This year there are several anniversaries coming up, but some of the most poignant, and perhaps relevant in today’s world, are the 75th anniversaries of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. These anniversaries remind us of the world’s horror in 1945 when the full extent of the Nazis’ persecution of Jews and others was revealed, and help us reflect on what conditions in society had made these crimes possible.
Earlier this year we were pleased to contribute to an episode of BBC’s Songs of Praise, which commemorated the liberation of Auschwitz. The programme featured interviews with Ruth Barnett, who came to England on the Kindertransport, and Quaker Peace & Social Witness peace activist Marigold Bentley, filmed in the Library reading room.
Last year we started working with the Holocaust Educational Trust on a powerful project run jointly by the Trust and UCL’s Institute of Education, which is bringing around 1500 schoolchildren to the site of Bergen-Belsen this February and March. Belsen 75 (https://www.belsen75.org.uk/) has put together learning packs for the children to prepare them for this visit, featuring some material from The Star, the weekly magazine published by Friends Relief Service workers to update Quakers about their work.
A team from Friends Relief Service were among the first British relief workers to accompany the British Army into Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. When the FRS team arrived, six days after the Army had got to the camp, they were faced with unimaginable conditions. Thousands of dead remained unburied, and around 40,000 people still living in the camp were suffering extreme malnutrition making them vulnerable to infectious diseases. The conditions were such that the Army would not let the women workers enter the camp for some days.
For some of the team, the conditions they witnessed tested their pacifism, leading them to think at points that they should have supported the use of force to stop Hitler; for most of the team however these thoughts were short-lived and throughout their accounts, they speak of the need to temper reactions to these crimes so the whole German populace were not blamed.
The decision to go into the camp with the Army had taken some deliberation and negotiation, as the Army had issued a non-fraternisation order to all British relief workers in Germany, meaning they were not meant to speak or communicate with the German public. Quakers fought against this, and for a time simply ignored it until the Army relented. Their work was always carried out with a sense that they were trying to create conditions in which future wars would not happen, and they knew recrimination would not pave the way to peace.
The pamphlet below shows a relief workers’ dictionary translated into French and German.
We were very happy that the Belsen 75 project thought the Quaker involvement was an important part of the story for these young people when learning about the liberation of the camp. The spirit of reconciliation shown by the FRS team in the face of these terrible crimes is a message as important in today’s world as it was in 1945.