The Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen, Germany, together with the University of Essex, Great Britain, is organising an international workshop (or “meeting of experts”) on “Rescue Attempts for Jewish Prisoners held at Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, 1943-1945”, to be held from 7 to 9 March 2003 at the Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen.
Bergen-Belsen symbolises and exemplifies all the atrocities of Nazi rule. However, it was in fact not the prototype of a Nazi concentration camp. Established only in spring 1943, it had at least at the begining a singular position within the system of concentration camps as it was set up to collect small groups of European Jews who were to be kept ready for a possible exchange against German civilians interned abroad. This special function is reflected in its official name of “Aufenthaltslager” (= detention camp). However, the camp was not given the status of a civilian internment camp, but upon Himmler's specific instruction was integrated into the system of concentration camps and was administered by the SS. From the outset, a separate section, or sub-camp of Bergen-Belsen served as a “regular”concentration camp.
Altogether, there were more than 5,000 so-called “exchange Jews” held at Bergen-Belsen. In addition, there were c.2,500 Jews from Poland with povisional papers (“promesas”) from Latin American states and another 1,700 Hungarian Jews. Of these, only 424 “exchange Jews” as well as the 1,700 Hungarian Jews were rescued before the end of the war.
Bergen-Belsen also held c.700 Jews who were citizens of neutral countries or countries allied with Nazi Germany. Of those, almost 500 were rescued before the end of the war as part of a “repatriation” pro-gramme set up by the German Foreign Office: 365 Spanish Jews (“Spagnioles”), 105 Turkish Jews and 19 Portuguese Jews.
The internal structure of the “Aufenthaltslager” (and its various sub-camps) and the living conditions of those held there are relatively well documented. However, not too much is known about the international context of these exchange programmes (nor about the various initiatives for the “repatriation” of Jews with citizenship of neutral countries or countries allied with Nazi Germany), and in particular the specific role which Bergen-Belsen played within this context still needs further exploration.
This project, therefore, addresses the following questions:
Which internal discussions took place in the various countries involved about the German offer to exchange Jews against Germans held abroad, or “repatriate” Jews to the ten countries which were either allied with Nazi Germany or neutral?
What were the reasons that in the view of the countries involved spoke against taking up the German offer?
What pressure was exerted on the various governments?
What role did Jewish organisations and international relief organisations such as the Red Cross play in all this?
Which practical problems obstructed and/or delayed the exchange and “repatriation” of Jews?
Which importance did Bergen-Belsen play in all these discussions and deliberations?
The aim of the project is to document in depth and with the appropriate differentiation the specific historic-diplomatic context of Bergen-Belsen and the fate of those Jewish prisoners singled out for exchange or “repatriation” which were held here. It is part of of the on-going work of updating and re-newing the permanent exhibition which is shown at the Gedenkstätte which is funded by the Federal Re-public of Germany and the state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen).
The workshop marks the beginning of this specific project and intends to bring together experts who have already worked in this field as well as a number of active researchers in the various countries involved. The aim is to take stock of the research already done, identify the work that still needs to be done, and de-velop an efficient and concise research strategy. In addition, it is hoped that some form of cooperation can be achieved wherever possible so that the project does not cover the same ground that has already been covered by others and thus does not waste scarce resources.
It is intended to publish the papers given at this workshop in a small edited volume.
If you are interested in further details, please contact:
Dr R U W Schulze
Department of History
University of Essex
Colchester CO4 3SQ
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