I was born in Bergen Belsen in 1948, three years after the liberation of the notorious concentration camp located in northern Germany. Last week, I went back to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the place where my parents, Bella Cyprus and Roman Lichtman, survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau, met and married.
The rise of anti semitism in Europe and the negative feelings being verbalized against Israel made me want to do something impactful. The president of Germany would be there. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, would be there — and I would be there, too.
I am not active in the Holocaust community. I do not tell my story at schools or give speeches about my parents and the Auschwitz number my dad had on his arm. But the death of my mom several years ago — and the births of my grandsons and what their legacy would be — made me want to go back and visit the place where everything began for my family. I needed to understand more about me without knowing exactly what I was looking for.
If the current research on early childhood development is correct, by age 3, your brain and language are virtually formed. I had spent the first 18 months of my life in a Displaced Persons camp — the largest in Germany — surrounded by the remnants of suffering, sadness and death. Did that contribute to making me who I am? Maybe I would find an answer during my return.
Stepping onto the grounds of Bergen Belsen means setting foot onto a green lawn where tens of thousands of Jews are buried. There are berms with stone signs that read: “Here lay 2,500 dead.” There were no buildings left; they had all been destroyed to wipe out diseases like typhus; no gas chambers now or before — only small crematoria — nothing but large, open spaces.
The buildings, each of which once kept hundreds of Jews, were replaced by trees, all the same height, having grown together over the last 70 years, but nothing there said “horror” or “evil.” You had to imagine what had once been at this site. Yes, there was a new museum and a memorial, but the emotion I expected to feel at this concentration camp did not happen.
I had cried while watching the films showing emaciated bodies being bulldozed into pits and the rail-thin survivors, but walking through the grass with stone grave markers left me numb. Surreal, empty, disappointed, just not what I expected.
The next day we went to the Displaced Persons camp, which was just down the road. The prisoners’ section of the camp itself held so many sick people suffering from diseases within the wooden buildings that the British army burned everything, and instead used the German soldiers’ barracks and their hospital and buildings for the Jewish survivors.
Today it is a British NATO base. It was here that I saw the barracks my parents lived in, the hospital where I was born, the street where I played. We had lunch in the roundhouse, which had been used as a hospital to treat the thousands of survivors who were dying after liberation. As I looked up at the fixtures, which had been there since 1930, I thought of my mother, who had been on one of those cots and had no doubt regarded those very same fixtures during her time there.
We walked through the DP camp’s cemetery, where the Jews who died after liberation were buried. My mother had delivered a stillborn baby boy who was in one of these unmarked graves. I looked and saw, but did not feel. I tend to compartmentalize my thoughts, but this lack of emotion was difficult to understand.
I am a college professor, a psychologist and an executive coach. I specialize in emotional intelligence. I speak about the need for all of us to have empathy in our work and in our lives.
Yet here I was in a place of personal tragedy for me, a place where my mother had been tortured, where my aunt had died, where thousands and thousands of Jews had been savagely slaughtered — and I could not be empathetic.
But that all changed as we began to connect with the hundreds of other survivors and children and grandchildren of survivors, who had also come back. My husband and I traveled to Bergen Belsen with the World Jewish Congress along with our friends, Menachem and Jeanie Rosensaft, whose parents also both lived at the DP camp.
Going back to the hotel in the nearby city of Hanover, where all the visitors stayed, I began talking to people, looking for a connection to my parents. No one remembered my mother or father, but everyone had stories that were the same. What started out as small talk with strangers became the most important and heartfelt part of the trip. We all acknowledged how, growing up, we felt different from non-survivors.
We shared our innermost feelings and, most importantly, we started to feel like we were each others’ extended families. We did not have to explain what had happened to our families or what a DP camp was. To each other, we were the aunts and uncles and cousins that had perished under the Nazis.
When my mother was in her early 90s, with slight dementia, my husband and I took her to our synagogue for High Holiday services. There were hundreds of people sitting there. My mother stood up, looked around at the many faces and said in her heavily accented English, “These are all Jews?” She couldn’t believe it. This was amazing to her.
When I went to the memorial services at Bergen Belsen, along with thousands of others, I stood up, looked around at the faces present — and started to cry. Here, too, “were all Jews,” here to remember and pay homage to my father and mother and all the Jews who came through this site. Those who died and those who survived. My mom, Bella, would have liked to have seen this.
Bergen Belsen was my mother and father’s first home. It is where they started their new life and their new family. It is where they learned that life must go on, where you can love and laugh without forgetting what happened to you and those you loved. It is a sacred place with green hills and trees, where birds chirp and memories linger. It breaks your heart, yet soothes your soul.
It is where I was born.
Dina Lichtman heads her own executive coaching company and is an adjunct professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.