Jean Matteoli

“A Day Like Any Other in Bergen-Belsen, Match, special issue, 8 May 1945, 1995.

”It was a day like any other in Bergen-Belsen. Sometimes a kind of shudder went through the shapeless mass of deportees stretched out on the ground, worn out by hunger, thirst and exhaustion; so weak they could no longer rise or sit. It was whispered that English troops might be near the camp. They even said a tracked vehicle entered yesterday. Was it true, and who saw it? Sometimes heads slowly rose only to drop  again, slowly. We were so tired.

Yet something happened today. Sighs, barely audible words. Men in uniform were advancing. With a little trouble, I could make them out now. They were English. But there was no sign of enthusiasm, no cries of joy. We were so tired. The soldiers moved forward. They looked gaunt. They couldn’t believe their eyes.

The half-dead, those who, like me, knew they would die soon, lay on the fleshless corpses scattered throughout the camp. On the ground, a thick carpet of dirty blankets and filthy rags taken off corpses was burning without a visible flame. Here and there bits of charred flesh came out of the curls of black smoke that smelled like burning canvas, like the smoke from the crematories in the camps we came from. Tomorrow British officers would look for those among us who had played a role in the Resistance. I introduced myself. They gave me a microphone. Later I found out that my parents and fiancée heard my voice on the BBC. How could they not think that soon I would be back in France? Yet they had to wait until 30 May to see me again. In the meantime I had fallen victim to the typhus epidemic.

I have only a few vagues, scattered memories of the long period that went by until my return to life and liberty. Total oblivion between brief moments of consciousness.

I do remember a Hungarian who kneeled over me and washed my tongue with a moist cloth to let me breathe. I remember a stone table outside the camp on which two German women  stretched me out naked to wash me with big sprays of cold water. I remember the day when I was dragged on the ground to a room that seemed very far away, where I could drink a little water from a wash basin. I also remember the awful moment of anguish when I thought I would choke to death after dipping a piece of bread into a bowl of soup that had been brought to me. Lastly, I remember the day I left, staggering with exhaustion, the building in which I had survived to arrive at a stable where a repatriation mission was located. And then, I see myself refusing to put on an American outfit that British soldiers had just offered me. I see their surprise, their return with a Royal Air Force uniform intended for me. I felt like a man and a soldier again. I see the military plane that took us away. We landed in the pouring rain. American soldiers arrived in a hurry to spray us with an aggressive powder from head to toe. My beautiful uniform was already covered with a white crust. I could have cried tears of bitterness.

I see myself at the Hotel Lutétia, where, like everybody who came back from Germany, I had to answer a suspicious interrogation. I see the two nuns who, with infinite pity, led me to a room. I slept a few hours. When I woke up, the two nuns were at the foot of my bed. They lovingly carried my uniform, which they had cleaned and ironed. That is when I got my pride back.”