Memories of a Coal Child

Coby Lubliner

When Anne Frank and her sister Margot were dying in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March of 1945, there was a sizable group of Jewish children from Amsterdam – more than fifty – living in a special compound in which they were adequately fed and received a modicum of medical care while the rest of the camp’s population was deliberately starved and ravaged by disease. This facility, housed in a bungalow known as the Kinderbaracke (children’s barrack), was apparently run by the Nazis as a showplace for the International Red Cross. This organization’s gray-suited representatives visited the place periodically, probably without being shown the rest of the camp; the children were, of course, scrubbed extra clean for these visits.

While the children were supposed to be under sixteen to live in the compound, at least two of them seemed to be older; they had lied about their ages so as to remain with their younger siblings. Anne Frank, fifteen at the time, was in principle eligible for the Kinderbaracke; in all likelihood she chose to stay with her older sister.

The facility was managed by a woman named Luba Tryszynska, herself a Jewish prisoner from a town in eastern Poland that is now in Belarus; when she spoke Polish it was with a marked Russian accent, and she seemed to pass for Russian. She was assisted by two other Jewish women: Hermina (I don’t know her surname), from Czechia, and Hadassah (Ada) Bimko, from Sosnowiec, Poland, who had studied medicine in France before the war and served as the doctor for the compound.

In addition to the parentless children overseen by Luba and her assistants, the barrack also housed, across the hall from them, young women with infants of their own.

After the war the children were repatriated to Holland and reunited with what was left of their families. Many of these families had been in the diamond business and the children came to be known as the Diamond Children. Luba got to accompany the children and was received by Queen Wilhelmina, who, it seems, called her “the Angel of Bergen-Belsen,” a title that she boasts to this day.

Like a number of other Polish Jews liberated in Germany, Luba went to Sweden, where she married a fellow Polish Jew. When they moved to the United States, she became known as Luba Tryszynska-Frederick, but kept her angelic title. In 1998 the A&E network ran a documentary called “The Angel of Bergen-Belsen” in its Investigative Reports series. Most recently, an as-told-to children’s book titled Luba: The Angel of Bergen-Belsen (written by Michelle R. McCann) was published by Tricycle Press with a 2003 copyright.

Luba’s story is that one night in December of 1944 she heard the crying of fifty-four Dutch children who had been abandoned in a snowy field behind her barrack. “Some,” as the McCann narrative tells us, “were just babies tucked into pillowcases.” After a conversation in which the oldest of the children told her that their parents had been taken away on a truck and that the children were left to die in the cold, Luba “gathered the group together and led them back to the barracks.”

“The next morning,” the story continues, “fifty-four stomachs were rumbling, but Luba was gone. … Suddenly, the door flew open. ‘Quickly, take this,’ Luba called to Hermina, handing her a steaming pot. Seconds later she returned with another.” And, further: “It was a miracle Luba performed for months during that winter. To get food for the children, Luba had to walk across the camp to the kitchen area twice a day, and each time she had to pass through a gate guarded by Nazi soldiers.”

I have a rule of thumb that I have followed for sixty years: any Polish Jew’s account of his or her experiences during World War II must be taken with a grain of salt. So it is, for example, that the posthumous unraveling of the fraud that was Jerzy Kosinski’s autobiography only confirmed what I had already suspected. And when I saw the film Europa Europa I could only laugh at the subtitle “A True Story” that its poster bore; the filmmaker, intentionally or not, sabotages the film’s veracity with an epilogue in which the man whose tale is told is shown on a Tel Aviv beach, singing a Hebrew song and displaying a nose that was worthy of a caricature in Der Stürmer and would certainly make his passing as an Aryan less than plausible.

When it comes to Luba’s story, I find it very hard to imagine that the SS, or whoever was in charge, would simply abandon a large group of children to their fate in a field, an action that would be quite out of step with the meticulous record-keeping that characterized Nazi Germany. What’s more, right around the same time, when the male population of what was left of the ghetto in Piotrków, Poland, was brought to Buchenwald and was found to include eleven boys under sixteen, steps were taken to get these boys out of Buchenwald (which was a labor, not an extermination, camp), and an elaborate journey by passenger train was organized, involving special compartments and several train changes. And where were these boys taken? Why, to the Kinderbaracke in Bergen-Belsen.

Oddly enough, none of Luba’s accounts seem to have ever acknowledged the presence of children from her own country, or, for that matter, of Hadassah Bimko, except that, according to the book, “[w]henever the children got sick, Luba went to a Jewish doctor for help.” This, however, is immediately followed by the statement that “[t]he other women in the barracks did their part to care for the children as well.

