By Hannah Mills, Education Associate at The HC –
On April 15, 2023, we marked the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp located in Lower Saxony in Northern Germany. While many recall it as the final resting place of Anne and Margot Frank, I associate it with my grandfather, Hans Joseph “Harry” Isenberg (1930-1981), who was liberated from the camp shortly before his 15th birthday.
SEARCHING FOR INFORMATION
I did not know my grandfather. He died many years before my birth, but I have always felt a kinship with him: our birthdays are two days apart, and I was named for him. On Yom HaShoah, when I was seven, my mother told me my grandfather was a survivor. The only name she shared was Bergen-Belsen.
My grandfather did not share much with my mother – not even his birth name or his hometown of Battenberg, Germany. Through official documentation and his own personal records, I learned that after a 1939 Kindertransport to Antwerp, Belgium, he was sent back home to Germany in the summer of 1941 to escape Nazi persecution in Belgium. In December of that year, his family was deported to the Riga Ghetto, where my grandfather remained until its closure, surviving abhorrent conditions and rheumatic fever.
He was the last of his family left alive. From there, his letters make mention of the Latvian port city of Libau, a major site of evacuation as the Russians closed in on the Eastern Front. He apparently took a ship from that city to Hamburg, and was briefly interned in Neuengamme, before spending the last month of his incarceration in Bergen-Belsen.
But to my mother, he only mentioned Belgium and Bergen-Belsen. Just as Bergen-Belsen loomed large in my grandfather’s memory, so too has it loomed in mine. As a child, I would sit in the office at my parents’ house, reading what I could find about the camp, trying to understand what my grandfather would have seen and felt.
UNDERSTANDING BERGEN-BELSEN’S HISTORY
Bergen-Belsen opened in 1940 at the site of a military training area as a camp intended for 10,000 French and Belgian prisoners of war (POWs), before expanding in 1941 to include over 21,000 Russian POWs. From 1943 to 1945, Nazi officials established smaller subcamps to house Polish POWs, political prisoners, Jewish prisoners of many nationalities, and a special camp of well-cared-for and high-profile prisoners held for exchanges with other countries.
Beginning in 1944, as Allied Forces pushed against the Germans on the Western and Eastern fronts, the Nazis orchestrated mass death marches of prisoners away from war zones into Germany proper. While many prisoners died along the way, those who survived were ushered into camps that were already overfilled, such as Dachau, Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. These crowded conditions were a nightmare for prisoners.
Bergen-Belsen was notorious for its neglect and rampant outbreaks of disease. While typhus killed Anne and Margot Frank, my grandfather nearly died of tuberculosis. After British and Canadian forces liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, they found mountains of unburied bodies and many prisoners so sick they could not even stand. Over 28,000 former prisoners died in the months after liberation of disease and complications from starvation.
LIVING WITH THE AFTERMATH
On July 11, 1945, my grandfather, afflicted with tuberculosis in his lungs and bones, was taken by ship to convalesce in Sweden, along with others who were considered at high risk of death. My grandfather was able to immigrate to the United States in 1946 to live with his paternal uncles, who had managed to escape Germany in the 1930s. He earned a GED, met my grandmother, and raised three children in Deerfield, Illinois.
All the while, he was a sick and angry man. He never fully recovered from his experiences. My grandfather’s health took a turn for the worse in the 1960s. On November 5, 1965, his doctor noted that he had long had pain in his right chest along with “hypertension, severe headaches and marked anxieties since his traumatic experiences in the camp.” He had many heart attacks, eventually carrying his pain and history with him to an early grave at the age of 51.
My grandfather spent decades communicating with lawyers and German authorities to seek restitution for the deaths of his mother, father, sisters, and grandmother. The one piece that eluded him was his own restitution: numerous letters between him and lawyer Heinz A. Pinner referenced disagreements on the connection between my grandfather’s camp illnesses and his later suffering. No doctor would say conclusively if my grandfather’s suspicions were correct.
In a letter from July 13, 1980, to Mr. Pinner, my grandfather wrote: “I hope to fight on for a long, long time and I hope never to give into any weaknesses that I have now or may incur in the future.” He died a year and a half later.
REFLECTING ON LOST MOMENTS
I firmly believe that because of Bergen-Belsen, I missed out on having Harry Isenberg as my grandfather. Because of Bergen-Belsen, my grandfather’s story died with him.
When we think of concentration camps, it is easy to believe the story ends on the day of liberation. What is liberation to a child whose life was upended, whose family was lost, and who must travel alone across oceans to find a home? Those of us who are descendants of Holocaust survivors understand that this pain did not end in 1945. My grandfather’s experiences cast a shadow on our family so great that I, as his granddaughter, can still feel it today.
On the many days of liberation we mark over the course of April and May, I encourage you to think not just of those who died, but of those who survived and re-lived their experiences in silence.