A Holocaust Survivor's Quest to Rebuild Lives
LOOKING BACK TO WWII. Hadassah Rosensaft stayed in the camps for years helping displaced Jews
NEW YORK — HADASSAH ROSENSAFT, a pleasant woman with strawberry-blond hair, looks like anyone's grandmother. But her life has hardly been ordinary. Beginning at age 30, Mrs. Rosensaft's experience was shaped by the Nazi Holocaust -- and continues to be.
In 1945, when she was liberated by the British from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she refused to walk away. She has since been involved with Holocaust survivors, with remembering those who did not survive, and with ''remembrance'' on a national scale.
As her tribulations began in 1943, her experience was similar to that of millions of other Jews in Eastern Europe. She and her entire family were taken in August of that year from their home in Poland to Auschwitz concentration camp. There, all her relatives -- parents, siblings, husband, and five-year-old child -- were killed immediately. Because she had been trained in France as a doctor, Rosensaft was not. The following year she was transferred west to Bergen-Belsen, tapped by the Nazis to head a medical team there.
''Thousands of people were dying daily from starvation, torture, and epidemic diseases,'' recalls Rosensaft, sitting in her Manhattan apartment, gently stroking the arm that bears a blue concentration camp tattoo.
''One December night,'' she remembers, ''we heard the shouting of SS officers. There was a lorry of crying children, 49 of them. They were Dutch Jewish children. The parents had been sent away.'' From that time on, Rosensaft worked to save the orphans from harm. Jewish prisoners working in the SS commissary smuggled food and medicine to the children.
''Then a miracle happened,'' she says. ''A few minutes after 3 p.m. on April 15, 1945, we heard a voice saying 'Hello, hello. You are free.' Our reactions varied between hysteria, laughing, and crying.''
When reality set in, sobriety took over. Liberators found 58,000 survivors in Bergen-Belsen. Conditions were so awful that in the two months after liberation, nearly 14,000 more died.
Appointed chief administrator of the revamped camp hospital, Rosensaft worked around the clock to save lives. She also established an orphanage for the 100 or so Jewish children who were now categorized as displaced. In 1946, when the British issued 100 visas to Palestine, Rosensaft accompanied the children there. She then returned to Bergen-Belsen, working with those still living there until the camp closed in 1950. ''It was a responsibility,'' she says of her decision to stay.
In 1958, she and her new husband and young child, Menachem, moved to New York where she continued her involvement. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, essentially the board of the fledgling museum. Subsequently, she gave thousands of documents and photographs taken in Bergen-Belsen both to the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem and to the new museum in Washington.
Rosensaft still makes annual pilgrimages to Bergen-Belsen ''to keep our pledge never to forget the ones who died and to pass it along to our children.''
As for her own experience, ''Saving the children,'' she concludes, ''will always be the highlight of my life.''