Bergen-Belsen survivors warn of rising anti-Semitism on 70th anniversary of liberation

Seventy years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, survivors gathered to remember the concentration camp's estimated 53,000 victims. They told DW's Kate Brady of the horrors they saw and some of their fears.

The silence at Bergen-Belsen's memorial center on Sunday was punctuated only by the sound of huge coaches rolling into the forecourt. The German president, survivors, and relatives of the camp's victims were among those descending from the buses.

As some 100 survivors took their seats at the Obelisk, the heavens opened, casting a heavy curtain of drizzle across the crowds gathered further afield on the sodden turf.

'Germany's darkest hours'

Opening the ceremony, the voice of Stephen Weil, state premier of Lower Saxony, echoed in a muffled tone across the mass graves, where, in place of names, are just numbers. Hundreds and thousands of numbers. Stripped of identities, personalities and memories.

"No one from my generation can feel what you must feel," Weil told survivors of Belsen.

Joachim Gauck Bergen-Belsen

German President Joachim Gauck asked how the Holocaust was ever able to happen.

In the coming months, Weil reminded, Germany will remember its darkest days. It is important, he said, to learn the most important lesson of all from these memorials: never again should a person be killed for their race, religion, background.

"This is now the mission of Bergen-Belsen. This is the mission of German society," Weil said.

Genocide among civilization

The majority of what became the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was destroyed shortly after its liberation on April 15, 1945, as way of curtailing the spread of disease to which so many thousands of lives had become victim in the last months of World War Two.

What remains has become a tranquil place, bursting with greenery and nature - an unsettlingly peaceful and scenic landscape that carries the heavy burden of a wicked past.

"How was it possible for these crimes to take place in a country that looked back on such a rich history and civilization?" German President Joachim Gauck asked on Sunday.

"Here in the middle of Germany, in a region, which for many, is the epitome of German romanticism and relationship with nature."

"I have no answer," the president said.

There were no gas chambers at Belsen. No Zyklon B. And yet almost certain death remained.

Bergen-Belsen Gedenkfeier

Around 100 survivors and relatives of victims gathered at Bergen-Belsen on Sunday

"One died here slowly, but surely," the German president said.

Overcrowding in Belsen during the final months of World War Two rapidly increased. In turn, the already treacherous living conditions deteriorated at an alarming rate.

Around 18,000 Belsen prisoners lost their lives in March 1945 alone. In a camp originally designed to hold 10,000 prisoners of war, typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition were rife.

Engraved on the British memory

On liberating the camp on April 15, 1945, British troops found themselves responsible for 53,00 surviving prisoners. Half-starved, ill and traumatized - many of them closer to death than life.

What the British troops discovered some 70 years ago was "hell on earth," Weil described on Sunday.

Representing the British troops who first entered Belsen 70 years ago, was Lieutenant Colonel Paolo Capanni from the Royal Army Medical Corps - the same military formation responsible for nursing Belsen's survivors in the displaced persons camp which existed until 1950.

Bergen-Belsen

Lieutenant Colonel Paolo Capanni from the British Royal Army Medical Corps

"Bergen-Belsen is the only camp to be liberated by the British military," he told DW. "This is an important part of our military history."

Lesser-known among the German population in comparison to the Nazi extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau, the name "Belsen" alone has for Britain's postwar generations become synonymous with the atrocities of the Third Reich.

Major Ben Barnett, one of the first British officers to arrive at Belsen, wrote: "There are no words in the English language that can give a true impression of the ghastly horrors of this camp."

Beyond the images taken by the British military in 1945 are the memories of seeing the indescribable footage for the first time, which have been passed on through the last three generations.

Rise of anti-Semitism

As the crowds huddled together to protect themselves from the downpour of rain on Sunday, many of those invited to speak at the memorial service also chose to address an darker cloud which has been growing in recent months across Europe: a dangerous rise of xenophobia, right-wing extremism, populism and anti-Semitism.

"Seventy years later, the world isn't moving on - it's moving backwards," warned Jewish World Congress President Ronald Lauder.

"This is my solemn promise to you," he swore to Belsen's survivors, "We will not let you down."

Bergen-Belsen Gedenkfeier

Wreaths were laid at the Obelisk by school children from nearby Celle.

Similarly, referring to the recent attack on a planned refugee home in nearby Tröglitz, Romani Rose, Chairman of the Central Council for German Sinti and Roma, warned that every arson attack on a refugee home "is an attack on our right to live in our free land."

"Racism and populism don't just threaten minorities, but the heart of democracy," he told the black sea of umbrellas.

Fear for Europe

Among the survivors who addressed the crowd personally on Sunday was Ukrainian-born Anastasija Gulej, who this year celebrates her 90th birthday. Anastasija was taken from her hometown of Gradbarowka to Germany in May 1943.

After spending almost 18 months in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Anastasija was transferred to Bergen-Belsen. It was a move which had filled her with the hope they would survive. On arriving at Belsen, however, that glimmer "faded away."

In her address to fellow survivors on Sunday, she relived the most harrowing moments of her time in Belsen.

She recalled a night in the barracks, when someone said, "Marussja, budge up a bit. Oh, you're already dead." A comment which was followed moments later by what she described as a "dull thud," as a body fell to the floor.

Speaking to DW, Anastasija bypassed concerns of growing anti-Semitism in Europe. Now living in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Anastasija believes there a greater danger to the continent.

"My greatest fear and the biggest hindrance to Europe is Mr. Putin," Anastasija said.

"I'm speaking from my heart," she implored, pointing a warning finger. "No one can trust Russian programs and television. Russia is an aggressor."

Floral tributes to the thousands

Among the five generations attending the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen was a group of teenagers from Kaiserin Augustina School in the nearby town of Celle.

Accompanied by survivors of Belsen and relatives of the victims, the students led a moving procession to the foot of the obelisk, where they laid dozens of floral tributes. It was in this moment that the scale of Belsen became clear. The systematic selection which led to the numerous mass graves across the former camp site. The evil and persecution which, 70 years on, moved many of those gathered on Sunday to tears; from personal memory, the loss of loved ones, or simply the sheer incomprehension of how the Holocaust came to exist in a period we have come to call "modern" history.

Bergen-Belsen Gedenkfeier

Rike Eisemann, 16, from Celle, hopes to prevent Belsen's atrocities happening again

As the number of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle year on year, the memory of the previously unimaginable horrors of the Nazi concentration and death camps is becoming ever more endangered. A danger which many fear, if lost, will only add to the unsettling rise of right-wing populism in Europe.

Expectation and hope

Rika Eisemann, a 16-year-old student from Kaiserin Augustina School, told DW that she feels it is her duty to continue spreading the message of Holocaust survivors, "to ensure this never happens again."

Maurice Zylberstein, who was deported from France to Belsen in May 1944, praised Germany's youth on Sunday for carrying the heavy burden of their country's past - "with strength, with courage, with dignity," he said.

"Expectation, hope: expectationof a time without terror, hope for a youth with commitment to do good," the 81-year-old added, with tears of that very hope filling eyes which had witnessed times when there was none.

"Utopia?" he asked, "Probably not."

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