On April 15, 2015 it will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation by the British army of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. The famous British journalist, Richard Dimbleby, reported on BBC radio at the time, “I found myself in the world of a nightmare.”
I am writing this column as I listen to a recently released Supraphon CD by my cousin, Zuzana Ruzickova, as she plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor. Madame Ruzickova is 88 today and lives in Prague and for close to 60 years, until her retirement a few years ago, she was one of the world’s most acclaimed harpsichord performers.
Her enormous global success is all the more remarkable, as she was constantly oppressed in Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years by the communist regime for being a Jew who refused to join the Communist party. She was a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz and Nazi slave labor in Hamburg. Zuzana was a prisoner in Bergen-Belsen and at the time of its liberation, she was 18 and weighed 60 pounds.
Against all odds
Zuzana and her mother, Poldi, survived the Nazi camps, including four months at Bergen-Belsen, because, she says, “The spirit of Bach was always with me and kept me alive.”
In interviews, Zuzana recalls the days of liberation, “If Auschwitz was hell, Bergen-Belsen was another hell – this was the lowest part of hell. Nobody wanted us to survive. The weak and ill prisoners were not supposed to survive. But we did somehow.
“We were housed in military barracks – maybe 500 or even 700 people in one barrack – so it was not possible to lie down. If you wanted to sleep, you had to be like sardines and lie in the lap of another person.
There were already masses of dead bodies lying around. There was nobody giving us any food or any drink. There were heaps and heaps of dead bodies. The Germans already probably thought that the end of the war was coming, so they made pyres of those dead bodies and burned them.
And if you volunteered to get the dead bodies to the pyres, you got a cup of soup. My mother was too weak at that time, but I volunteered and I sometimes got the soup for her and for myself. But then even that stopped and we were starving.
Exhausted and sick, but saved
“When the British arrived, we were all absolutely starving. We had had nothing to eat. Nothing. It was in the evening that we heard some trucks and some tanks and because I knew some English, I stopped a truck and said, “Could you get some help for my mother?” because the whole camp was infected with typhoid and typhus and other plagues.
My mother was very ill. I was also sick but not as badly. We were all begging for food. They fed us, but for some people this was deadly, because they just could not digest proper food after starving for so many years.
“The British took my mother to a hospital. The doctors saw that I had the fever and thought it was malaria and they did not think I would survive. Somehow I recovered and it took me almost three weeks to find my mother.
But, in one hospital ward I also found my childhood cousin Dagmar. She was in the last stages of tuberculosis. So I managed to spend the last three days with her. Consoling her. Saying that we are going back to Pilsen (in Czechoslovakia).
“My mother was very ill and she recovered very slowly and she had to be in quarantine and so we could not leave for our return home to Pilsen until August. Even then she felt too weak to travel and she feared going home to find everyone we knew had been killed. But I convinced her by saying she had to go home for my sake.
The British are coming
“You know, the English were wonderful. The organization! This was a fighting army with only a few doctors and nurses, but everyone helped, with a lot of soldiers volunteering as male nurses. Everyone was so efficient. They got things organized so quickly in a place where there were thousands of ill people and thousands of dead bodies lying around.
“They got me some clothes and when I was a bit better, I acted as an interpreter. One evening they gave me a large meal and they took me to a tent to see a movie. It was the first time I saw a film in color.
“First, they played ‘God Save the King’ – I will never forget that. Later, I went back to my barracks and I was very sick. I was sick all night and I thought I might die. But I was also so happy – we were free.”
In 1956, Zuzana Ruzickova won the Munich International music competition and her career was launched. She would often perform in Bach’s home country of Germany.
She says, “When my father was dying (in Terezin camp in 1943), my mother said to him, ‘I hate all the Germans and I will get revenge for your life.’ My father said, ‘Don’t hate. Hate is something that poisons your soul. Leave the revenge to God.’”
Zuzana added, “I still feel that hating somebody is really poisoning yourself. Hate is a negative thing. You ought to avoid hate. Sometimes I really felt a little a bit characterless for not hating the Germans as much as I maybe should. But hating is a very negative emotion.
I was very often asked whether I could forgive a German, and I said first of all he would have to ask forgiveness. And then I would consider whether I had the strength to forgive. But maybe I could forgive sometimes. But not forget, never forget.”
Editor’s Note: Frank Vogl is in the process of making a film about the life of Zuzana Ruzickova
The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen: Zuzana Ruzickova, a survivor, remembers her experience.
“If Auschwitz was hell, Bergen-Belsen was another hell – this was the lowest part of hell.”
70 years later, Zuzana Ruzickova, a survivor of the atrocities of WWII, recalls her experience.
"If you volunteered to get the dead bodies to the pyres, you got a cup of soup.”
"Maybe I could forgive. But not forget, never forget.” Zuzana Ruzickova, 88, survivor of Bergen-Belsen