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New Film “Relief of Belsen” Shows How British Doctors Learned to Bring Survivors of Bergen Belsen Back to Life

by George Baumgarten, UN Correspondent, New York, May 11, 2011

The Holocaust Commemoration office of the United Nations recently held a showing—very close to Yom Hashaoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)—of a new film on the difficult efforts of those who tried to help those in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, who had [just barely] survived the turbulent and searing Holocaust that engulfed European Jewry.

The Relief of Belsen tells of the difficult and wrenching trials and tribulations of that group of British soldiers—initially pitifully few in number—who took over the camp from its German guards, beginning with its liberation on 15 April 1945. The very first British soldier into the camp was Major Brian Urquhart—later to be the U.N.’s third employee, the following year, and ultimately Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs.

What the British found was—to use a gross understatement—unprecedented. Inmates were still dying every day…and continued to die daily for several weeks, until their medical condition could be stabilized. The sanitary conditions were disgusting, to say the least. Nothing like humanitarian needs on this scale had ever even been seen before (though other Allied armies were coping with much the same problems at other camps all over Central Europe, including the colossal three-part death and labor camp complex at Auschwitz (Oswiecim) in South-Central Poland. No one had even—in their wildest nightmares—even conceived of a need for so much food, so much clothing, so many doctors (whose number was increased by those from the inmate population, but only minimally), and so much other equipment.

The film spends quite some time dealing with the issue of developing an acceptable and appealing diet. As is mentioned by one of the characters in passing, the only experience the British had with famine conditions had been in their colonies…particularly India. So they shipped in many cartons filled with what is clearly labeled “Bengal Famine Mixture”. This, obviously, must have been fine for Bengal (Northeast India/present Bangladesh), but simply did not appeal to those raised on a diet of chicken soup, chulent etc. After pondering this for some time, the dieticians find a way (never specified in detail) of adding some “Eastern European taste” to the mixture, and the survivors loved—or at least accepted—it. And—in a moment of obvious elation—one of the officers comes to the daily staff meeting and triumphantly proclaims “Nobody died in my block today!”.

Among the real-life characters in the film is a young woman named Hadassah Dimko. Trained as a dentist, she became part of the Camp’s medical staff. She had been married and had a son, but had lost them—and other family members—in the Holocaust. In the camp, she met—and later married—a fellow inmate, Josef Rosensaft. Their son, Menahem, was born in Bergen-Belsen (by then long-since converted to a “D.P.” [Displaced Persons] camp). The Rosensafts would ultimately come to New York and find much success there. They would also amass a large art collection, to be sold eventually at a huge auction at Parke-Bernet Galleries (Now Sotheby’s), at which this correspondent was present. Today Menahem Rosensaft, an attorney, is legal Counsel to the World Jewish Congress.

The Relief of Belsen has been edited for release, and has been shown once on television in the U.K., and once in the U.S.A. It is being prepared for general distribution, in the next several months, in both Europe and North America.

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