IRGUN SHE'ERIT HAPLETA BERGEN-BELSEN ISRAEL

THE ORGANIZATION OF BERGEN-BELSEN SURVIVORS IN ISRAEL

When members of the Central Jewish Committee of the DP camp in Bergen-Belsen in Germany arrived to Israel, in the years 1948-9, they decided to establish an organization that would be an address for the survivors, in all aspects regarding their integration in the new homeland. This included all necessary information to ensure their rights. The initiators were Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Azaria (Helfgott), Rafael OlewskiRachel Ben-TsviChaim Posluszni,Yerachmiel ZingerRotstein, attorney Dr. Tibor HirschHela Berlinsky and Dov Zelmanowicz. Thanks to their acquaintance with Dr. Noah Barru of the WJC (World Jewish Congress), they were given permission to use the offices of the Congress in Tel-Aviv for meetings and  registration of members.  Later, they transferred their residence to the offices of their friend attorney Dr. Tibor Hirsch in Hahalutzim st. 2, Tel Aviv.

The Israeli Organization of Bergen-Belsen DP from the British Zone in Germany, started its activity as from 1949-50 with registrating members. In 1950 it was officially registered as an organization and its goals were: to remember, to commemorate the past, to protect the interests of the members, to act on their behalf to ensure their rights and help members in every possible way. They elected a Board of nine members, a National Council and several committees.

After a while, Joseph Rosensaft, who was Chairman of the Central Jewish Committee in Bergen-Belsen, was elected President of the organization. He was involved in all activities, advising and helping to achieve the goals of the organization.

The activity of the board became very impressive and the number of members increased. The organization had thousands of members who paid annual membership fees, which constituted the basis of the financial maintenance of the organization. Members realized that the active representatives of the Board were ready to listen to them and help them, using their abilities and special connections. Every few years, elections were held.  The Board, the National Council and the different committees, were changed. A Charity Fund was founded thanks to: contributions of members; a one-time grant by the Jewish Agency, and the financial help of Dr. Hadassah Bimko-Rosensaft. This Charity Fund lent the members money against guarantee.

Chairmen

The organization was first headed by Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Azaria (Helfgott) in the years 1949-1960. When he was appointed rabbi in Germany, Rafael Olewski was elected. Olewskiheaded the Charity Fund as well. Dov Zelmanowicz was elected Secretary General.

Rafael Olewski led the organization devotedly until his passing away in 1981. Next Chairman was Chaim Posluszni, and after his passing away in 1999, it was Dov Zelmanowicz who served as Chairman until he passed away in 2006.

Since 2006 the Chairman is Ariel Yahalomi (Dimant).

Department of Compensation Claims for members

When the Israeli and the German governments signed the compensation of war damages agreement, a special department was set up by the organization to take care of individual compensation claims. This department was headed by Rafael Olewski and attorney Dr. Tibor Hirsch. The members paid the organization a fee of 10%, 8-9%of which was paid as fee to the attorneys in Germany and in Israel, and 1-2% financed the organization's expenses [including payroll of the clerks and typists].

The office

Over the years, the organization was able to purchase a four-room apartment in a new building on Yehuda Halevy Street 143 in Tel Aviv. This apartment functioned as the members' club and the head office.

The hall, equipped with tables and chairs, books and television, housed up to 80 people and was used for gatherings and various activities such as parties, lectures, memorials, prayer, study and reading. The library included books in all languages, mainly on subjects such as history, memoirs, biographies and personal stories from the Holocaust.

World Federation

Later, Joseph Rosensaft founded in the USA an organization called World Federation of Survivors of Bergen-Belsen. He was the president, and Shemaiah (Sam) Bloch served as General Secretary. The Organization in Israel was the main branch of the World Federation, and maintained mutual cooperation and activities in all areas in order to keep in mind and commemorate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. These two centers and their activities brought to the attention of the whole world the Bergen-Belsen DP camp as the notorious and largest DP camp, operating in Germany after the liberation, during the years 1945-1950.

Activity in the Past

Working hours of the Organization’s office were from 8:00 to 18:00 everyday [except Saturdays and Holidays], in matters of compensation claims and various other issues.  Meetings of the Board, the Council, the Committees, the Charity Fund and cultural activities were held in the evenings. The organization became a second home for members, wishing to escape from loneliness or share emotions, memories and reminiscence.