The fact is that “the other women” soon became irrelevant, since early in 1945 the children were moved to the special barracks that became the official Kinderbaracke. Once there, the children from Holland and Poland were joined by yet another group – of some thirty – from Bratislava, Slovakia. And this group, too, is unacknowledged in the story.

In fact, some newspaper accounts printed shortly after the war, duly referenced in the book, speak of 94 children having been liberated. But there is no attempt to reconcile this number with the 54 “Diamond Children” who are the exclusive subject of the tale.

Likewise, the official status given the Kinderbaracke is absent from Luba’s account. As she tells it, it was a clandestine bootstrap operation until the end. “Every day the children got more and more hungry, until they couldn’t even feel their hunger anymore. And soon many of them were sick... One evening Luba looked around the barracks. The children were so thin. Many were suffering from typhus. The next morning… the guards were gone, and at the camp entrance huge tanks rolled through the gates. The British army had arrived. The war was over... Inside the dark barracks, [the British soldiers] saw a few women prisoners surrounded by swarms of children.”

The barrack was, in fact, brightly lit by the sun on liberation day, and the “few women prisoners” were Luba, Hermina and Hadassah. While the typhus epidemic was quite virulent and deadly in the camp population at large, those of the children who were touched by it had rather mild cases and recovered quickly. I was among them.

Hadassah herself gained a fair amount of renown after the war. First, as Ada Bimko, she was a prosecution witness in the trial of Josef Kramer (the commandant of Bergen-Belsen) and his minions, in the course of which she testified to the presence of gas chambers at Auschwitz. (This testimony earned her a prominent place in the literature of denialism.) Later she married Josef Rosensaft, himself a Bergen-Belsen survivor, and, as Hadassah Rosensaft, she wrote and lectured about the Holocaust and served on various Holocaust-related bodies in the United States. And she, too, does not appear to have ever referred to her association with Luba Tryszynska.

Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army on the Rhine on April 15, 1945. The typhus epidemic that had begun some weeks before continued unabated, and several tens of thousands of inmates died after liberation. The camp had to be burned to the ground as a sanitary measure, and the survivors were transferred to the nearby German army base of Hohne, which was set up as a displaced persons’ (DP) camp that was also named Bergen-Belsen. Josef Rosensaft, one of the few survivors in reasonably good health, became the chairman of the camp’s Jewish committee. In short order virtually all the non-Jewish inmates returned to their home countries, as did the Western Jews (including the “Diamond Children”). But very few of the Eastern Jews (from Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and so on) wanted to go back to places where anti-Semitism was as rampant as ever; some (including Luba) were taken to Sweden, some others settled in nearby German cities such as Hanover, but most remained in the DP camp until they could emigrate either to Palestine or overseas. The camp thus became an autonomous Jewish enclave and Josef Rosensaft became the de facto president of a mini-state.

Mini-states (Andorra, for example) have historically been havens of contraband, and Bergen-Belsen was no exception. It became a center of distribution of contraband coffee for the surrounding German countryside (during the war Germans, cut off from contact with the coffee-growing lands, had to make do with ersatz and were starved for the real thing), and the Rosensafts became quite wealthy. They eventually settled in New York, where their son Menachem (born in Bergen-Belsen) became an attorney and a prominent activist in Jewish affairs, especially in the “children of survivors” movement.

My parents, both of whom survived the war, remained close to the Rosensafts. This was at least in part a result of the bond that had developed between Hadassah and the children from Poland, including me. My mother's survival may, in fact, be directly linked to this bond. After some months in Ravensbrück my mother, along with other women from Piotrków, also ended up in Bergen-Belsen, and through happenstance we became aware of each other's presence in the camp, though we were in different sectors. With considerable effort on her part, my mother somehow made it to my sector so that we could see each other, and Hadassah saw to it that my mother received some additional food from the children's provisions. It was probably Luba who authorized it, but she was not one to whom I dared speak directly.

Hermina, if I remember correctly, had similarly become the mother substitute for the children from Slovakia, since the Czech and Slovak languages are mutually intelligible to a high degree (though not all the Bratislava children had Slovak as their primary language – some had Hungarian and others German).

Luba, however, always seemed aloof from both of these groups, and was affectionate only with her “diamond children” (though, if I remember correctly, she never learned Dutch and communicated with them in German).

As diamond and coal are two forms of carbon, I have come to think of those of who were not of diamond – and thus not worthy of decorating Luba’s angelic crown – as the “coal children” of Bergen-Belsen. Time seems to have erased the coal children from Luba’s memory, at least in its published form. Why this is so is one of my life’s mysteries.

March 7, 2005

© 2005 by Jacob Lubliner

Return to Essays index

Return to Personal Page

Return to Home Page

E-mail Coby Lubliner