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Witness to the Dark - Book Review

WITNESS TO THE DARK – A Testimony to Survival


Softcover, 169 pages

Cost: $14.51 Amazon

Gefen Publishing House, 2022

Reviewed by R.M. Kiel

This is a fascinating book written in a conversational style that pulls the reader into the story. Wolf Holles, a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, sets his story from the time his family fled Germany to visiting Bergen-Belsen many years later. That he survived the ordeal, and is now living in Israel is a tribute to his endurance and perseverance.

The book is in five parts, with an essential prologue and epilogue.

Holles tells how his mother would reminisce about life in Nurnberg, Germany, during the Weimar Republic. But one day a local baker gave his mother a vicious look, rather than her usual smile, and said, "Now it's your turn," and added, "Now we'll get rid of all of you."

Hitler became chancellor and the SS paraded through the streets. Holles' parents, in their early thirties, with boys aged seven, five, and Wolf only two, escaped to the Netherlands. There, in the bitterly cold winters, Wolf and his friends would skate across frozen canals. Summers would be time for games of soccer and the collection of cards featuring soccer heroes such as Kick Smit and Bert Caldenhove. The boys also played volley ball and leapfrog games "in carefree childhood".

A stream of Jewish refugees arrived from the German Reich. Kristallnacht occurred. Hitler annexed the Sudetenland. In 1940 German troops invaded the Netherlands. Holles' parents desperately, but unsuccessfully, tried to obtain visas for anywhere that would accept them. With other Jews they were taken to Westerbork, then Kamp Amersfoort. Darkness closed in and life was different.

The Dutch Jews in Westerbork knew what was happening, but didn't resist or try to escape. They were in denial of the truth. Holles writes: "...the Nazis groomed us to accept one wretched change in our lives after the other, each change a step lower down the abyss, until (we) willingly walked onto the train knowing where (we) were headed," - the extermination camps in Poland - Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor - or to Bergen-Belsen in East Germany.

In January 1944 the Holles family arrived at Bergen-Belsen. Male and female prisoners were separated. Mr Weiss, head of barracks number five, explained the routine for the days – the roll call, the work, the meals, the wearing of yellow stars at all times. The inmates began to understand that one day they would "end up dead", they were "condemned to die" there. Many of them became doggedly bent on survival. All fantasised about food.

Wolf lived with his mother, while his father and brothers lived in another barracks. The inmates felt that the world had forgotten about them. But in September 1944 they heard about the Allied landing in Normandy and wondered whether freedom could be close at hand. That gave them hope.

There was a rumor that the Allied forces were nearing the German heartland. The feeling in the camp was: "Do. Not. Give. Up. "However, writes Holles, his father died, and "Watching my buddies die had become a daily habit. "Some religiously observant people held on to their faith, while others gave up their beliefs. And there were non-believers, after surviving the camps, who became observant.

Holles recounts instances of brutality and horror, and times when people simply resigned themselves to death.

Part Four of the book describes the journey on the Lost Train, which wandered around Germany trying to find a way to genuine freedom. In July 1945 the Bergen-Belsen camp survivors returned to the Netherlands. Many had recurring nightmares. A few went crazy. Some committed suicide. "The truth was nobody came back without scars." says Holles.

They "were filled with a wild, savage hatred, hated everything German with a cold, fierce hostility, loathed whatever was Nazi-related … promised to wreak vengeance upon them until the last murdered victim had been avenged." They would neither forget nor forgive.

World War II ended officially in Europe on May 8, 1945. Wolf, his mother and brothers were free. Wolf went to school in the mornings and lived the rest of the time without any sense of responsibility. He and his friends wanted to forget the past. Years later, on

hearing of the capture of Adolph Eichmann, he felt a "deep sense of satisfaction."

Holles tells of his return visit to Bergen-Belsen, where he felt he was bearing witness, so we would not be able to forget. He ends his tale with: "I am the living proof that evil does not triumph. My children and future generations will make sure the world will never forget the horrors wrought by Nazi fanaticism." 



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