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Journey to freedom

“We stopped hugging one another. Our bodies and souls were beaten and crushed, utterly drained and exhausted. The heavy snow fell remorselessly, and we shivered terribly in our pathetic rags. We stood helplessly close to the Tutzinger Station, and an icy wind swept across the Stamberger Lake. Everything we touched was freezing: the barrel of the guns we embraced, the clear frosty night, even those people we met on the morning of our freedom. Now we were free, but what remained of our past? Our homes had been destroyed, our families annihilated. We were solitary islands in a freezing, foreign world. These first days were strange; our minds were numb, as if we had been intoxicated by our freedom. We could go wherever we wanted, could do whatever we wanted, but we always encountered dismissive, uncomprehending faces. The world could not or did not want to understand our pain. Had these people been so hardened by their own suffering that the tragedies of others was an unbearable burden, a burden they were unwilling to bear, regardless of the circumstances? Gradually the first stirrings of our happiness turned to deep disappointment. No warm nest awaited us; no helping, healing, consoling hand was laid upon us to cure our wounds. Our injuries were still fresh and they bled and hurt at every touch. Slowly our hopes melted away, the hopes that had sustained us for so many years in the concentration camps, and changed to resignation and bitterness. It was all too clear that the free world did not understand us; they justified their coldness with well-worn phrases, either “we too have been through a lot”, or with the superficial excuse “we did not know or had not heard about the gruesome atrocities you have suffered”. Nor could the material compensation of later years heal these wounds. We still carry the burden of our bloody past in our heart and wrestle to find the strength to cope with it. On 30 April 1945 our freedom was restored to us, but still today, twenty-one years later, as these memories are recorded, the mental shock of the concentration camps remains, the camps still hold me prisoner.”

American Soldiers view mass graves near Mühldorf 20 May 1945 [United States Holocaust Memoral Museum courtesy of Bernadette O’Connell]

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