Belsen - still relevant?
‘This event gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to these wonderful medical students, doctors and nurses who went into Belsen at liberation and did an absolutely magnificent job. They gave of themselves, they worked with dedication, it’s something I experienced for myself and I’ll never forget it.’
Mala Tribich, who survived Belsen
Mala Tribich was speaking at Amnesty’s recent launch of Bergen-Belsen 1945: A Medical Student’s Journal. She shared vivid memories of the horrors of the camp, contributing to an intensely moving event.
‘The picture of Belsen was one of hell, what I imagine hell to be. Skeletons shuffling along. You could speak to someone and they would die in front of you, just collapse where they were. There were dead bodies all around.’
Just 14 years old and seriously ill with typhus when the camp was liberated, she wasn’t much younger than many of the medical volunteers. Michael Hargrave, the journal’s author, was a 21-year-old student when he entered Belsen. His first-hand testimony has only now been published, 68 years later, and his family has generously donated royalties to Amnesty and to Rotary International’s End Polio Now campaign.
You could have heard a pin drop at the launch. A panel of experts was chaired by Suzanne Bardgett, head of research at the Imperial War Museum (where the Hargrave diary is archived) and one of the creators of its Holocaust Exhibition.
‘Michael Hargrave’s great gift to history has been to leave this very, very meticulous diary.’ Suzanne Bardgett
Historian Ben Shephard explained the immediate challenges in the aftermath of liberation. Professor Cornelius Katona of the Helen Bamber Foundation and Professor Jonathan Wolff of UCL, both of whom lost grandparents in the Holocaust, raised issues of mental health, trauma and the growth of the human rights movement.
‘We owe the modern human rights movement to the experience of the Second World War. Before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there was an international understanding that states had sovereignty over their people.
One way of thinking about human rights is that they are a reaction to that defect in the system. If it wasn’t for the camps - what the Germans did to their own citizens – there wouldn’t have been a chance of passing the UDHR in 1948. Countries were now prepared to sign up to a set of documents that had universal coverage.’ Professor Jonathan Wolff
Amnesty International is rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We believe in the power of ordinary people to make extraordinary change, just as Michael Hargrave and his comrades did in the face of unspeakable horrors at Belsen.
The act of bearing witness to atrocities and injustice is invaluable. Cornelius Katona spoke of Helen Bamber’s own volunteering experience in Belsen at around the same time as Michael. It was something that was to inform her life as a human rights activist.
‘Helen Bamber said she could do only two things: she could hold people and she could promise to bear witness. That is what Michael Hargrave did.’
You can buy the book at the Amnesty online shop.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.