Hans Bergas was a high official in the Ministry of Labor of Germany’s Weimar Republic and a member of the Social Democratic Party. In 1933, when the Nazis took over the government, Bergas fled to Paris where he was active in anti-fascist circles and supported other refugees from Germany. Eventually he settled in Montauban in southern France, where he worked for American Friends Service Committee in its efforts to aid refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and then, after the German invasion of France in 1940, from the Nazis. Bergas joined the French Resistance. Caught in 1943 by the Gestapo, he was tortured and deported to Buchenwald in January 1944.
After liberation in April 1945, Bergas returned to France. There he was the beneficiary of food parcels from Gertrude Weaver, a high school teacher in Chester, Pa., with Quaker connections. She taught German, and Bergas expressed his gratitude to her in the form of a series of letters written between March and July 1946 that described his Buchenwald experience, for her to use as a translation exercise for her students. Knowing that these letters provided unique documentation, she offered them for publication to Reader’s Digest, but the editors replied that readers were tired of concentration camp memoirs (already in 1946!) and rejected them. Discouraged, her efforts ended and this memoir lay dormant. It ended up at Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, where Bension Varon, a retired economist for the World Bank, discovered it while on a search for materials on his family history (Bergas was a relative by marriage). The memoir forms the central portion of this book, which would have fallen beneath my radar if Varon, an acquaintance, hadn’t alerted me to it.
This privately published work (which deserves better proofreading than it has received) contains three parts. The introduction by Varon details the life of Bergas and—to the extent he was able to capture it—of Weaver. Varon then analyzes the genre of concentration camp memoirs and considers how reader expectations and moral judgments have distorted historical accuracy over time. He concludes that this very early memoir is free of these influences and provides an exceptional portal for accurate viewing of the internal workings of Buchenwald. A postscript by Varon’s son, Jeremy, a history professor at the New School in New York, places the Bergas memoir in the stream of Holocaust literature.
The 1946 letters form the heart of the book, and they reveal what a unique witness Bergas was. Buchenwald was full of a mixture of Jews, German Communists, other leftists, and a variety of dissenters and foreign nationals. Although Jewish, Bergas strangely was not identified as such by the camp authorities and was classified as a Frenchman, wearing a red triangle for political prisoner with an F for Frenchman, and not the yellow triangle assigned to Jews.
The SS officers left much of the camp’s micro-administration to the internees themselves. Bergas spoke fluent German, and further, he knew the intricacies of German politics—and personally knew a good number of the inmates from their leadership roles in pre-Nazi Germany. With his capital of knowledge of political relationships and his friendships, plus innate savvy, Bergas had the ability to engage in and influence key decisions. He agonizes over the difficult ethical situation facing internees who themselves were forced to choose whom to spare and whom to send on supposed work details from which few returned.
Bergas was aware that his immediate audience for these letters consisted of high school students, and he stated that he left out the most grisly of facts, but what he included is stark enough: brutally honest, and yet tender.
It would be comforting to say that such studies have only historical significance, but as stories of internment camps and large populations of displaced and mistreated refugees again invade our headlines—and as the concept of fascism, which Bergas understood so well, still has application—this memoir retains relevance for today.