Raul Teitelbaum was born in Prizren in 1931 to Dr Yosef Teitelbaum and Paula, nee Weisselberger. In May 1944, together with his mother and father, he was taken first to the camp at the Belgrade Sajmiste, then to Bergen-Belsen. They were in one of the last convoys of Jews from Yugoslavia to be transported to German concentration and death camps. They were liberated on April 24, 1945. His father did not survive the hardships of the camp and died a few days after the liberation. He was buried in Germany. Raul returned with his mother to his hometown of Prizren and lived there for three years. He finished his final year of secondary school at the First Boys' Secondary School in Belgrade. In June, 1949, he boarded the ship Radnik and left for Israel where he still lives as a retired journalist. His mother died in Jerusalem and was buried there. He now devotes his time to historical research of various aspects of the Holocaust.
From his war years memories there is section on the time spent in Bergen-Belsen
I saw Hebrew letters for the first time in my life, written in the
sand of Bergen-Belsen. It was also here that I heard for the first time
ever the melody of a Hebrew song about Trumpeldor, the one-armed
hero who was killed in Tel Hai, a pioneer settlement in northern
Galilee. During the first months in the camp, when it was still tolerable,
the children were gathered together by a young rabbi from Pristina,
Josip Levi, and a teacher, Hana Levi (later Has) from Sarajevo.
They taught us the Hebrew alphabet in the sand in the camp. But all of
this didn't last long.
There were many rumors and various theories about why they
didn't kill us all. One of them was that as "Albanians" we were citizens
of a country which was Germany's ally. Another was that the Germans
kept us in order to exchange us for their own people taken prisoner by
the Allies. The truth was that Himmler had planned Bergen-Belsen as
a collection camp for various purposes, including the possibility of
Bergen-Belsen was divided into several camps by barbed wire
fences. The high outer fence which surrounded the whole camp was
studded with high watchtowers with heavy machine-guns and spot-
lights. Small black boards with a skull and crossbones in white hung on
the fence. "Anyone approaching will be killed without warning" read
the boards in German.
We were all put together in what they called the Sternlager (Star
Camp). Women and children were in one barracks, men in another, but
in the same camp. They put us in barracks number 8. In the very first
days they gave us six-pointed Stars of David, made from yellow cloth.
In the middle of them was the word Jude (Jew). The Dutch Jews who
were already in the camp when we arrived had the same yellow star,
but theirs read Jood, in Dutch. Mother somehow sewed these yellow
symbols onto our clothes as they ordered. We were not allowed to
move around the camp without them.
At the barracks entrance there was a space with a table and sever-
al wooden chairs. The remaining space was occupied by wooden bunk
beds. Several months later, when more convoys arrived, surviving
inmates evacuated from camps in the east, the space was even more
crowded. A third tier was added to the wooden beds. The space was
really cramped. In the end, more than four hundred people were living
in barracks meant for a hundred. Everyone had a space about half a
metre wide in which to lie. We slept pressed up against one another,
with no chance of turning over. At the beginning, things somehow were
all right. However, after a few months, when the bad dysentery began
and a serious typhus epidemic, the situation was terrible. Because the
people were so weak they couldn't go outside to relieve themselves so
it was pouring from the upper bunks onto those below. There were also
some horrifying moments when someone's neighbour in the bed would
die without anyone noticing. Sometimes this would even be a brother
or sister, a father or mother.
At the beginning my father tried to function as a doctor in the
camp. But within just a few weeks he was so weak because of his ulcer
that he spent most of his time lying down and rarely left the barracks,
and then only with the help of my mother.
We stood on the Appellplatz, the parade ground, for hours. The
heads of the barracks would line us up. One of the SS men, on a bicy-
cle, tried to put the ranks into straight lines. God help anyone who got
out of this line! Blows would rain down on them. After that they would
count us. And of course they'd never get the right number of inmates.
There were always people missing, either because they were exhausted
and unable to leave the barracks, or because they were already dead in
some corner. It was always a long time before they got things cleared
up. And so we would stand there, endlessly, in the rain, snow and cold
until the numbers somehow added up. These Appells were a typical
combination of Nazi sadism and German pedantry.
