Bergen-Belsen, where Anne and Margot Frank died, was the first concentration camp memorial site I visited. It is located in northwestern Germany, sixty kilometers (approximately 37 miles) northeast of Hannover.
There are no rusty fences to touch or authentic buildings to walk through. Bergen-Belsen is a vast field with grassy knolls and memorial markers, surrounded by a pine forest. The barracks, originally constructed of wood, were burned by the British liberators because they were infested with typhus and other diseases. I walked alone across the expansive grounds and saw that at the base of each knoll was a gray stone slab with a number: 1000, 1500, 2000. These were the mass graves, fifty years after the end in 1945. The numbers told me how many bodies were buried in each one.
In the museum, I found a facsimile copy of the prisoner data recorded by the SS. It was essentially a directory of the prisoners’ names, with birthday, place of deportation and profession if applicable. This heavy document rested on a high table, like a Bible on a pulpit, and I remember standing there, leafing through the pages, taking in the thousands of names. Physically it felt like searching through a phone book, hundreds of pages with old typewritten letters on white paper. Emotionally it was entirely different. I remember the page for Anne and Margot. It was worn and dirty. I was not the only one who had searched for them.
Anne, who was born in Frankfurt, became a refugee and fled Nazi Germany with her family when she was three years old. They settled in Amsterdam because her father believed the Dutch to be more tolerant of Jews. In 1942, the Franks went into hiding after Margot received a deportation summons to a work camp. They survived more than two years before they were discovered on August 4, 1944. They were first taken to Westerbork, a camp located approximately 110 miles northwest of Amsterdam, then deported to Auschwitz. Her mother died there, but Anne and Margot were transported back across Europe to Bergen-Belsen, to her birth country, where they both died in March 1945 – two months before the liberation of The Netherlands. Anne identified strongly with Holland and wrote her diary in Dutch, making it easy for us to forget that she was actually born German.
I could not imagine Anne in Bergen-Belsen. She did not belong to the images of violence, cruelty, desperation and filth that filled the museum. I could not see her face behind the barbed wire, trying to survive, waiting for freedom. On a video screen I watched black and white newsreel footage of thousands of dead bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. The driver, a British soldier and cameraman named Mike Lewis, held a handkerchief against his face, covering his nose and mouth. He explained that the handkerchief was soaked in petrol to cover up the smell of death. When the petrol got too strong for him, he had to take it off. I could not accept that one of those bodies was hers.
When I thought of Anne, I recalled the pictures of her that have become so familiar over the years. I saw her writing. I saw her head bent over her notebook. I saw her smile. I saw her dark eyes looking through me, the white collar against her dark sweater. I saw her small child’s back, standing next to Margot at the seashore, Anne’s dark hair cropped short at the back of her neck. When I thought of Anne, she was alive.
Notes from my travel journal: We visited Bergen-Belsen today. I have mixed feelings about it. It was not exactly what I expected, but at the same time just what I expected.
There isn’t a train that goes directly there, so you have to drive.
There are no barracks, no fences, no watchtowers. Just trees, grass and the mounds with markers for the graves.
The grass is green and there are daisies and other flowers growing. It feels peaceful, but at the same time…morbid. I must admit, that in that landscape, it is challenging if not difficult, to imagine how it once was.
I heard gunshots fired at regular intervals and later I asked our project leader (I was staying in the area for a two weeks on a service project). He told me there was a police training school adjacent to the memorial, hidden from view by the forest. The shots I heard were likely some kind of practice drill. I did not understand this. Was it appropriate to hear gunshots so close to a former concentration camp? Surely it was not necessary for a police training facility to be right next door? It did not seem right to me – not in my mind, not in my body. Hadn’t anyone protested?
Click here to read the next story: Prinsengracht 263 Amsterdam