Where was God during the Holocaust

Emil Roosen lost everything in the Holocaust - just not his faith

He grew up Orthodox, tried to escape from the Nazis and ended up in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Even while in camp, Emil Roosen followed the strict religious rules - behind the back of the SS thugs.

When the Allies approach the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Emil Roosen experiences one last time the bestiality of the Nazis. On April 11, 1945, the 18-year-old was crammed into freight wagons with 2,500 other Jewish prisoners and deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. But he never arrives there. The odyssey through as yet unoccupied areas of the "Third Reich" lasts twelve days, catastrophically supplied and without sanitary facilities. The evacuation transport goes down in history as the "lost train". It ends in front of a blown railway bridge in Tröbitz, Brandenburg. Soviet troops discover the train and free the living occupants from the locked wagons.

It is salvation for Emil Roosen. He barely weighs 30 kilograms, can no longer walk and is taken to an emergency hospital. His mother, who was on the train with him, dies of typhus two weeks later. His father, once a strong man, was beaten to death in Bergen-Belsen, and his sister and her little daughter were murdered in Auschwitz.

But the strictly Orthodox Jew did not lose his faith during the Holocaust - not like many other survivors who asked in the face of the extermination of six million Jews: Where was God? How could he let that happen?

75 years after the end of the Second World War, we meet Emil Roosen in a Jewish retirement and nursing home in Zurich. The 94-year-old is weak from pneumonia and is in a wheelchair, but the conversation is important to him. «So that we don't forget what happened back then!», As he says several times. He has brought photos of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well as an order from the Dutch Queen - both signs of his luck in the post-war period. It will be our only encounter with Roosen. A few weeks later he dies at the age of 94. His impressive life story remains.

Arbitrariness of the overseers

Emil Roosen was born in Krefeld near Düsseldorf in 1926. The father is a textile manufacturer, the family lives strictly Orthodox, and they have their own small synagogue at home. As a child, Emil attended a Jewish school and at first did not notice much of the disaster that was brewing under Hitler. When the anti-Semitic attacks got worse and worse, the family fled to the Dutch border town of Venlo in 1938, and later to Amsterdam. The father does not want to go any further, to Great Britain or the USA, the relatives should stay together. The neutrality of the Netherlands, however, is a deceptive security. 1940 German troops overrun the country.

"In the first two years you didn't notice much of the occupation, not even as a Jew," said Roosen later in an interview with the Bergen-Belsen Documentation Center. But from 1942 Jews are no longer allowed to work in the Netherlands and have to wear the yellow star. As a precaution, Emil's father set up a hiding place in an office in 1943; he gave the valuables, including jewelry and a Torah scroll, to the non-Jewish neighbors, who bury them in the garden. The family can no longer move into the hiding place. She is arrested by the Dutch police and sent to the Westerbork transit camp by the Nazis.

Every Tuesday a train goes "east" from there to Auschwitz. The fact that Roosen escaped this fate is thanks to the forged papers that his father bought with a lot of money - Emil Roosen later no longer knows whether it was passports from Argentina or Uruguay. In January 1944 the family was relocated to Bergen-Belsen. It is the supposedly lesser evil. Because Bergen-Belsen is neither an extermination camp nor a typical concentration camp. There are Jews held there who the Nazis want to exchange with the Allies for German prisoners of war, foreign currency or goods, so-called exchange prisoners. Roosen hears that occasional transports of released Jews leave for Palestine, to North Africa, to Switzerland. He and his family are never among them.

The conditions are initially even better than in other concentration camps, families can stay together. But the prisoners are also closely guarded here, have to do forced labor and are at the mercy of their guards. «The Germans decided what to do and what not to do. We stood outside for hours during roll call - whatever the weather. There was hardly any food. That was the worst, ”remembers Roosen. Death is omnipresent in the increasingly overcrowded concentration camp. Between January and April 1945 alone, more than 35,000 prisoners died there from starvation, epidemics and exhaustion.

