Holocaust survivor, family visit site of German camp
The date May 8 carries a heavy significance in Emanuel "Manny" Mandel's life.
It was the day he was born. It was the day that U.S. President Harry S. Truman was born. And it was the day World War II ended in 1945 in Europe.
"An interesting coincidence," said Mandel, a Holocaust survivor.
Mandel returned last month to Bergen-Belsen camp for the first time since he left in December 1944. He and his wife Adrienne Mandel, a former state legislator, and their daughter Lisa Mandel-Trupp, attended a series of commemorative events April 15-18, marking the 65th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day and the liberation of the camp, where Mandel and his mother Ella had been held for six months during the war.
The Bergen-Belsen camp was located in Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany, south of the small towns of Bergen and Belsen and about 11 miles north of the city of Celle. German military authorities established the camp in 1940 first as a prisoner of war camp, and then converted it into a civilian residence camp and ultimately a concentration camp after 1943.
Standing on the site of the former camp, Mandel said he felt a strange unfamiliarity with the landscape. Everything he had witnessed from his childhood the watch tower where guards had been stationed, the wired fences, the barracks was gone. What he saw instead was a stretch of green field opposite from where the Bergen-Belsen museum and memorial were located. It was almost a peaceful scene.
"There was not a stick left from 65 years ago," Mandel said. "The Germans burned down almost everything before the British came and destroyed most of the records."
When British forces liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, they discovered about 60,000 prisoners and thousands of unburied corpses on the camp grounds. After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, British forces burned down what was left of the camp to prevent the spread of typhus.
Mandel, who turns 74 on Saturday, said he is listed as a survivor volunteer on the U.S. Holocaust Museum website, but prior to the trip he had never attended a Holocaust commemoration event abroad.
But a couple years ago he was flipping through a booklet and found two organizations of interest: one was the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations and the other was the Lower Saxony Memorial Institute in Celle, Germany. He wrote letters to both, identifying himself.
On March 15, Mandel said he was contacted about the 65th anniversary commemoration of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen camp by Sam Bloch, president of the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations in New York.
Mandel's wife Adrienne, a former District 19 state delegate and current commissioner of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, said she was amazed by the number of people who had attended the four-day event.
"It was a huge gathering, about 400 to 500 people that included survivors and their families, people who were there when the camp had been liberated, or had stayed there as displaced persons," she said.
Manny Mandel said he did not recognize anyone at the event. Only after speaking to another woman at the memorial did he realize they had been at Bergen-Belsen during the same year.
"They hardly knew what was going on next door or across the street because people were so concerned, looking inward, and thinking, How am I going to make it through today? How am I going to survive?'" Adrienne said.
Manny's parents Yehuda and Ella Mandel were originally from Hungary. They moved to Riga, Latvia, where Yehuda had accepted a position as cantor and Manny was born. When Manny was an infant, the family left Riga because Yehuda had accepted a post as one of four chief cantors in Budapest, Hungary, which had been an important Jewish center in Europe between World War I and World War II.
Manny Mandel was only 7 years old when the Germans occupied Budapest in March 1944.
"I certainly knew that a war of some sort was going on, but I certainly did not understand it," he said. "I did not understand why the Hungarian locals were listening to BBC radio broadcasts and cheering on the Allied powers. I thought the Allied powers were the enemy. I was confused, thinking why were we supporting the enemy? I did not know until later that the home team was the enemy."
Mandel and his family were among a group of Jews that were going to be traded in exchange for materials and goods from the Allied powers, a deal which was being negotiated by Nazi commander Adolf Eichmann. About 1,600 to 1,700 Hungarian Jews left Hungary and were promised they would be transported safely to Switzerland, he said. When the negotiations fell through, they were taken on a train to the Bergen-Belsen camp.
While his father was off performing hard labor for the government, Manny and his mother were taken to Bergen-Belsen in July 1944. He said they stayed in barracks 11 and 12. Each barrack held about 100 people with triple bunk beds.
Mandel said the weather was bad for a couple months. Manny said he had symptoms of what was pneumonia. Since antibiotics were not available, he and his mother wrapped burlap sacks covered with muster plaster around his body to treat the infection in his lungs.
Mandel said the prisoners knew full well that the Nazi officers would remove the sick people from the camp and take them to the dispensary, where they were never seen again.
Manny and his mother were taken out of the camp in December 1944. They were taken by Nazi transport to Switzerland, first to a Red Cross hotel in Caux, the French part of Switzerland, near Montreux, and later to a children's home in Heiden.
Nineteen other children went with them. Manny said his mother was allowed to go because she was a former schoolteacher and was fluent in German, French and Hungarian, and would be able to translate lessons.
After the war ended, Manny and Ella traveled by ship to Palestine. They learned his father had survived and was in Hungary. Manny's father had boarded a ship in La Spezia, Italy, along with 100 other people who were trying to get into Israel illegally, but the ship was stopped by British destroyers.
"As part of an agreement, the British would not allow any more Jews into Israel and had closed the borders," Mandel said. Mandel said his father and the 100 other people went on a hunger strike for several days until the British finally decided to let them go.
Mandel moved to the United States in 1949. His mother died in 1967 and his father lived to be almost 90 years old, passing away in 1994.
Adrienne Mandel said it is important to preserve the history of the Holocaust as the people who have witnessed it are becoming part of a dying generation.
"People like Manny are the only ones carrying the story," she said. "Ten, 15, 20 years from now, we will not know any survivors. These first-person accounts are important."