Up until September or October, everything somehow proceeded
"normally". We received our daily meals. In the morning this was some
muddy coffee substitute, at noon a clear soup with a piece of potato or
mangel-wurzel floating here and there. Late in the afternoon they
would give us something which was supposed to be tea. Along with this
was our daily meal of a two-centimetre thick slice of bread and a piece
of margarine. From the end of autumn until the liberation, the situa-
tion in the camp became more and more difficult and unbearable.
Especially after the arrival of the new commandant, Josip Kremer, a
former Auschwitz commandant. Everything broke down and became
general chaos and a nightmare. The camp command was out of con-
trol, supplies no longer arrived. The daily bread ration was cut sud-
denly to the size of a box of matches. Instead of a two-centimetre slice
of bread we got one centimetre a day; instead of two watered-down
soups with mangel-wurzel we now got just one. And then not even that.
There were also some days and weeks when we would get nothing.
At the beginning, while it was still possible, the adult men were
taken to work in a nearby forest outside the camp. Virtually barehand-
ed they had to uproot tree stumps to be used as firewood by the Ger-
man population in the surrounding settlements. Women and children
were put to work picking apart old, worn-out shoes which were brought
to the camp in large heaps. The parts of these shoes which could still
be used were made into some kind of primitive footwear with wooden
soles for the inmates to wear. Some of us were given those typically
Dutch wooden peasant clogs. They were heavy and it wasn't easy to
walk in them. People dragged their feet. However they had the advan-
tage that on cold days they could be lined with rags to somehow keep
the feet warm.
Hunger was our greatest, and probably our only obsession. We
would sneak around the camp for hours looking for scraps of food.
Sometimes we looked at our Dutch neighbours and our peers in that
part of the camp with envy. At least at the beginning they tried to keep
to their daily routine and ate their poor meals all together within the
family. On small wooden boards they would very neatly share their
daily ration of bread for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A small piece of
bread for every meal. For us Balkan types there was always the dilem-
ma of whether to eat this daily ration all at once as soon as we received
it. In this way we would feel that our mouths were full, even if just for
a moment. Or should we leave part of the meal for the evening as the
Dutch did? While they were still giving us mangel-wurzel soup, we chil-
dren tried to hit the jackpot: after this watery soup was doled out we'd
lie in wait for the empty vats which we would return to the camp
kitchen across from the entrance to our section of the camp and out-
side the barbed wire. This was an opportunity for us to lick the remains
of the soup from inside the vat. And, even more important, to steal a
piece or two of the mangel-wurzels piled in great heaps in front of the
During the first months we also used to be given pickled forest
snails. These were given to us from wooden barrels. At first no one
could eat them because of the strong smell of this unusual food. Later
they became the camp delicacy. A rare portion of protein. We used to
use pickled snails and mangel-wurzel cut into pieces to make a kind of
pate. But this soon came to an end. I have never come across these
pickled snails again anywhere else.
The most important ritual for the inmates was when they would
bring to the barracks several square loaves of bread, which contained
more sawdust than flour and the head of the barracks would cut
them using an improvised knife, a sharpened fork handle in fact. All
the inmates who could still stand on their feet would gather around
the table at the barracks entrance and watch carefully while the
Blockalteste, the block supervisor, would measure the slices with a
primitive ruler to make sure he didn't give anyone a millimetre less.
Measuring the ends of these square loaves was always a problem.
This piece of bread was the measure for everything. It was a kind of
camp currency for the most primitive kind of barter. For a daily
ration of bread, devoted smokers could get four of the cigarettes
which the resourceful managed to obtain from the Nazi guards or the
support staff at the camp. Even a shabby coat and other similar items
could be had for bread.
While I was still somehow able to move around I spent most of my
time in the camp collecting cigarette butts from the German guards.
This was for my father who was a passionate smoker. At the beginning
I managed to get him some Machorka tobacco from the Russian pris-
oners who worked in the camp kitchen. For hours I would walk through
the camp compound looking down at the ground and collecting butts.
This became almost an instinctive habit. For a long time after the lib-
eration I would instinctively bend down whenever I would see a butt on
the ground. It took me quite a while to break this habit.
I don't remember whether I ever looked the SS men in the face
while I was in the camp. If I had been called on to identify any of these
criminals after the war 1 would probably not have been able to. I don't
remember even one of their faces.