Annually on Liberation Day – April 15th [or the Hebrew date Iyar 2nd] – the Organization held a multi-participants memorial assembly, as part of performing the organization’s goals. The assembly was held in large halls and included a rich program planned especially for the occasion. Prime Ministers, Ministers, Knesset members, heads of similar organizations and well known lecturers took part in these impressive memorial events. Among the speakers were also the Chairman of the Organization, members of the Board, and Joseph Rosensaft, who came from abroad in order to participate in this event. It was the most important Holocaust memorial in Israel. The press reported the event extensively, emphasizing its importance. All these memorial events are documented in tapes and films and are kept in the Organization’s documentation center. Some of them were donated to the new Documentation Center at the memorial site in Bergen-Belsen in Germany, where they still are today. Many documentary materials are treasured at The Collection of Rachel and Rafael Olewski in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.

The members of the Organization formed a large group, bounded by a similar fate and sharing mutual experiences of the DP camp in Bergen-Belsen. Many public officials, including Ministers, Knesset members, journalists, authors and other famous people were among the friends of the organization and supported its goals and activities in Israel.

Members were asked to light a candle in memory of the Day of Liberation, which was also the annual Belsen Memorial Day. They received advertising and educational materials about the Holocaust.  The organization encouraged to tell, write and publish memories for the sake of future generations. On the Day of Liberation, the Organization often held a memorial ceremony in the Holocaust Cellar in Mount Zion and in Ohel Yizkor in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

A memorial monument for Bergen-Belsen Victims was erected on Mount Zion at the square in front of the entrance to the Holocaust Cellar. This monument was granted to the Organization by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, headed by Executive Director Shlomo Kahana, of blessed memory. The monument was designed to be similar to the one near the mass graves in Bergen-Belsen. For the construction of the monument Dr. Tsvi Azariabrought ashes from the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, a symbol of the ashes of Holocaust victims.

Ashes from Bergen-Belsen were also buried in Yad Vashem's Ohel Yizkor, under the inscription bearing the name of the camp, and thus began a long tradition of memorial ceremonies and lighting the Eternal Candle on this site.

In all ceremonies, the personal participation of members has been emphasized – in lighting candles, Kaddish prayer, wreath laying, readings etc. This was done specifically in order to express the feelings of the individual, commemorating his personal and private grief over his relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

The organization together with the JNF, planted the Belsen Forest in Eshtaol at the outskirts of Jerusalem, and occasionally gatherings were held there.  A natural stone tablet with the words Belsen Forest welcomes the visitors at the entrance to the forest.

A special national campaign was held to name streets after Holocaust Martyrs or Belsen Martyrs in Israeli cities, such as Ashdod, Herzliya, Holon, Kfar Saba, Netanya, Acre, Afula, and Kiryat Chaim.  

Publishing Books

Books are the best tool to describe and commemorate. Therefore the Organization in Israel, and the World Federation supported the publishing of the following books:

 "Belsen" in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

 A book-album "Destruction and Rebirth" edited by Sam Bloch.

"Chapters on the Holocaust and Jewish Survivors" by Dr. Tsemach Tsamrion.

 "The Press of the DP in Germany" by Dr. Tsemach Tsamrion.

 A book of poetry "I called you, Oh Jerusalem" in Polish and Hebrew by Czeslaw Szlazek.

"Lider von the Dead Sea" by A. Sutskever.

 "The Book of  Heroism" with the Ministry of Defense.

 "The Tear" by Rafael Olewski

 "That's How It Happened" in Yiddish and Hebrew

 "Ch'tu Dermanen" in Yiddish by Jacob Glatstein.

 "Lider fun Hurban un Lider fun Gloybn" in Yiddish by Aaron Zeitlin.

 In some cases financial assistance was granted for the publication of a book by one of the members. On the event in honor of the publication of "The Book of Heroism”, participated – in addition to public and government officials – also IDF generals and Defense Ministry officials, since the book is about war heroes, mainly of the Six-Day War, and of Gallantry Awards soldiers.

