Christmas at Belsen was rather different to homely war-time Christmas in the quiet Dorset village where I’d lived before being uprooted to join my new parents.
Having been at war since I was a baby, my father had more experience of leading tanks into battle than bringing up a shy nine- year- old girl, while my stepmother knew nothing about children. We all had to make the best of it, and one of the best things was visiting the Duke of Hanover’s palace, a little way out of Belsen – and splendid it was. (What had he made of the concentration camp on his doorstep?)
I was taken occasionally for Sunday lunch there, and for the children’s Christmas Party. We played games like pass- the – parcel, and then musical chairs in the ballroom lined with huge gilt mirrors, under shining chandeliers, slipping and sliding on the marble floor while little gilt chairs were subtracted from the circle. Then, when the party ended, like nearly every other party of my childhood, we danced Sir Roger de Coverley, with the parents standing round clapping in time to the music.
Some weekends, we drove out to the Duke’s hunting lodge in the middle of a dark pine forest, where deer darted out onto the road, and wild boar lurked. This gemutlich little pile was now the officers club, run by a friendly middle-aged German couple.
Had they always been the stewards of this place, I wondered later? Did they transfer their loyalties to their new employers in the interim, and hold the place in trust until the Duke regained his ancestral homes – if indeed he did? Anyway, their speciality was delicious, lavishly sugared doughnuts, stuffed with butter icing. The glory of these doughnuts in a life of total gastronomic deprivation and war-time rations was utterly memorable (Did the Duke enjoy them too, before and after us?)
Doctor Muller, the German vet, called on us regularly, whether our various dogs needed his attentions or not. He regarded my parents – or at any rate, their gin bottle – as friends. In return for the generous helpings of gin and tonic he sipped – unobtainable in civilian Germany – he would bring my stepmother specimens of the many amazing varieties of exotic orchids which he grew. I thought they were awful, not like flowers at all, but fantastically petalled and bearded and contorted in strange sharp pinks and acid greens and yellows. He would arrive bearing this gift, and bend over my stepmother’s hand, clicking his heels together and bowing.
After some months of laborious social intercourse – his English became more broken with the quantity of gin consumed – we were invited to his house in Bergen to meet his wife.
We had tea on exquisite Meissen china, but because they could get sugar at the time, but no flour, we had no cakes or biscuits, but dipped sour apples from the garden into the sugar, as a substitute for cake. The grownups managed with a cup of tea. The doctor’s wife was a fair-haired, washed-out, melancholy woman. When I exclaimed over the beautiful porcelain, she explained that they’d hidden it with all their other treasures in a hole under the cellar, so the invaders wouldn’t loot them.
Even as a child I thought this was rather tactless. Invaders? Was she talking about us? She also reminisced about the awfulness of the war to my parents, and she and her daughter Suzanne, described the anguish of seeing their poor, wounded soldiers in blood- stained bandages in passing trains. Back home I heard my stepmother snort: “If they saw those trains, how come they didn’t know about the others!”
Years later, I realised she was referring to the trains of the condemned heading for Belsen. In her book: ‘The Children’s House of Belsen, Hetty Verolme described the platform at Celle lined with thirty SS men and Alsation dogs straining at the leash as the train pulled in. They then, eleven hundred young and old from Holland, sick or exhausted, straggled all the miles to Belsen on foot and apparently unobserved by the local population, who denied all knowledge of the camp when the British authorities discovered it and questioned them.
But the friendship limped on. One summer’s day, the vet’s two younger children, Hildegarde and Carljurgen, thirteen and fourteen, the one in dirndl skirt and long, white lace socks, the other in leather lederhosen, long, white lace socks and black boots, took me driving in their farm cart.
We rumbled and swayed down narrow farm tracks between fields of blazing blue and purple lupins shimmering with tiny butterflies in the sunshine. Carljurgen let me hold the reins. He avoided that other field, where there were miles and miles of burnt -out German tanks my parents had shown me one dank winter’s day.
It was another ten years before I read Anne Franck’s diaries. It came as a shock to me then, to realise that I had been living in the same place where she had lived briefly, suffered and died.
I’m a chronic re-reader of most books I’ve read, yet I cannot bear to re-read her chronicle of life lived beneath the terror of Nazi inhumanity. But as the years have gone by, her shining spirit has risen above the degradation of that Nazi oppression, and has become a beacon of light.
Though the evil that was Nazism destroyed her physical body, the power of her courage, intelligence, thirst for life, and sheer goodness was not destroyed. She still inspires people from all over the world to visit the building where she and her family hid, and they travel to the memorial to her and her sister Margot at Bergen- Belsen.
It‘s mainly due to Anne Franck that the world today is conscious of Bergen- Belsen… there were many other concentration camps just as bad all over the Nazi empire – nearly three hundred – and many of them are forgotten. But Bergen- Belsen has become symbolic of them all, and serves to remind us all of events and atrocities that must never be repeated.
Teenager Anne wrote prophetically: ‘I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me.’
In death this is exactly what she did achieve, she has gone on living, her words have been both useful and enjoyable, and her life and her death an amazing and triumphant testament to the power of One.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Winter and comfort food, and a love affair with the crock pot. Last week I discovered it was possible to bake whole potatoes in their jackets in the crock pot, instead of using the oven for just one potato! Just prick them with a fork, drizzle a bit of olive oil over them and wrap them in foil. I cooked two medium sized potatoes on high for three to four hours… it depends on the size… but they come to no harm when checked for softness towards the end of the cooking time. Sliced in half horizontally, gently mashed with butter and sprinkled with grated cheese they’re a filling, comforting meal on their own. Naturally, virtuous people have some green vegetables with them… I had some Brussels sprouts!
Food for thought
To be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human being ever fights and never stop fighting.