Near our camp there was a women's camp for those who had sur-
vived the Auschwitz Death March. They arrived at the beginning of
1945. Their hair was shorn, they were wrapped in rags and scraps of
striped dresses. This camp was run by SS women who were extremely
cruel. One scene which I saw across the barbed wire remains etched in
my memory. The SS supervisor was furiously beating a woman, an
inmate, with a plaited whip. The blows were dreadful and the poor
woman fell on the ground squirming. And still the SS woman contin-
ued kicking her with her black boots, aiming for the most vulnerable
parts of the body. As I watched this terrible scene I wondered how one
woman could beat another so badly.
For me, hunger remains the overriding phenomenon of the days
in the camp. Exhausting, chronic hunger which went on for months.
The stomach is empty and the head thinks only of food. Everything
else is eliminated from the mind. And on it goes, one day after anoth-
er. Nobody who hasn't actually experienced it could understand this
Everyone moved around the camp like ghosts. People with
swollen stomachs, hollow cheeks and wide-open rheumy eyes. Feeble,
completely apathetic to the surroundings and to the people closest to
them. The "hunger syndrome" consisted of putrid, purulent boils.
Human dignity began to vanish. Musulmani, living skeletons. We were
almost naked because the clothes we had brought with us very quickly
wore out. The dirt and the dysentery left their unbearable traces. The
stench was everywhere, the dreadful faecal stink. The primitive toilets
were flooded, pouring from the barracks down the camp paths. Every-
where. Everything was mixed together. The dead and the living. It was
impossible to walk without stepping on a corpse or a puddle of faeces
and urine. There was total apathy. Some lay exhausted, unable to
move. Others crept around the camp like ghosts, with no kind of con-
nection to other people. Lice everywhere. These grey vermin multi-
plied at incredible speed. They nested in every seam of our ragged
clothing and on every hair on our bodies. We were skin and bones, but
the lice kept growing fat on our blood. In the beginning we tried to pick
them off as an important part of our daily routine in the camp. We
would look for them in the seams of our clothes and crush them with
our nails. It was a Sisyphean labour. But our strength gave out and the
lice won. Everyone was too exhausted to get rid of them. The woisi
came after death. When someone died the lice, accustomed to the
warmth of the human body, would crawl out to the surface of tin-
corpse, covering it with a grey, vibrating layer. This was the surest sign
that someone had finally died. Because quite often people who wen
alive looked as though they were dead. This was a kind of "white
death" from lice.
The winter of 1944-45 was a season from hell. The typhus raged.
Dozens, hundreds of people died every day. In the last three months
before the liberation about 45,000 people died in the camp. The camp
crematorium worked day and night and was still unable to cremate all
the victims. There were bodies piled up beside the barracks. They were
stacked like logs at a stake, petrol was poured over them and they were
burned. These piles of human bodies would burn for days. The awful
stench of death, of burning human bodies, flooded the camp.
During these last months, the German order was falling apart.
The camp administration no longer took care of anything. The SS men
rarely appeared in the camp. Germany was falling apart. The camp was
falling apart. While there was order they were killing systematically.
Now, in disorder, people were dying on a massive scale. The result was
In the most difficult days, when everything was falling apart
around us, my family tried somehow to stay together. Mainly thanks to
my mother. In these circumstances this was no easy task. Staying
together was perhaps the most uplifting sign that we still maintained
our human dignity.
Sometimes hope came to us from the skies. In the distance we
would hear the buzzing of the Allied bombers' heavy engines and then
the dull explosions of the bombs on Hanover and other industrial
regions of northern Germany. When the wind was kind to us the nar-
row ribbons of silver paper dropped by the Allied aircraft to confuse
the German radar would drift into the camp. These were signs that the
end of the war was growing closer.
When English units liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1944,
they immediately realised that it was impossible to clean and disinfect
the camp. Those inmates who had survived were moved to a nearby
German Army camp. Bulldozers were used to bury thousands of
unidentified bodies in mass graves and the Bergen-Belsen camp itself
was razed to the ground using military flamethrowers.