Correspondents, members of the Journalists’ Club Sokolov House, and especially their late general secretary Moshe Ron, helped in matters concerning writers and journalism. The garden of Sokolov House hosted a party for the publication of Dr. Tsemacḥ Tsamrion's books "Chapters on the Holocaust and Jewish Survivors" and "The Press of the DP inGermany".

Every Tenth of Tevet a public prayer was held in the club of the organization where members studied Mishna and said Kaddish. At the Holocaust Cellar in Jerusalem a public prayer and studying of Mishna took place on that day, including lighting candles at the Memory Corner consecrated to Bergen-Belsen or at the inscription of Bergen-Belsen on this site.

The Organization operated a Charity Fund which lent money to the members. In addition, there was also a committee of Social Assistance for needy or sick members.  Twice a year – on Rosh Hashanah and Passover – relief funds were distributed to the needy persons.

In some cases, the organization donated scholarships, especially for those who studied in universities or colleges and could not afford the tuition or were about to end their thesis.

Events

Many well-attended gatherings and Dinner events were held at the Sharon hotel in Herzliya or at the Sokolov House in Tel Aviv, in order to mark the Day of Liberation or the publication of books. Parties at the Sharon hotel were usually funded by Joseph Rosensaft or the World Federation.  The Israeli Organization arranged all technical aspects and took care of the media. Events at the Sharon hotel were attended by many public figures and members of the government, and were followed by detailed reports in the press.

The Organization's Club was used for maintaining contact with the members and for cultural activities and public meetings, which were held usually on Tuesday evenings. Lecturers, singers and musicians took part in these meetings. The lectures were varied and focused on a range of subjects of interest, History and Judaism, Zionism, Hasidism, Holocaust and current events. In 1982, by decision of the Executive Board, the club was named in honor of the late Rafael Olewski.

Close contact with the Jewish community in Hanover was held for two main reasons. First, with the intention that the local representatives would take care of the memorial site in Bergen-Belsen, on our behalf, especially the mass graves and the Jewish monument. Second, to make it possible for our delegations to visit the place and escort them when performing memorial ceremonies at the monument. Ceremonies and wreaths’ laying at the monument feel different when the traditional prayers are in Hebrew.

Marking 30 years to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1975, Chairman Rafael Olewski initiated bringing a marble plaque from Israel, which was attached to the original Jewish monument, erected on the first year of liberation. The marble board was etched with the words "The stones of the wall will cry out" [Habakkuk, 2, 11]; and "Behold, I lay in Zion a stone" [Isaiah 28, 16], and this text: "Bergen-Belsen survivors, who clanged to Israel, brought this stone from the hills of Jerusalem, marking the thirtieth year of their liberation. The Organization of Bergen-Belsen Survivors in Israel, Iyar 5735, April 1975 ".

The Bergen-Belsen Organization in Israel was always in close relations with fellow-organizations such as the Nazi ex-Prisoners Association and the Association of Greek Jews, some of which were also survivors of Bergen-Belsen. The relationships with these organizations were based on similar identity, ideological reflections and activity. In addition, the Bergen-Belsen Organization had always representatives in other organizations and institutions such as: the Council of Yad Vashem, Organization of Fighters and Partisans, Center of Organizations, Organization of Forced Laborers, and others.

Over the years, with the passing away of many members, [some of them were very active in the Organization], and especially after the passing away of Rafael Olewski, and due to the successful implementation of most of the goals set with the founding of the Organization, its activities greatly diminished. The growing taxes and expenses on the one hand, the shrinking of revenues on the other, [due to mortality of the members], reduced the organization's budget. The Board decided to close the Organization and stop its activity. According to its own regulations, closing the organization had to be followed by the act of submitting its property, namely the apartment, to Yad Vashem, or to the municipality.  After long and tedious negotiations, the apartment was donated to the Tel-Aviv Municipality. The Department of Social Welfare is maintaining there a social club for the elderly population. According to the contract with the Tel-Aviv municipality, the Organization of Bergen-Belsen Israel continues to conduct its operations in one room, used as the organization's office, and in Rafael Olewski Club, [named after the former chairman of the Organization], where there is a Memorial Corner. The books of the library were distributed among public libraries, and the files dealing with compensation claims were delivered to the memorial archive in Germany.

