Surviving the horror
- Author recounts experiences in Nazi concentration camp
THE MONTREAL GAZETTE
Montreal, Canada, August 5, 1993
ST. LAURENT — As an 11 year-old boy held captive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp during World War II, Moshe Peer was sent to the gas chamber at least six times. Each time he survived, watching with horrors as many of the women and children gassed with him collapsed and died. To this day, Peer doesn’t know how he was able to survive. “Maybe children resist better, I don’t know,” he said in an interview last week.
Now 60, Peer has spent the last 19 years writing a first-person account of the horror he witnessed at Bergen Belsen. On Sunday, he spoke to about 300 young adults at the Petah Tikva Sephardic Congregation in St. Laurent about his book and his experience as a Holocaust survivor.
The gathering was part of the synagogue’s Shabbaton 93, which brought together young adults from across North America for a cultural and social experience. Called Inoubliable Bergen-Belsen (Unforgettable Bergen-Belsen), Peer wrote the book to make the reader feel like a witness at the scene. But he admits he can never recreate for anyone the living hell he experienced. “The conditions in the camp is indescribable,” Peer said. “You can’t bring home the horror.”
In 1942, at age 9, Peer and his younger brother and sister were arrested by police in their homeland of France. His mother was sent to Auschwitz and never returned.
Peer and his siblings were sent to Bergen-Belsen two years later. He recalls the separation from his parents as excruciating. But surviving the horrors of the camp quickly became a priority.
“There were pieces of corpses lying around and there were bodies lying there, some alive and some dead,” Peer recalled. “Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz because there people were gassed right away so they didn’t suffer a long time.”
Peer said Russian prisoners were kept in an open-air camp “like stallions” and were given no food or water. “Some people went mad with hunger and turned to cannibalism,” Peer said.
Peer’s day began with a roll call of the numbered prisoners. This could last as long as five hours, while their captors calculated how many prisoners had died. Anyone who fell over during the roll call was beaten on the spot. After roll call, the prisoners returned to their barracks, where they were given a tiny piece of bread and some coloured water.
Peer and his siblings — who all survived were cared for at the camp by two women, whom Peer has unsuccessfully tried to find.
Children being children, they did play, sometimes chasing each other around the barracks. But there would always be some who were too sick or weak to get up.
After the war, Peer was reunited with his father in Paris and the family moved to Israel. Peer’s four children were born in Israel, but after serving in the Israeli army in a number of wars, Peer moved to Montreal in 1974. Even 49 years later, Peer is still haunted by his concentration-camp experience and still finds his memories keep him awake at night.
But what he is most bitter about is the way the rest of world stood by and let it happen.
“No one told the Germans not to do it. They had the permission of world,” he said.