Bergen-Belsen snapshots

The words “Bergen-Belsen” most likely conjure images of death, disease, Nazi barbarism and a million other unbearable agonies.

But for five years after its liberation, the Bergen-Belsen death camp was a place where Jewish children frolicked on the grass, where Jewish couples married and young Zionists fanned their ardor for the nascent state of Israel.

“Jewish Displaced Persons in Camp Bergen-Belsen 1945-1950” is the very dull title of a thoroughly mesmerizing book edited by Erik Somers and Rene Kok.

It is above all a picture book featuring photos taken or collected by Zippy Orlin, a young Jewish social worker. Compelled to help Jewish refugees after the war, Orlin spent five years in Bergen-Belsen as a volunteer, working mostly with the camp’s orphans. Fortunately, she also took hundreds of snapshots of daily life there, more than 1,100 in all, and she saved every one.

After returning to her native South Africa, Orlin carefully pasted the photos into a single album, and there they remained until her death in 1980. Her brother Chaim took the collection and he, too, kept it safe and hidden for years. In September of 1986, he turned the 33-pound album over to the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam. Within days, he died of heart failure.

Scholars realized immediately the historical value of the collection. With her photos and pithy captions, Zippy Orlin had chronicled one of the great untold stories of post-Holocaust Jewish survival. In the book, editors Somers and Kok also present a series of essays detailing the story of Bergen-Belsen as a concentration camp and later as a displaced persons camp. But nothing speaks louder than the Orlin photos themselves.

Each shot seems to reveal a world unto itself. In some ways, the more mundane the image, the more dramatic, given the death camp context.

Two women hanging laundry on a line. Teenage boys kicking a soccer ball. A group of toddlers exercising on a lawn. A parade of young mothers pushing strollers along what once was a field of death.

The scholarly essays included cover a range of topics, from daily life at the camp to the key role played by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to Zippy Orlin’s own reminiscences of her experience.

Thomas Rahe’s essay on camp social life is particularly fascinating. He describes the array of services provided to the internees. A thriving theater presented original dramas that reflected camp life back to audiences. A Yiddish-language newspaper served as a “bulletin board” for the Jews of Bergen-Belsen. Multiple team and individual sports provided both entertainment and fitness.

As for religious practices, kosher food was provided and a mikvah, or religious bath, was built on the premises. A council of rabbis oversaw religious life, while a strong Zionist organization prepared refugees for immigration to Israel.

All of which underscores the survivors’ determination to rise from the ashes of the Holocaust. By 1947, an average of 15 Jewish babies came into the world each week at Bergen-Belsen.

Still, most readers are likely to dwell more on the images than the text.

The most striking aspect to the photos is the happiness in the faces of the survivors. In image after image, it’s all smiles and joy: Zippy Orlin holding babies, or a gang of preteen boys happily spinning their groggers, or rattlers, on Purim. The familiar affectless shock on the faces of Auschwitz inmates is nowhere to be seen. This small population of Jews is all about a bright future and not a dark past.

Understandably, the Jewish people need the world to remember forever the Holocaust itself, a hard but necessary burden. In the story of the displaced persons of Bergen-Belsen, as told in this book, we have a happy and indelible footnote.

“Jewish Displaced Persons in Camp Bergen-Belsen 1945-1950: The Unique Photo Album of Zippy Orlin,” edited by Erik Somers and Rene Kok ($35, University of Washington Press, 240 pages).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.