The Organization today

In 2004, the Organization legally registered as a non-profitable association under the same name, with a small Executive Board of five members. With the expansion of operations, the Executive Board currently consists of seven members – all volunteers: three survivors and four second generation born in  Bergen-Belsen DP Camp.

Activity currently includes, according to the regulations, remembrancememory, andcommemoration. These are being achieved through keeping on-going communication with the members, organizing various activities, events, gatherings a few times each year, publishing an international Magazine  Our Voice – Undzer Stymme and keeping close contact  with the Foundation of the Memorial site of Bergen-Belsen in Lower-Saxony, Germany.

Every year a general assembly of members takes place, approving of the annual budget, of the Members of the Board and of the activities of the organization ([registered voluntary association no. 580 418 549].

In 2005, we held three meetings with members, and we went on with current operations and activities. We also organized a delegation of members – survivors, 2nd and 3rd generations – to visit the Memorial site in Bergen-Belsen, Germany, in order to participate in the 60th anniversary of the Liberation.

In 2006 we visited the new museum in Yad Vashem on a guided tour for a whole day. To mark the 61st Liberation Day, we held a memorial ceremony in Beit Lihyot in Holon. We had a general assembly of members and on-going various activities.

In October 2007, a delegation representing the Israeli Organization went to Germany to take part in an extremely special event marking the opening of the new Museum and Documentation Center on the Memorial site in Bergen-Belsen. The delegation consisted of camp survivors, and their second and third generations.

All these years the Organization received help and outstanding support from the Chairman of Lower-Saxony Memorials Foundation Wilfried Wiedemann, until his retirement. Thanks to this support we could carry on with our activities.  

In 2008 we celebrated Hanukkah in a merry party and a humorous show. In April we held a moving event commemorating the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in the Organization’s Club.

In 2009 there was a memorial service commemorating the liberation in April. In May, Dr. Habbo Knoch, Chairman of Lower-Saxony Memorials Foundation, visited Israel and met with Members of the Board.

In November 2009 a festive meeting of the General Assembly was held including an artistic program and refreshments. In December we celebrated Hanukkah in a joyous and merry party.

In April 2010, marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, a large delegation of survivors and their second and third generations went to Germany. This journey was an unforgettable experience for the participants. For some survivors it might have been the last visit to site of the former camp of Bergen-Belsen.

The Organization through the philatic Israeli service issued, on the occasion of this journey, a special festive Postal Stamp Issue that was presented only to participants of the trip and the hosts in Germany.

As we were just about to return home, an unexpected cosmic event changed our plans. A huge volcanic ash cloud from Iceland covered the skies of Europe. Airplanes were grounded and the Israeli delegation couldn't fly back to Israel.  As a result all Israelis were stuck in Germany on our Independence Day. The Jewish community in Hanover took upon itself to cheer us up, organizing a spontaneous party. Due to the ash cloud and thanks to the Jewish community, survivors and their children enjoyed a celebration they would probably always bear in their hearts.

In September 2010, an exciting event for Rosh Hashanah (New Year) was held. This was the first time that General Benny Gantz, at the time Deputy Chief of Staff, participated. General Gantz is the son of the late Malka Weiss, who was liberated in Bergen-Belsen.

In November 2010, members of the Organization, survivors and their children went on a special tour to Jerusalem in the footsteps of the paratroopers who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem.

In 2011 we went with Moshe Harmatz, a most professional tour guide whose father was liberated in Bergen-Belsen, to Rappaport’s Monument of Fire in the Jerusalem hills and to the Ammunition Hill, where we learned about the outstanding story of the bloody battle which took place there

In April 2011 we held a memorial ceremony in honor of the Liberation Day with a guest-speaker Dr. Dennis Sharvit, who lectured on the Holocaust in France. The lecture was followed, as usual, by moving personal stories of members telling of their own moment of liberation in Bergen-Belsen.

In Hanukkah of December 2011 we had a merry traditional party in a community club on Rashi Street in Tel-Aviv.

In March 2012 we were invited by Yad Vashem as guests of the Department of Remembrance. We visited two exhibitions – an exhibition marking 50 years to the Eichmann Trial and an exhibition "No Children's Games" – the world of children during the Holocaust. We attended a lecture by Naama Galil, director of training at Yad Vashem, on “The survivors' part in the struggle to establish the State of Israel".

