This was written on 28 April 2015, the day I returned from Bergen-Belsen from the 70th anniversary commemoration, and the day my father died.
In May 1945, my mother, not yet 25, entered the gates of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony, Germany. She was in the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), the 29th General Hospital, and a qualified nurse. My mother spoke little of this time – I have pieced together things from a couple of conversations and the only two letters we still have. She sent these to her husband of less than a year, my father. One was sent the week before her transport to the camp, one a day or two later.
The hardest thing about these letters from Captain Kathleen Elvidge is that they are in the hand I know so well, from the notes that got me off PE, the letters that lightened days at college when I was homesick, and the birthday cards that I still miss. And here this beloved handwriting talks of brutality and hatred and pain and suffering.
For the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in April 2015, Tim and I stayed in Celle, a few miles from the camp and a beautiful mediaeval town full of timbered and decorated houses and shops from the 1400s and 1500s. My mother mentioned the town in her letter, and it was a strange feeling that I walked amongst the buildings where she would have walked too. Sitting outside a cafe in the sun, I looked at the older people there and wondered who had been there then, either in the camp, or outside in the 'real' world.
I think what was so shocking at first about the camp was the beauty. The wooded glades, the open grassed area, the birdsong and the sunshine. And then I realised that not a single tree trunk was bigger than a span wide; nothing older than a handful of decades, and the grassed areas, bounded by low walls, were the mass graves. 'Hier ruhen 1000 tote'. 'Hier ruhen 5000 tote'. A total of at least 23,200 dead. I couldn't take much in, that first day, just a feel for the place, the beauty and the horror, and a feeling of disconnect.
The day of the ceremony it rained. As I walked across the camp under a now dark and cloudy sky, I could hear the haunting strains of a Jewish choir, and see the wreaths laid by groups around the area and around the world. At the gathering under the towering obelisk, people spoke in German and in English. In Roma languages. In Hebrew, Hungarian and French. Much of it I didn't understand, but some things just don't need words. I laid a yellow tulip by one of the mass graves, and the disconnect was gone.
The exhibition tells the story of the camp, from its early days as a prisoner of war camp, through the horrors of the time as a concentration camp, where gas chambers weren't needed, because it was enough to let the starvation and the disease do the work, to the liberation and beyond as a displaced person's camp. The stories are captured in words, while they are beyond words – tales of inhumanity and terrible, terrible death, with pictures of twisted and emaciated bodies where it is hard to tell the alive from the dying and the dead. And around this are the elderly people who survived, some alone and subdued, some with families. Some greeting each other with the feel of a school reunion, or of meeting long-lost relatives from family long separated. Sadness and joy. Bitterness and love.
In these awful images, I saw only a fraction of the horror that must have greeted my mother. Despite her arrival at Belsen being around a month after liberation, the camp was still strewn with bodies, and she had to watch the ex-camp warders throwing bodies into mass graves and covering them with earth using bulldozers. The nurses made sure that the dead were at least dignified by a wrapping of clean cloth, and ensured that their passing was marked with a prayer from the padre.
She worked at the emergency hospital established at the military barracks that made up part of the camp, now making up part of a British Army base. The prisoners – dissidents and homosexuals, Roma and Sinti, Jews and anti-Nazi Christians, Poles, Russians and Hungarians, children and babies – were beyond bone-thin. They had been given only the meagerest of meagre rations, including watery turnip soup and bread, and my mother spoke of how hard it was to hold back food from people who were starving, but whose bodies could not cope with anything other than tiny portions. She also talked of women stealing bread from others, and from the dead, to feed their children, even after food was available. They were scarred physically and emotionally, diseased, lice-ridden and afraid.
While I was there, I mourned my mother's loss all over again, but also feel closer to her than ever before, because I have seen a little of what she saw, and walked a few of the places where she walked. Perhaps I have laid a few ghosts.
And now I'm back, with a feeling that something has irrevocably changed, and so I wonder why the rest of the world is carrying on as normal. It's like coming back from hospital the morning my mother died, and wondering how other people could drink tea with friends, and shop, and call to their children, as if nothing had happened. Because of course for them, nothing had. I just need a little time.