Monday, March 5, 2012

The Pessimists Were Right (Abel J. Herzberg's Belsen Diary, March 5, 1945)

Abel J. Herzberg

March 5, 1945 [Bergen-Belsen]

Sleepless nights, filled filled with the central problem:  life or death, and when will it end?  Filled, filled with the central national problems, the place of Judaism in the world.  Religion, the concept of God.  Constantly reaching back to the One eternal God – its meaning and how mankind deludes itself with having vanquished God.  Will we manage with materialism?  We cannot ignore what has happened, but what really matters is that we should stay alive!  I have so much to say still.

     The dying continues.  One thing:  the pessimists were right.  Pessimists, optimists, they say nothing about the war.  They all talk about themselves.  For lack of facts, no one has any insights.  At most Ahnung (a notion) of the relative strengths.  And I knew that Germany was powerful.

         Everything is getting less, forty grams of butter a week instead of sixty.  Half a piece of sausage, et cetera. 

     Starving, starving.  Starving.


Abel Herzberg was a lawyer and a writer (in 1974 he received the Dutch prize for literature); his excellent education and writing ability account for the high quality of this diary, which is very insightful, thought-provoking, and analytical. Herzberg's diary is valuable because it provides a descriptive account of daily life in Bergen-Belsen from 11 August 1944 (when he began the diary) to 26 April 1945. He secretly maintained this diary during his internment in the concentration camp. This fact distinguishes his book from those of other diarists who wrote their histories after their liberation. Herzberg's work possesses a sense of immediacy that the other diaries (excellent as they are) do not contain. Herzberg writes about actions as they happen! For instance, this Bergen-Belsen prisoner writes about a sudden general roll call, and he, along with other inmates, ponders about the situation. Some speculate about a transport; others hope for an extra ration of cheese; optimists predict that the war has ended. But few answers are to be found. Herzberg learns that the roll call has occurred because a prisoner has been sentenced to four weeks in the bunker for stealing shoes from the warehouse. The confusion of the prisoners is illuminating, for it manifests the lack of information in the camps, how the Nazis skillfully empowered themselves and simultaneously weakened the Jews by keeping them ignorant regarding what was happening.

Abel J. Herzberg. Between Two Streams: A Diary from Bergen-Belsen. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997. xi + 221 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-86064-121-3. 

Reviewed by Eric Sterling (Auburn University at Montgomery)

Published on H-Judaic (July, 1999)

Aerial view of Bergen-Belsen


  1. Thank you for posting this entry from Abel Herzberg's diary. Impossible for me to comprehend the discipline it must have taken for him to remain focused enough to continue to think and ruminate. Brings to mind Viktor Frankl and logotherapy - that a person's ability to survive stems primarily from one's success (or lack of it) in finding meaning in life - even if it's life in Bergen-Belsen. Along with luck, it is probably Herzberg's determination to remain vitally human that helped keep him alive.

  2. I'm really glad this reached you. It found me today when I wasn't expecting it and I thought I needed to share it. Put three CDs in the mail to you today. Curtis

  3. I'm glad it reached me, also. I intend to read more of Herzberg's diary. I wonder how he was able to find some sort of paper and pen or pencil? Thinking about the camps makes my head hurt. But I find myself thinking about them quite a bit from time to time, and feel compelled to read as much as I can tolerate. It's the least I can do since I didn't have to endure them. Thanks so much for the CDs! Looking forward to them. Nell

  4. Viktor Frankl came to mind for me too, but the contemporaneous quality of these diaries really distinguishes them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "Letters and Papers from Prison" -- one of a small number of books that live on a shelf by my bed -- have something of the same quality, though Bonhoeffer's treatment was generally better, at least until he was hanged shortly before the war ended.

  5. Good morning. I'm just....gripped by the aerial photo of the place....the angle, the cropping, the sinister, yet entirely documentary vibe and the way the long buildings look (to me) like movie soundstages seen from above (think of the "open" shots preceding Warner Bros. films). Herzberg's words really live, but drag one back to the fact that as he was writing them, so much was already known by us about the activities in the camps. Curtis

  6. Oh -- by the way:

    Nell: Chris is a friend from college. He and his wife Judy were my and Caroline's classmates during the 20th century, prior to Rush Limbaugh's radio career and the development of the personal computer.

    Chris: I've known Nell all my life. We lived on the same street and her brother was in my grade and was always a close friend. Like you, he's an HLS graduate, but I'm not sure if you would have overlapped.


  7. Hello, Nell! I was HLS '87, if that helps.

    Photographs of the camps were the most arresting images I encountered growing up. Many included the regular, geometrical quality of the picture above, illustrating the way repressive forces drive towards abstraction. In "Austerlitz" W.G. Sebald tracks the progress of the pentagonal fortress-form through European history, ending with Theresienstadt.

    Rush Limbaugh? Who's that? (Please don't tell me.)

  8. Hi Chris, My brother graduated in '80. Nice to meet you! In the late sixties, I immersed myself in holocaust history, holocaust theology, and holocaust literature. It eventually overwhelmed me. Still, I was extremely moved by the entry that Curtis has posted here. Yesterday, I ordered a copy of Herzberg's diary on for about $3.50. I have never focused on the images of the camps, per se, and appreciate your perspective and comments. And yours, Curtis. Nell

  9. Hi Nell,

    I had a somewhat similar immersion experience in the late 60s/early 70s. Even the theology. Eventually, it has to overwhelm any decent person. But you never really get away from it, do you?

    I hope your brother enjoyed HLS. I came to it late, after a long break doing other things, which made it unsatisfying in various ways I'm still trying to understand. But it brought me to Boston, and I'm not sorry about that.

    Curtis, thanks for the introduction!


  10. Hi Chris,

    How can you ever really get away from it? I live in northern VA and frequently drive past the Holocaust Museum. Its presence is always a stark reminder.

    My brother had mixed feelings about HLS, I think. I can appreciate why your experience there was, as you put it, unsatisfying. I returned to school in my thirties, and it was difficult in some ways, but wonderful in others. Being out of step with the norm can be disconcerting.

    I lived in Chapel Hill for many years and adored it, but we moved to Virginia for my husband's work. Still getting used to living here after 10 years!

    Curtis, I echo Chris' sentiment!