Palo Altan returns to concentration camp site to speak to local Germans

Elisabeth Seaman recollects her childhood year in Bergen-Belsen

As a 6-year-old inmate in the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in the final months of World War II, Elisabeth Seaman remembers looking out the window of the women's and children's barracks each morning and seeing piles of corpses.

"It looked and felt awful to me and I couldn't understand how that could be," she recalled.

Seaman, now 75 and a longtime resident of Palo Alto, recently returned to the site -- the camp itself was razed by the British after a typhus epidemic at the end of the war -- to share that memory and others with an audience of about 95 local Germans.

In a Sunday afternoon lecture in October, she delivered her talk, "Death and Dying, or Life and Living," in German.

"There were a lot of questions afterward," Seaman said. After decades of postwar silence among Germans about the concentration camps, "there's a hunger to hear from people who actually lived at this time.

"We're the living witnesses. There are a lot of people in my situation out there giving public talks."

Seaman's parents, Erich and Maria Rosenthal, had fled Germany in 1937 for the Netherlands, where Seaman -- their first and only child -- was born in 1938, in Rotterdam.

When she was 4 in the spring of 1943, she awoke one morning to find that her grandparents were gone — they'd been sent to the Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland. It was just a few days before Honduran passports — which had been secured by her grandmother's brother in Switzerland — arrived for the whole family.

"Although the passports did not save my grandparents, they probably did save my mother and me as well as my father, for as long as he lived," she said.

Seaman was 5 when she and her parents were rounded up in April 1944 and taken to Bergen-Belsen, where the family was separated and she was placed with her mother in the section known as the "star camp" because prisoners wore stars rather than the striped prison garb of the others.

"This was considered the best part of the camp," she said. "They held us for exchange for German POWs," she said.

Seaman's father was put to work in a shoe factory but soon fell ill. Seaman remembers visiting him in the infirmary. "As the winter was extremely cold, I was chilled to the center of my being, in the freezing weather, and felt frustrated because my father wouldn't respond to me," she recalls.

Erich Rosenthal died at Bergen-Belsen in January 1945.

"For many years I held an irrational anger at my father for having died," Seaman said. "I thought German men were raised to be responsible for their families, so how could my father have 'given up' and died and left us alone? To some extent I held on to those feelings well into adulthood ..."

Years later reading "Man's Search for Meaning" by Viktor Frankl, another Holocaust survivor, Seaman gained a new perspective on her father. The book "explores what can happen in the minds of people under circumstances like those in which we had been forced to live in the camp.

"I realized that my father had been a victim, not a perpetrator, and I felt at peace," she said.

Some years after that, Seaman found penciled notes her father had written to her mother when they were at Bergen-Belsen.

"In these it is evident that he often took care of me and tried to feed me some of the better things that came in packages from relatives," she said. "He obviously loved my mother and me dearly and looked forward to the day of liberation when we would again live a normal life.

"He looked forward to the time when perhaps another child might be added to our family. My parents only had 10 years together."

Seaman has no recollection of her sixth birthday at Bergen-Belsen, but does have other specific memories.

She remembers making little figures out of tar melted from the roof of the barracks in the heat of summer, and also her mother making her a doll out of cellophane. She did not know the source of the cellophane until years later, when historians of Bergen-Belsen learned that cellophane had been used in parachute-making by camp inmates.

She remembers the watchtowers at the camp's perimeter, and being taken to the camp showers with her mother.

Another memory is of seeing "somebody on the ground — maybe dead already — and someone else kind of pouncing on them to see if they had any food."

"I remember latrines — the row of holes in a wooden structure at the back of our camp," she said. "When I saw the movie 'Schindler's List' I was shocked into remembrance of the multi-level bunks that were our beds."

In April 1945, near the war's end, Seaman and her mother were among 7,000 Bergen-Belsen inmates placed on trains for other locations.

"Mostly people who were very ill and those with children, like ourselves, were placed in passenger cars," she said. "We were among about 2,500 people packed in like sardines. ... The situation on the train, as crowded as it was, with all the sickness, the foul smells and the lack of sanitary facilities, was a ghastly place."

At one point the train stopped and people were allowed out. Seaman recalls finding herself in a green field with wildflowers that she found "incredibly beautiful." But then they were ordered back into the cars.

