JOIN cooperation at commemorations of concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen

Picture by St John Ambulance England

A delegation of St John Ambulance England attended the 70th Anniversary Commemorations of the Liberation of the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany. The trip has been organised in collaboration with volunteers of the local branch of Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe Germany in Celle who accompanied the English delegation during the commemorations. The cooperation between the English and German JOIN members was facilitated by the JOIN office.

The President of the Federal Republic of Germany Joachim Gauck and the Duke of Gloucester (Grand Prior of the Order of St John) took part in the commemorative services. St John Ambulance was also escorted by the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen & Women, including survivors from Bergen-Belsen, their families and the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

You will find here below the general impression from this special day as reported by Stephen Kahn, Regional Radio Communications & Logistics Officer for St John Ambulance East of England, who was key in organising the cooperation with the German sister organisation:

 ‘At 05:30 on Sunday 26th April & somewhat bleary-eyed after having been on duty in Norwich for the previous two days I met all the group at Heathrow Airport. Included were survivors from Bergen-Belsen, their families, ex-service personnel & the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

We flew to Hanover where we were met by two members of Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe, the St John Ambulance sister organisation in Germany & Austria, who were going to work with us throughout the visit. This co-operation was personally something which will remain in my memory, Robert & Anja could not have been more supportive & involved especially as neither had worked with St John before. Anja is a nurse, married to the person in charge of Johanniter in Celle & Robert is a communication specialist – there are definite similarities between the two organisations!

Visiting Bergen-Belsen for the first time cannot be truly reflected in words; though the whole area was razed to the ground shortly after World War 2 because of the disease that was endemic in the camp you cannot fail to realise the horrors because it is the site of mass graves of tens of thousands who died there & there are individual gravestones scattered across the site including that of Anne Frank the young Dutch girl whose diaries are world renowned.

There were a number of commemorative services with the President of the Federal German Republic & the Duke of Gloucester (Grand Prior of the Order of St John) representing Germany & Britain as well as numerous other dignitaries but though this was a time to remember those who had died it was very obvious that it was happening through the full co-operation of personnel of one-time foes.

However for me there was a singular special moment that I will never forget, when I spent a short time with Mrs Eva Behar who was a survivor from Bergen Belsen & then a displaced person in Celle (where our Johanniter colleagues are based) who was returning there for the first time. Though inevitably she had innumerable emotions on travelling back to the concentration camp for the first time in 70 years she immediately recognised me & expressed her sincere gratitude to St John Ambulance – we had resuscitated her husband at a Remembrance Parade at The Cenotaph some 10 years ago & he had indeed been out at that same parade the following year though then in his 80s. There cannot be any better confirmation of why we are involved with St John Ambulance than that short conversation. 

The impression from the commemoration events was sadness of what happened in the past but also hope – having heard innumerable different languages spoken & different religious prayers or secular readings and as importantly all age groups from teenager to elderly either visiting or involved in the events.

The rest of the day was taken up with other commemorative events at the Hohne Barracks, this being the last time this particular drum-head ceremony will be held there as the British Army leaves shortly, & then Hanover before arriving back in the UK at 22:30. Fortunately we were not called upon to provide first aid but all those on the trip were grateful to have had St John Ambulance with them & I am delighted that we & Johanniter were able to work together and hopefully successfully represent our two organisations at such an important event’.