Belsen disenchanted. Roaming. Soil
Our day begins with another round of rummaging in bags for lost things and continuing battles with roaming data and mobile devices. Not quite sorted but in the metaphoric lens with which we are viewing this experience it reads as loss and discovery, the ebb and flow of memory and communication.
Its about layers and what we tell ourselves and are told about each one. What happens when you dig through them and question through. Lorna took her first soil sample from the yard of a house built within the barbed wire perimeter of the Waldeslust camp. A pile of earth pushed aside from the building work, dark and sandy. Perhaps Esther trod on that earth. New house, white walls, shoes outside on the porch, dog barking and as I stood guard on that strange and rather furtive new ritual the central heating kicked in. Only steam from the chimney. Mix of guilt and catharsis, maybe they were just ignoring us.
On to Belsen following the route of the walk where in all the emotion I discovered that this too was a landscaped terrain. Doubly so. After the war with the huts burned and the dead buried in the vast mass graves, the German Administration was ordered to turn the place into a memorial. The grounds were tidied up, much of the remaining historical evidence apart from the graves erased, hills and hummocks were raised and paths created, trees felled and a management system introduced. The iconic watchtowers were taken down and the fences and barbed wire all dumped into a bomb crater and buried. Crucially the entrance was changed to the current one, disconnecting the place from the barracks and the orientation towards the railway. More recently a new management system has been introduced and some archaeological work has revealed the footings of buildings and buried tracks. Fashion and changing ideas yes but something more than the barbed wire was buried. Wild boar disregard it all and recently near the edge of the woods a wolf was seen.
We discuss dilemmas and legacies with the archivist Bernd Horstmann, charming friendly and supportive. He had managed to get us in to visit the rest of the Belsen story still held behind barbed wire. Deep in the Nazi built military camp occupied by the victorious British and now returned to the Germans we saw buildings where survivors of Belsen were cared for and where some died and where buried. We saw their meeting places and heard echoes of their stories. Most impressive of all was the vast Round House once a concert hall, once makeshift hospital, now echoing, empty and cavernous. Full of ghosts. The British military have handed it over in full working order. The German uniformed soldier at the gate spoke German to our ears and we reached for our ID, hearing us he slipped back into scouse. Strange alliances of language and accent. The remaining few who stayed rooted in the place when their fellow soldiers and families were sent back to England. Along with the site and buildings including churches and shops and cookhouses, a new built secondary school for 500 children, also stands empty. Cold War front line spaces idle and silent. Meanwhile refugees trudge their way to makeshift camps. History knocking on the door.
Discovering Belsen walking through the ghost entrance as Esther did when it was hard real and deathly 71 years ago, welcomed by an icy blast of wind and rain. The landscaping tells its story, the horror is not concealed. At the stone I remember the slow dissolve to life I tried to create in July. Again I am overcome. I hear Esther retold talking about the shakey sensation of early fever, the creeping awareness of death approaching, saying to to herself and to her dead mother that she had done her best, she had tried to make it, to tell the story but that she feared she would not be able to carry on. Thanks to the soldiers she did, we will be there on Friday to ensure that the story continues to be told.