We were not there at the time. One day in April we were told that
all who could still move should prepare for transport. The reason for
this German decision, just days before the liberation, remains unclear.
Himmler or someone else had plans for us in those last days of the
Third Reich. And so, at the beginning of April 1945, three convoys
were evacuated from our Steinlager. Mainly towards the south-east.
The first convoy reached Theresienstadt, the second was liberated by
the Americans at Magedeburg. We were in the third convoy.
On April 10, five days before the liberation of the camp, we were
ordered to go to a railway crossing gate, about ten kilometres from the
camp. At the end of March, my mother had contracted typhus! She
could walk only with great difficulty. I carried her to the train on my
back so that we would not have to part. My father, who was 54 at the
time, looked as if he was a hundred years old, but he somehow dragged
himself along beside us.
The fact that father and I survived (although by just a few days),
the horrors of the camp is something which, above all, we owe to our
mother. She was our anchor. She took care of us and of others, trying
to find extra food. She made us trousers and shirts from worn-out blan-
kets. And, most important of all, by dint of great effort she preserved
our dignity and the unity of our family under horrifying conditions
when everything in the camp was falling apart.
They loaded about 2,400 of us, internees from Bergen-Belsen,
Jews from Holland and Yugoslavia, some from Greece and France,
into sixty wagons and, under SS escort, the transport set off on the
night of April 10. And thus we began our journey of death through a
ruined Germany which was already in flames. This train was later
known as the "lost train". First we travelled via Lunburg, to the north,
towards Hamburg. Then this train, some six hundred metres long!
turned south-east towards Berlin. Then again to the south, to the cities
of Kotbus and Luben, then west, not far from the river Elba and the
place where the Soviet and American troops met. This meandering
through Germany in closed wagons, with no food or water, went on for
about two weeks. Through the barbed wire over the wagon windows we
saw smoke and heard explosions in the distance. Berlin was in flames
under the attack of the Red Army. On the rare occasions when they
allowed us out to search for water, we would throw the dead out beside
the railway lines and try to bury them in shallow graves. During this
nightmare journey I caught typhus and lived through all this in the
delirium of high fever. My memories of it are all somewhat hazy.
Work by Raul Teitelbaum, done in the camp
During the night of April 23, our train stopped on the railway line
out in the open. When the spring morning dawned, there were no
longer any German guards around the train. There was a strange
silence outside. And in the wagons the heavy smell of faeces, urine and
death. Someone managed to get our wagons open. We crawled out.
Because of my illness I could no longer walk and was crawling on my
stomach. A few hours later someone shouted "Russians! Russians!" In
the distance, as though in a dream or in the touching pathos of a Russ-
ian film, we saw a group of cavalry approaching. This was the advance
contingent of the Red Army. We were free! Those who were able were
shouting at the top of their voices and kissing the cavalry men and
A few months later, before they were repatriated to their coun-
tries, the Bergen-Belsen inmates who had survived sent Stalin a letter
of thanks, typical of those enthusiastic days. "Each of us will tell our
children and grandchildren, from generation to generation with deep
gratitude, about these happy days of liberation by the victorious Red
Army. After unprecedented suffering we are returning to life as free
We were liberated near a place called Trebic, in the eastern part of
Germany. Because the fighting was still going on, the Soviet soldiers
had no time to concern themselves with us. They took our whole train
to Trebic, expelled the German locals from their houses and moved us
in to await the Soviet medical teams. Our liberators then continued
Because we were so exhausted we weren't even able to rejoice at
our freedom. But many of us, in our hunger, threw ourselves at the
food we found in the houses. For some, this proved fatal. Some of these
liberated camp internees died immediately after their liberation. The
medical teams arrived a day or two later. For fear that a typhus epi-
demic would break out, all typhus sufferers were moved to field hospi-
tals in the area, to some kind of quarantine. And thus my father, my
mother and myself found ourselves near the village of Milberg in an
army prison camp which had been converted into a field hospital. Our
beds were right next to one another. On the morning of April 29, six
days after we were liberated, I woke up. My father was lying next to me,
he wasn't moving. He had died in his sleep. I reacted almost hysteri-
cally, shouting "There is no God!"
