How a Museum Artifact Brought Solace to a Survivors’ Family
For years, Flatbush resident Mrs. Laya Ettel Fenster carried the question in her mind. It was not a question of faith; her mother, Anna (Lieberman) Glatt, had survived the war and raised a fine family of Jewish children. If her mother’s faith remained intact after Bergen Belsen, Mrs. Fenster certainly had no such questions. The problem was a logistical one – could anyone confirm Mrs. Glatt’s recollection of her sister Ettel’s burial? She had passed away just days after liberation. For Mrs. Fenster, the mystery was even more personal – she bears the name of her aunt who left the world without leaving any children.
Like thousands of other prisoners, Ettel Lieberman was stricken with typhus by the war’s end. The British liberators were extremely wary of contagion, and the victims of this dreaded disease were buried in mass graves, leaving little opportunity for proper kevurah practices. But Mrs. Glatt had told her daughter that Ettel lived a while longer, and was not buried in a mass grave. In fact, she clearly remembered burying her sister in an individual plot and then placing a marker on the spot. But where? Was there any record of the thousands of Jews who perished so tragically, just days or weeks after tasting freedom?
As the years turned into decades, Mrs. Fenster knew that chances of her writing the final chapter of her aunt’s story were dwindling. But on one summer day last year, the dying embers of hope were ignited once again by an ad she noticed in the FJJ. It was a Tisha B’Av event hosted by the Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, an exhibit focused on the rescue and activist efforts to save Jewish souls from the conflagration of Europe.
When Mrs. Fenster saw the items that would be displayed, she immediately knew that this was her chance. What caught her eye was the original ledger from the Chevra Kadisha of Bergen Belsen, which was established right after the war. If there was anywhere to find a record of her aunt’s grave, the book would be the place!
Mrs. Fenster picked up the phone and called Amud Aish with her request. Of course, was the reply, the staff would love to help. Mrs. Fenster put all the information in an email, and then waited for a reply. She did not have to wait long. A few days later, her phone rang. It was Rabbi Dovid Riedel, Director of the Archive and Research Division at Amud Aish. Mrs. Fenster’s eyes filled with tears when she heard the words she had been waiting for after so many years: “We found it!”
There it was – her aunt’s name was inscribed in the book, along with the date of her death. Seventy years after her death, Ettel Lieberman’s family finally could rest assured that she did in fact merit a kever Yisrael.
The first recorded death in the Chevra Kadisha ledger was April 23, 1945 – just eight days after liberation. Rabbi Shlomo Baumgarten a chaplain in the British Army, immediately set to work for this holy cause, and appointed Chanina Walzer as the first secretary of the institution. Chanina was a young man from Eastern Galicia who had studied in Bobov under the Rebbe, Rabbi Ben Tzion Halberstam.
During the war, he was sent to several camps, until he was liberated in Bergen Belsen. Aside from his work in the Chevra Kadisha, Chanina used his skills as a sofer to prepare and repair tefilin for his fellow survivors. Chanina’s dedication to the preservation of the deceased’s information is evident in the careful inscription and detail of every entry. When he was able, he would enter the religion, country of origin, date of birth and death, and location of the grave next to the deceased’s name. A Jew would be marked with a Star of David, but if he was unsure, he would make a small indication next to the name.
Although the primary purpose of the ledger was simply to record the names of the deceased, it also opened a window to the tumultuous aftermath of the war. It was not uncommon for the newly freed inmates to be at odds with their liberators. The primary complaint against the British was that they did not provide a proper diet for the severely malnourished survivors, often resulting in death.
In the opening pages of the ledger, the Chevra Kadisha laments the fate of those who made it so far, yet perished soon after the war’s end:
For an everlasting memory – may G-d remember the souls of these thousands of Jews that merited [to see] the days of liberty. The British Forces liberated us with G-d’s help. However, these Jews did not remain among the living and the souls of hundreds of people expired every day after serious illnesses, from the misfortunes and sufferings that transpired over them under the evil German government. In addition, the actions of the British forces, who did not concern themselves with their rescue, by distributing food which was harmful to the prisoners, resulted in sickness and hastened their death. The British soldiers also did not deal with their burial as should be. Earth does not conceal their blood.
Mrs. Fenster brought this story to the attention of Amud Aish founder and president Elly Kleinman at a chance meeting this past summer. Mrs. Fenster stated that finding the location of her aunt’s grave has brought closure for the family. With the help of Amud Aish and its staff, the circle of life has been completed after so many years. At last, Mrs. Fenster and her family will be erecting a matzeiva on her aunt’s kever.
Remembering every one of the kedoshim, even those who passed away after the war, was a primary concern of people like Chanina Walzer. By allowing Amud Aish to display the Chevra Kadisha ledger to the public, we have no doubt that Chanina’s family made a great stride towards ensuring that we will never forget about people like Ettel Lieberman.