Zysman

“How did I find myself at the hallucinatory site of Bergen-Belsen? I volunteered for the army at the age of 18 and, following my father’s advice, left France in June 1940 to join the Allied forces in Great Britain, which I reached after many difficulties. Because of my knowledge of foreign languages I was incorporated into a small armoured reconnaissance unit made up of British, Canadian, French and Polish men commanded by General Dempsey.

At dawn on 15 April 1945, I was riding in my scout car when an order came over the radio for me to join a regiment stationed in the German port of Bremen with a few mates and a lorry loaded with food. I was quite intrigued. This was the first time since landing in Normandy (at Juno Beach) that I had received such an order. On the afternoon of the same day, speeding along with my mates, I learned by radio that I had to present myself to an officer at a concentration camp whose location was confirmed to me by radio code. According to my maps, the camp was located between Hanover and Hamburg. The first thing I noticed coming near the camp was an acrid, indefinable, increasingly sickening smell that I will never forget. It was a fetid, choking odour, the smell of a charnel house, that grabbed you by the throat and hovered along the road, over fields and woods. Mounds of striped rags were in the distance. We had a hard time figuring out what they were. Later I realised that they were corpses.

We reached our destination a few minutes later. I came upon a nightmarish world: skeletal human bodies, their heads shaved, naked, covered in rags or half-dressed in filthy blankets with holes in them. Some, their eyes gaunt, could barely move. Stunned men and women, few children. The luckiest ones, wearing what looked like blue and grey striped pajamas, begged us for something to eat with barely audible voices in different languages: French, Slovak, Polish, Yiddish, Romanian, etc. In fact, I was looking at the living dead.

I had not seen everything yet. Next to the barracks there was a mound of human bodies, where it was hard to tell the difference between men and women. Other dead bodies were clinging to the barbed-wire fences: they had tried to escape. Further on, open-air mass graves were full of rotting corpses. I walked on muddy paths through the camp, where I stayed two and a half days, unable to understand, feeling helpless.

At dawn on 17 April, if my memory is correct, special units arrived for a general disinfection. The day before it was still hell: no running water or electricity. The headlights of military vehicles illuminated part of the camp at night; an apocalyptic vision of living shadows, the dying unable to sleep, and where would they if they could? Many of the barracks had been destroyed. There were no more bunks, the straw mats had been burned, the latrines had been destroyed as well.

The camp commander was SS Hauptsturmführer Joseph Kramer, who was arrested, tried by an Allied military tribunal, sentenced to death and immediately executed by hanging. I stayed in this place another few hours to watch German prisoners and local residents forced to dig graves and bury the corpses that covered the ground of the cursed camp…”

Mr. Zysman, 1939-1945 Allied forces veteran, describing the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, published in Les Chemins de la Mémoire, June 2000 on the 55th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.