We buried my father that same day in a nearby prisoner-of-war
cemetery in part of a forest. Two German prisoners, escorted by a
mounted Soviet guard, dug the grave. We lowered the coffin with my
father's body into it. The two German prisoners were muttering some-
thing to each other. I thought they said something like "Der Verfluchte
Jude". To this day I'm not certain whether I really hear, this or whether
I just imagined it. I went to the guard on his horse and complained that
the Germans were swearing about my dead father. The guard handed
me the horsewhip he had in his hands.
"Beat them," he said to me. I tried, but didn't have the strength.
Then he took the whip back and started driving the Germans down the
path, whipping them. With a pencil I wrote my father's name on a
board and put it down on the fresh grave. Many years later, sometime
in the second half of the 1980s, I was in East Berlin as an Israeli up
resentative, attending an international congress of fighters agains fascism.
I asked the organisers to help me look for my father's grave in tin-
part of East Germany where we were liberated. My search for the
grave took several days. And so we also arrived in the village of Mil-
berg. One of the older people remembered that there was a camp for
prisoners of war in the area and that sick concentration camp internees
had been accommodated there immediately after the war. He even
remembered that there was a cemetery for prisoners of war. We went
to find the spot where the camp stood. All that remained were the con-
crete foundations of the barracks, now overgrown with tall plants. We
also found the place where the prisoners' cemetery was supposed to
have been, the place where I had buried my father. But there was no
longer a cemetery there, nor my father's grave. They explained to me
that there had been a flood in the area sometime in 1947, that the shal-
low graves were unearthed and that the bones of the dead had been
scattered by the water. The remains were collected and buried in a
common grave in the village cemetery with a small gravestone reading
"Three thousand soldiers and officers of various nations who fought
against Fascism and died for peace and freedom." Not a word about
Jewish victims! My father and the other victims from the "lost train"
who were buried here were neither soldiers nor officers. They were just
ordinary Jews. In that post-war chaos perhaps they didn't even know
that they existed. And so I failed to find my father's grave in Germany.
There were no graves in the Holocaust.
Many years later, going through lists at the Yad Vashem com-
memorative centre in Jerusalem, I learnt that my serial number in Ber-
gen-Belsen was 4657 and that my parents' numbers were ahead of
mine, my mother's was 4656 and my father's 4655. On the fiftieth
anniversary of the liberation, in April 1995, a group of about two hun-
dred people who had survived the "lost train" gathered in Bergen-
Belsen, from Israel, Holland, the US and a few dozen Yugoslav sur-
vivors. After the moving meetings and commemoration we again trav-
elled the route of the "lost train", but this time in buses. And so, fifty
years later, we once again arrived in Trebic. At the local cemetery in
which some of the inmates were buried after the liberation, in a touch-
ing ceremony, we erected a memorial plaque in German and Hebrew
with the names of the 320 "lost train" victims. Among them was the
name of my father, Dr Yosef Teitelbaum.
A few weeks after my father's death, my mother and I decided not
to wait for repatriation to be organised but to return to Prizren on our
own. We were joined by Bela Abramovic of Pristina. And so we set off
on a journey through Europe which lasted about a month. Instead of
the yellow Star of David, my mother now sewed on our coats the
Yugoslav tricolour flag with the five-pointed star in the middle. This
was the custom among the many prisoners and camp internees liberat-
ed in Germany, everyone wearing their own flag. At that time
Yugoslavia and Tito opened all doors, better than any valid visa. On
Russian heavy artillery, on trucks, in overloaded wagons travelling
down ruined railway lines, on foot. We passed through devastated
Dresden, then Prague, Budapest and Belgrade. We arrived in Prizren
in the second half of June in a truck carrying flour from Urosevac.
When we got off near Bistrica we were completely white with flour.
Like ghosts from another world. No one recognised us. Everyone was
surprised that the family of the town doctor had survived the war, but
they welcomed us warmly and helped us out. We again were given a
room by the Jakic family. We returned to life.
We remained in Prizren for three years. There, in what they called
the Partisan Secondary School, I tried to bridge my lost war years.
Three years of secondary school in a year. At the beginning of 1948,
my mother and I moved to Belgrade.
Last photograph: Raul with his father, Dr Yosef Teitelbaum,
in the Preza camp in Albania, in the summer of 1943