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Bergen-Belsen exhibition focuses on the fate of children

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April 17, 2018

A new exhibition at the Bergen-Belsen memorial site records how children lived in the concentration camp — and in some cases survived. The curator told DW about the important testimonies that were collected for the show.

Ausstellung Kinder im KZ Bergen-Belsen
Image: Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten/W. Musterer

DW: How did you decide to do an exhibition on children in the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen?

Diana Gring: We actually started preparing in the 1990s. The head of our scientific department, Dr. Thomas Rahe, did research on children in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp while establishing first contacts with survivors.

Portrait of historian Diana Gring
Historian Diana GringImage: Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten/W. Musterer

So far, the theme of children has been underrepresented at many memorial sites and in scientific research. Children hardly had any chance at all to survive the Nazis' annihilation process. Children who were deported to Auschwitz or Treblinka were almost always killed immediately.

Over the last few years, we have collected historical sources and objects relating to these children. Through a video interview project, we obtained more than 120 testimonies from people who spent time in Bergen-Belsen as children.

What do these video interviews tell us about the lives of the children in the camp?

They provide a very varied picture as the fate of the children depended on different factors, such as when they arrived, which group of persecuted people they belonged to, where they had been caught and how old they were. What also counted was whether the children had been deported on their own or accompanied by their mother, their family or a larger group. In some cases, their parents were already dead, and the children lived in the camp without any relatives. 

Read more: Auschwitz color photo: 'A 14-year-old girl, not just a statistic'

Photograph of a little girl and a puppet
The children could only keep very few personal belongingsImage: Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten/W. Musterer

There were roughly 3,500 children under 15 years of age in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Where did these children come from? 

Around 120,000 inmates were held in Bergen-Belsen, and they came from all the European countries that had been occupied by the Germans, such as the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary and France. Most of them were Jewish. But there were also children who belonged to the Sinti and Roma minorities, or whose parents were politically persecuted by the Nazis.

Could you cite a particular story from your exhibition?

There's an example from the Netherlands. Her name is now Lous Steenhuis-Hoepelman. She was born into a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1941. Her parents were not religious; they were communists and were part of the political resistance movement. When deportations of Jews from the Nazi-occupied Netherlands started, they wanted to protect their three-year old daughter by bringing her to a non-Jewish foster family.

The presence of the child was however revealed to the occupiers, and she was arrested and transported to a prison. From there, she was brought to a group of orphans in the transit camp of Westerbork and later to Bergen-Belsen and, finally, to the concentration camp Theresienstadt where she was liberated.

Read more: Holocaust memorial director welcomes move to exclude AfD from Bergen-Belsen board

People looking at information panels
Image: Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten/W. Musterer

She was able to survive thanks to lucky circumstances and people who took care of orphans. She still has a doll from this time that accompanied her in the camps and that she has kept to this day. We show a replica of this doll in our exhibition.

Which means do you use to try to show the conditions of children in Bergen-Belsen?

Children do not tend to leave traces behind. That's quite different when it comes to adults. Through our contacts with survivors we have been able to collect numerous items, including various objects, drawings, poems. These items help illustrate how children lived in the camp.

There are five thematic blocks in our exhibition. They describe how the children were accommodated, the social constructions they belonged to, their psychological status and the factors that jeopardized their existence, such as violence or hunger. And we also present things like education and games.

Which games did the children play in the camp?

They did what children do all over the world; they imitated the world surrounding them. They played Nazi and Jew, they counted bodies that were lying in front of their barracks. That was difficult, as the corpses were lying on top of each other. We have mainly left it up to the survivors to describe the situation of the children in the camp.

The 120 interviews we've collected describe many episodes, for example the death of a father right next to a child, starvation, or things that gave them hope.

Read more: The cello saved her life: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

A selection of auto-biographies of "child survivors" in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, 2018
A selection of memoirs of children who survived the concentration camp Bergen-BelsenImage: Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten

Among the pictures, documents and souvenirs featured in your exhibition, which item is particularly precious to you? 

Quite spontaneously, I would say the picture of a baby. There's this picture of a little girl called Henriette Hamburger who died here when she was only 10 months old. And she smiles into the camera. That picture is the only thing left of her. That's one of the things that has moved me most. We also present a special section in the exhibition dedicated to the 600 children who were assassinated here.  

In Bergen-Belsen, there also existed a so-called exchange camp where the Nazis kept families as hostages. Many children survived due to this exchange center. How did the conditions in that camp shape their lives?

The fact that children were able to survive here definitely had something to do with Bergen-Belsen's different sections. In one large section, the exchange camp, inmates and families were kept as hostages. The survivors dealt with the trauma in different ways. Some of the children who survived almost never talked about their experiences afterwards. They spent decades learning to grapple with them. Some of them don't even know their own identity. 

We have one survivor who was liberated from Bergen-Belsen when he was only two years old. He spent his entire life trying to find out where he came from and family's story.

Another important factor was the family status of these children after the end of the war. Had their parents or other members of their families survived, or were they orphans who needed to be taken care of in orphanages?

These children have since grown old. What is the role of these witnesses today?

Many child survivors are realizing only now that they are important witnesses as survivors of Nazi persecution. They are very important to us as they can also help us talk to other witnesses. And that's what we will do with the 20 survivors who will attend the opening of the exhibition.

Read more: US adults rapidly forgetting the Holocaust

Diana Gring is the curator of the special exhibition "Children in the Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen" running from April 16 to September 30, 2018, at the memorial site of Bergen-Belsen.