As survivors die out, the pain of the Holocaust continues

As survivors die out, the pain of the Holocaust continues

14th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

For Artur Dimant the pain and suffering did not end with the liberation of Germany in 1945.For him the Holocaust is still of critical importance in the Israeli psyche.

Artur Dimant had been in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for two days when the British 11th Armoured Division smashed through the gates on April 15, 1945 and the 60,000 prisoners still alive heard a loudspeaker announce that they were finally free.

Today, he is one of only 80,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in Israel. But while they now form a far smaller percentage of Israeli society, the trauma of the Holocaust still looms as large as ever in the Israeli psyche.

Bergen-Belsen was the 11th camp Dimant had been in since 1940, when the Nazis took him from his home and family in the Polish town of Zawiercie and sent him to a succession of camps.

He was 16 when he last saw his family. His tattooed Nazi death camp number 139948 is still clearly visible on his left forearm.

He survived increasingly brutal experiences, including two months at Auschwitz, but says nothing prepared him for the chaos of Bergen- Belsen.

Forced movement

He arrived at the camp at the end of a series of forced marches as the Nazis tried to keep their surviving prisoners from being liberated by the Russian and Western Allied armies advancing on the rapidly shrinking Third Reich.

"If there is a hell worse than hell, it was Bergen-Belsen," Dimant, today an alert 84-year-old, says.

Belsen's liberators found 13,000 corpses lying unburied in the camp, and despite the best efforts of the medical team that was rushed in, some 9,000 more people died by the end of April.

Dimant was nearly one of them. He contracted typhus two days after the liberation, but possibly saved himself by crawling on his belly away from the camp to a nearby forest, where he was looked after by a group of Polish ex-prisoners and then by a German farmer.

A Belgian uncle, who had survived the war in the underground, managed to find him and bring him to Belgium.

Another camp

Dimant travelled to pre-Israel Palestine but was interned by British forces to stop unchecked immigration to an already volatile region.

The British shipped him to Atlit camp, near Haifa - "my 12th camp since 1940", he notes - but he was released shortly afterwards and began trying to rebuild his shattered life.

Dimant's story is not typical of his fellow Jews who went through the Holocaust: He survived. Two thirds of Europe's pre-war Jewish population of approximately nine million did not.

The experiences of Dimant, or Ariye Yahalom as he is now known after Hebraicizing his name, mark him as one of those Israel defines as a Holocaust survivor - those who went through the Nazi death camps and those who survived by fleeing, joining the partisans, or being hidden by non-Jewish neighbours.

A further 140,000 are Holocaust refugees, who fled Nazi-occupied Europe, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs, bringing the total number of directly-affected Israeli citizens to 240,000.

Today, almost all still alive are, like Dimant, over 80 years old.

By the end of the 1950's, there were about 800,000 Holocaust survivors and refugees living in Israel, roughly half the country's Jewish population at the time.

More arrived following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990's, which prompted a mass emigration from there to Israel.

But it is not just the numbers which explain why the Holocaust continues to hold such a grip on the Israeli psyche, even after 63 years.

A national day of mourning for the victims is held each year, one week before Independence Day, to symbolize the birth of the Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust.

The Nazi genocide against the Jews is seen by Israelis as a lesson of what happens when Jews do not have their own state to protect them. And, the Holocaust was the last time Jews would ever stand helpless and defenceless before their enemies, they insist.

"The State of Israel and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are the answer to the Holocaust, and they will ensure that such an event does not take place in the future," IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Tuesday at a ceremony held at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Yet despite the importance of the Holocaust to Israel, it has not always been an easy ride for the survivors trying to cope with the trauma.

After the war, many found that those who had not experienced the horrors first-hand could not comprehend what the victims had gone through.

But, says Noah Flug, Chairman of the Association of Holocaust Survivors, this attitude has changed over the past 60 years.

Today Israel's biggest problem is living with its neighbours. Time will tell if the Holocaust continues to have such an effect on the national consciousness in the face of other pressures.

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