In May 2012 members went to a tour in Jerusalem, following the Underground Fighters. This special tour included a visit to the impressive Menachem Begin Heritage Center.

At the end of August 2012 we celebrated the end of the summer. We took an interesting tour to the Palmach Museum, where we had refreshments and raised a glass of wine for the coming New Year

On November 30th, 2012, in Bergen-Belsen, a special event was held to mark the 60thanniversary of the erection of the memorial site there. On this special occasion two statements were published:

Bergen-Belsen Survivors published a Heritage Statement for future generations. ChairmanAriel Yahalomi was among the signatories on the statement.

A Statement on behalf of the Second Generation,  who were born in the DP camp Bergen-Belsen, was signed by Jochi Ritz-Olewski from Israel and Menachem Rosensaft from USA.

On April 2013 we celebrated the 68th Liberation Day of Bergen-Belsen exactly on the eve of Israel Independence Day. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz issued an announcement saluting the survivors of Bergen-Belsen.

On February 2014 members of the organization visited the Israeli Aero Industries facilities and were welcomed warmly by their hosts. The visit was very interesting and extremely moving. The survivors felt pride in view of the great achievements and advanced technologies developed in the state of Israel. For the survivors this is one more demonstration of their victory over Nazi Germany.

On April 2014 we celebrated tradionally the Liberation Day.

On September 2014 we got together to welcome the New Year while enjoying Hasidic music and learning how it has developed throughout the years.

Our Voice – the new Undzer Stymme

Since 2010 the organization has been publishing a newsletter called Our Voice or in Yiddish: Undzer Stymme. This name was chosen as a tribute to the journal Undzer Stymme published in the Bergen-Belsen DP Camp in Germany after the liberation. It was then the first Jewish magazine in Yiddish published in Germany after the Holocaust.

The new magazine serves as a platform for members, survivors as well as for Second and Third generations. The articles are written by members or researchers from Israel and abroad. The newsletter is international, and presents some articles both in Hebrew and in English in order to create a connecting bridge for the readers everywhere.

Foreign Relations

Relationship with the German Foundation of Memorials in the State of Lower Saxony [Niedersachsen] is being kept on a regular basis throughout the years. Jochi Ritz-Olewski is the representative of the Israeli Organization on the International Board of Directors of the Foundation in Lower Saxony.

In 2010, Minister Elizabeth Heister-Neumann visited Israel. Mrs. Heister-Neumann was at the time the Minister of Education of Lower Saxony – the ministry which is responsible for the memorial at Bergen-Belsen. Mrs. Heister-Neumann met with the members of the Board of the organization and was deeply impressed by its activity.

On August 2012, David McAllister, then Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, visited Israel. He met in Jerusalem with Jochi Ritz-Olewski expressing great interest in the goals and activity of the organization. Mr. McAllister also asked for suggestions how to expand the activities of the Memorial site in Bergen-Belsen – the most important Holocaust site in the state of Lower Saxony.

On October 2014 Jochi Ritz-Olewski met with Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner, the new Chairman of the Foundation of Memorials in Lower Saxony, as of September 1st, 2014. They discussed the cooperation and support of the Foundation of the Organization's activities in Israel, and the preparations for the events on April 2015 in Germany, marking the 70th anniversary to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

Financial resources

The organization is able to continue its activities only due to a financial annual support it receives from the Foundation in Germany. Since last year the members are asked to pay annual symbolic member-fees but the income is small as not all members pay regularly. Occasionally, members participating in certain activities are asked to assist with symbolic funding, such as paying for transportation on a guided tour. All expenses, including the current administration, telephone, taxes, office supplies, mail, events, conferences, wreaths for the site in Bergen-Belsen, etc. are imposed on the organization. The Board of the organization is controlling expenses and works within a limited budget. All members of the Board are working on a voluntary basis.

Occasionally, a special contribution is donated, on behalf of the Jewish Communities in Lower Saxony, by attorney Michael Fuerst, Chairman of these communities. Michael Fuerst is a devoted friend of the Israeli Organization and shares some of our activities. This contribution enables the publication of the newsletter Our Voice [Undzer Stymme].

About 400 members [survivors, second and third generation] are currently registered in the organization.

In the years 2007 -2015, more than 300 new members have registered in the organization!   New members are joining us every month.