Sometime later, American soldiers in tanks came upon the train near the town of Farsleben. Seaman has no specific recollection of the liberation.

Though many had died on the train, she said, she, her mother and others were taken to hospitals to recover. Maria Rosenthal weighed 70 pounds.

"We were taken to a medical facility in Hillersleben until my mother recovered," she said. "Apparently, I bounced back rather quickly."

Mother and daughter briefly returned to the Netherlands before going to live with relatives in London, later with relatives in El Salvador and finally, in 1953, to Berkeley, where Seaman went to high school and to the University of California.

Seaman married and raised four children in the Palo Alto area. For the past three decades she has worked as a mediator and recently co-authored the book "Conflict — The Unexpected Gift."

Maria Rosenthal, who never remarried, lived in Berkeley until her death in 1987. It was only then that Seaman found the letters her father had written to her mother from the Bergen-Belsen infirmary — in particular Erich Rosenthal's letter to his wife on their 10th anniversary in October 1944.

"If anyone does a compilation of love letters of the world, that should be in there," she said.

Following her October speech at Bergen-Belsen, camp historians read aloud from some of the letters.

"As a Holocaust survivor, some people might think I'd be justified in hating Germans and all things German," Seaman told the assembled group. "However I have learned that there is a big difference between the Nazis who masterminded those World War II atrocities as well as those who willingly followed in their footsteps, and the thousands of Germans who had nothing to do with it and whose lives were imperiled if they opposed the Nazi regime.

"We must not let a determined minority that behaves hatefully and dangerously poison our minds against the majority.

"Every day, in small and large ways, we have the opportunity to transcend past mistakes, misjudgments and misunderstandings and to work together to create peace and harmony."


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Posted by Bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 11, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Bru is a registered user.

Thank you, I respect the courage it must have take to post this article, indeed to go back to that place. When I was a similar age as you were I was just finding out about the Holocaust, and an assassination of a President, and other political figures, and a war (Viet Nam) that seemed to have no purpose. The world is not supposed to work that way. I'd like to think the world is evolving and getting better but the jury is out on that one.

One thing I am interested in knowing. Are there Jews living in Europe, and how are they doing these days? The subject of the Holocaust is not much talked about except for the occasional nut or denier or tangent to the subject of the state of Israel. How do Europeans feel about the Jewish population?

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Posted by E.S.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 14, 2013 at 11:53 pm

E.S. is a registered user.

In response to BRU. Yes, there are Jews living in Europe. In some locations they have rebuilt their communities but the numbers tend to be small. In response to your question, one can't generalize about how Europeans feel about the Jewish population any more than one can generalize about anything. Many of the Germans I have met are very interested in knowing from survivors about their experiences, are determined that the horrors of WWII will not be repeated and they want to learn to understand and live peaceably with a diverse population. They also want to understand what, in German society in the 1930s led to the rise and power of the Nazis. Many young people in Europe are being taught about the Holocaust, visit the sites of former concentration camps and meet with survivors. Some German cities have invited back and hosted former Jewish residents for visits to their former home towns.

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Posted by Bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 15, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Bru is a registered user.

ES, thank you for your response.

I thought there must be Jews living in Europe and wondered how they felt about living with this memory and what anxieties they have to live with. I suppose that situation is similar to blacks in the United States - a weakly understood and unspecified dread that I suppose anyone could relate to.

> They also want to understand what, in German society in the 1930s led to the rise and power of the Nazis.

Yes, that is something I wish there was more study and data on, and it seems like that should be one critical area of study in terms of history and psychology/sociology.

One hears a lot of comparisons of different things with Nazi Germany. Being in technology, I am always reminded that the Nazis computed and executed most of this with the most primitive punch card technology and more than a little propaganda support from some of the most elite business sectors of the United States private sector, i.e. Henry Ford has been mentioned as well as others in history books.

Compared with today those punch-cards were like sticks and stones compared with nuclear weapons - yet we are a species have such little understanding and who knows how much control over these kinds of forces that were brought about by empowered majorities.

I am glad you seem relatively positive on the subject. Often when it comes to the unacceptable in human nature, tragically it seems that good people have the least to say. This subject has always been unnerving to me and any attempt to broach it is meaningful. I am so sad you or anyone else had to have this kind of thing in your life. Honestly, I did not know how to comment here, but felt I had to say something to pay tribute to your courage.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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