Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Irene Hasenberg Butter - September 22, 1986

Arrival at Bergen-Belsen

The arrival at Bergen-Belsen, what was that like?

It was... I was panic-stricken when I arrived in Bergen-Belsen. We were met by um, SS with uh, big German Shepherds and they were barking and, you know, that, that was a custom of the Nazis, they had dogs uh, dogs that they would, that they would use to threaten and sometimes use in, in reality. And uh, we had to walk quite a distance and they were keeping everybody in line, hundreds of people marching along and so, so they had these dogs. And I remember my mother saying to me, "Remember dogs that bark don't bite." But they looked so vicious, these huge German Shepherds that um, uh, I don't think that I was that much comforted by, by what she said. And um, it, so it was another level of um, SS. You know, in, in Westerbork, there weren't that many SS men, it was mostly run by Dutch people. And uh, actually by a very small group of um, even um, uh, it was mostly the Jews who ran the camp, and then maybe there were four uh, Germans there. Hardly ever more than that, and some Dutch NSB'ers. There was another level of um, Nazism that was uh, um, exhibited there. You know, many more people of course um, managing the camp, um... It was a, a very different scene, it was very dreary, it was larger, the barracks were very different, people were stuffed into barracks, much... many more people into smaller space. All of that became apparent right away. And because the Jews administered Westerbork, and this was not the case in Bergen-Belsen, the treatment was a totally different way of being treated from the very beginning. And well I guess uh, what it really meant was that um, it was apparent right away that things were not better here. This was not a better place than Westerbork.

Did you go through the same routine, having to take your clothes off?

I don't remember that. Maybe yes, but I don't remember it.

Was there, were there lice there too?

Yes. Oh, yes. Yeah. That was a um, was a problem that got worse and worse and worse the longer we were in the camps. I mean, it, it was a plague. It just really, it um, was a horrifying experience to have lice all, in all of your clothes, all over your body all the time. Not just head lice but body lice. That uh, I think one has limited endurance to live with lice. These indescribable little things crawling over your body all the time and there's no way of getting rid of them. That was much worse in, in Bergen-Belsen than in, in Westerbork.

What happened the first night?

I think my father and my brother were in another barrack. They had male and female barracks but it wasn't that far away. But there, there, it was separation, it meant separation and uncertainty, not knowing what would happen and we had to stand, be counted a lot in Bergen-Belsen. I think that happened right away. Line up on a big square in um, rows of five, barrack by barrack and be counted and it would take them hours and hours and we'd be standing in the cold. But um, other than that, I don't remember too much. I think my parents had to start working pretty soon. My brother who is two years older also worked too. Not all the time, but I think... I was the only one in the family who didn't work in uh, Bergen-Belsen.

What did you do?

Well, I took care of the laundry. Taking care of the laundry was a major effort there because not only did you have to wash things with no soap, because we didn't have soap, we had something they called soap, but it wasn't, and only cold water, but you really had to sit by the wash-line until your clothes were dry. Otherwise you'd come back and, and they were all gone. So there was no place to hang up anything unless you sat there and watched it. So that took quite a bit of time and I stood in line to get the food for everybody and I helped take care of the children because little children were left in the barracks sometimes when the mothers had to go to work. And there was no school, I didn't have that much to do there.

There were children in Bergen-Belsen at this time. Were they all Jewish children?

Well, Bergen-Belsen was a very large camp, but we only knew one section of it, which were all Jews. All Jewish people. There were other camps there, prisoners of war, and uh, who knows what. We never saw it.

Did you receive a number?

No. There were no uh, tattoos in Bergen-Belsen. There were two things that differentiated Bergen-Belsen from, from a lot of the Polish camps. It didn't have a gas chamber and you didn't get a number.

© Board of Regents University of Michigan-Dearborn