‘Between Two Streams’ a heart-wrenching memoir

  When I review a book, I often mark notable passages with a sticky note. My husband usually can tell how highly I thought of the book by the number of little yellow tabs sticking out of the pages.
  When I finished “Between Two Streams: A Diary From Bergen-Belsen” by Abel J. Herzberg I was all out of sticky notes.
  As the title suggests, “Between Two Streams” is a memoir recounting Herzberg’s days as a prisoner in the Nazi camp Bergen-Belsen.
  Herzberg, a Dutch Jew, relays how the camp initially was set up to house “privileged” Jews, or those who might be traded for German prisoners held by the Allies. In the beginning of his internment, Herzberg is hopeful he and his wife will be traded and freed, but as months pass, his experience shows that the only thing separating Bergen-Belsen from the other concentration camps was that the Jews were starved to death or left to disease instead of being gassed.
  This is disturbing content to be sure, but Herzberg offers real insight into human strengths and failings through his diary. He is part of the panel of prisoners who judge other prisoners and punish them for stealing food or for other transgressions. He dislikes punishing other Jews for the Nazis, but is practical in his decisions, knowing the SS would punish the whole camp by withholding food or worse, while he and his fellow judges can impose a lesser sentence on fewer people.
  Being part of this panel allows him to see how far people will go when they have been stripped of their humanity. People steal bread from children, from the sick, from the dying. Fight over the few meager belongings the dead leave: a tattered shirt, a worn-out pair of shoes. Herzberg is saddened by the behavior of some, noting that hunger will push people to do just about anything, but at the same time he sees hope. He sees hope every time whispers of rescue circulate the camp. He sees resilience as the prisoners weather beatings from the SS. And he sees a quiet rage and defiance in the slow progress of the work the Jews are forced to do.
  It is interesting that through his imprisonment, he appears to know little of what is going on elsewhere during the war, which is to be expected I guess, but I never really thought about it. As the Germans begin to lose the war, they start shuffling the prisoners around. The population at Bergen-Belsen swells, as tens of thousands of more prisoners are sent there.
  As far as we could find out, all these women have come from Auschwitz; they have been separated from their husbands. Their children, too, were taken from them. The most horrifying stories are being told. The children and all those not eligible for work are said to have been gassed. It is impossible to believe such an atrocity.
  The reality becomes all too clear, though, as sickness rips through the overcrowded camp. There is not enough food. People are forced to work in horrific conditions. Prisoners begin to kill themselves to end their despair. The corpses pile up, only furthering the spread of disease as the crematorium cannot keep pace with the growing number of dead.
  Herzberg shares an important firsthand account in “Between Two Streams,” which was translated by Jack Santcross, who as a boy was on the train with Herzberg being taken to Bergen-Belsen in 1944 and, luckily, on the train leaving the camp with Herzberg in 1945. Herzberg went on to write many books and won several prizes. He died in 1989.
  Herzberg left a lasting memorial to the suffering that went on during WWII. It’s the small details in this memoir that are left out of the history books. These details paint a horrific picture of what it must have been like to watch all the people around you die while you are afraid of the same fate. Watch as people starve to death while you are starving yourself. Watch as the overflowing body cart is wheeled to the crematorium and wonder if that is your future.

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