Fasting despite hunger

For strict Jews like Roosen there is something else: As soon as they arrive in the concentration camp, their religious practice is severely restricted. They are forced to work on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, are not allowed to pray at the prescribed time, and are not allowed to obey the dietary laws. Who can afford to eat kosher or even fast when it comes to bare survival?

The Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, writes: “In the camp I have neither the strength nor the time to immerse myself in theological considerations or to make metaphysical speculations about the life of the Lord of the World. Will the daily ration of bread be an inch thicker or thinner? Will there be margarine or jam with it? Everything revolves around these questions. The fear of beatings is greater than the fear of heavenly punishment. "

Nevertheless, Emil Roosen does everything in his power to adhere to religious practice. Even if, according to Jewish tradition, the commandments of the Torah no longer have to be obeyed if life or health is at risk. Religion gives him stability and strength: it is an act of Jewish self-assertion in the concentration camp. Roosen is assigned to the shoe squad. He has to dismantle the boots of fallen soldiers; Children's shoes are made from the recovered leather. "But I never did anything on Shabbat," he says in an interview. He always used the ladder to climb the huge mountains of boots. He remained there, hidden from the eyes of the overseers, until the Shabbat was over. Roosen remembers that he used another ruse to keep the ban on Shabbat work: he said he had to fetch wood in the forest with a wheelbarrow. Out of sight, he sat down on the floor and let the time pass idly. When SS men came by, he said: "I'll wait until the wheelbarrow is full."

Roosen and other believers also try to use the few free spaces in Bergen-Belsen to somehow obey the strict religious commandments. On Yom Kippur they fast even though they are already hungry. For the feast of Passover they even manage to find a little flour in order to secretly bake a small matzo, the traditional unleavened bread cake. They keep the phylacteries hidden and put them on briefly early in the morning without the SS guards noticing. Such forms of Jewish religious practice have also been handed down for other concentration camps and are described by the historian Thomas Rahe in the book “Hear Israel”. But it is a rare phenomenon. Most of the time, religious practice is impossible in the coercive regime, especially not in the extermination camps.

Silence about the horror

After his liberation, Emil Roosen stands alone. His closest relatives are all dead or missing. He returns to Amsterdam, where his former neighbors return the family's belongings to him. Only the Torah scroll has become illegible because of the moisture in the hiding place. Roosen's plan to emigrate to Brazil to stay with an aunt comes to nothing. But one of his father's cousins ​​survived and offers him a job in a metal recycling company. In the company that he will later head, he not only finds great professional success, which will even bring him the honor of Queen of the Netherlands. There he also meets a secretary who becomes his wife - a survivor who also lost her entire family in the Holocaust. Their three children, who are brought up very religiously, grow up carefree and for a long time have no idea what their parents went through in the war. "We didn't talk about it much," says Roosen later. "You don't want to bother them with the atrocities you've experienced."

Not every Orthodox who survived the Holocaust has remained true to the faith. And not everyone who remained religious was later ready to talk about the horror. Anita Winter also observed this. With the Gamaraal Foundation, which she founded, she has been looking after Holocaust survivors living in Switzerland for years and is therefore familiar with many of their biographies. She has a thesis, which is why what happened, especially in religious families, is rarely discussed: Many survivors believed that their children and grandchildren did not understand the horror. "It is about the concern that the descendants could question God or even fall away from the faith completely when they hear about experiences from the concentration camp."

Roosen's youngest daughter, who lives in Zurich, interprets her parents' behavior differently: “Many memories were just too stressful. In the family we never asked why God allowed this to happen. It had to be what it was. We don't know God's reasons. Why is there a corona pandemic now? "

Emil Roosen spent the last ten years of his life in Switzerland, near his daughter. What he noticed in this country: How little the Swiss know about the Holocaust. How often has he been asked if he could tell about it. He only returned to Bergen-Belsen on a memorial day: "I'm glad I had nothing more to do there." Roosen once gave information as a contemporary witness for a documentary by Steven Spielberg. His greatest pride is the family that the Holocaust survivor founded: 3 children, 27 grandchildren, over 50 great-grandchildren - all of them very religious.