A Return to Bergen-Belsen and the Future of Holocaust Remembrance | Opinion

When Israeli President Isaac Herzog and German President Franz-Walter Steinmeier walked through the memorial site of the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in northwest Germany on Sept. 6, 2022, they were accompanied by a carefully screened delegation that included government officials, diplomats, clergy, survivors of the camp, and two of the more than 2,000 children who were born between 1945 and 1950 in the nearby displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen—Yochevet Ritz-Olewski from Israel and Menachem Rosensaft from New York.

For me, as a German Jew and as the executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, Menachem Rosensaft's presence at Bergen-Belsen was especially important. Menachem, the WJC's associate executive vice president and general counsel, is not only my colleague and friend. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of two prestigious universities, Columbia and Cornell; has written widely about Bergen-Belsen both before and after its liberation; and chairs the advisory board of the foundation that oversees World War II memorial sites in Lower Saxony, including most prominently Bergen-Belsen.

Yet this is where Menachem was born on May 1, 1948.

Rosensaft and
Menachem Rosensaft, left, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog meet at Bergen-Belsen. Shahar Azran/WJC

It is the significance of Bergen-Belsen as the largest displaced persons camp in post-war Germany, and Menachem's identity as his father's son, that makes his being there alongside presidents Herzog and Steinmeier so very meaningful.

Unlike Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek, Babin Yar, and Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen represents not only brutal murder and suffering. Of course, Belsen was the site where, during the final months of the Shoah (Holocaust), tens of thousands of Jews died horrible, painful deaths. The memorial site's mass graves bear witness to this. But the displaced persons camp was also the place where the survivors not only returned to life but reclaimed their identities as human beings and as Jews.

For five years after the end of the war, the displaced persons camp, under the leadership of Menachem's father, functioned as an autonomous Jewish enclave—a Jewish mini-republic as it were—with Jewish schools, a Yiddish newspaper, a rabbinate, Zionist political parties, two theater companies, cultural and sports clubs, and even its own police force.

It was there and in the other displaced persons camps that Jewish life was reborn in a Germany that was supposed to have become Judenrein, rid of Jews. And it was there that the Jewish survivors of the Shoah, the Jewish displaced persons, proclaimed their intention to control and determine their future.

Josef Rosensaft was known as a defender of Shoah memory generally and of the legacy represented by Belsen in particular. After his death 47 years ago, in September 1975, Menachem took on this responsibility and made it his own.

When President Ronald Reagan and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to Bergen-Belsen on their way to the Bitburg military cemetery where members of Hitler's Waffen-SS are buried, Menachem organized and led a protest demonstration of children of survivors. "President Reagan and Chancellor Kohl have embarked on a macabre tour, an obscene package deal, of Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg," he declared beside the Belsen Jewish monument on May 5, 1985, just minutes after the two leaders had left for Bitburg. "Today we say to them that they can either honor the memory of the victims of Belsen, or they can honor the SS. They cannot do both. And by entering Bitburg, they desecrate the memory of all those who were murdered by the SS, and of all those whom they pretended to commemorate here at Belsen."

Since then, Menachem has returned to Belsen many times, and has played a key role in the creation of the museum that commemorates both the concentration camp and the DP camp. In so doing, he has forged close partnerships with the German staff of the memorial site, working with them to make the history and legacy of Bergen-Belsen an integral part of both German and Jewish consciousness. And he has engaged in dialogues with Germans of the post-Holocaust generation to explore a shared history, albeit from dramatically different perspectives. These relationships and these dialogues will be crucial to the future of Holocaust remembrance.

That is why Menachem's presence alongside presidents Herzog and Steinmeier was crucial. I fervently hope that their standing together at Bergen-Belsen on Sept. 6 marks the beginning of a series of new and different joint Jewish, Israeli and German educational initiatives that are rooted in all that Bergen-Belsen signifies: both the destruction during the Shoah and the subsequent defiant rebirth of Jewish life in the displaced persons camp in ways that will resonate with the Jews, Israelis and Germans of tomorrow.

Maram Stern is the executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.