Bernard Levy: The last Jewish liberator of Bergen Belsen
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Bernard Levy: The last Jewish liberator of Bergen Belsen

A teenage corporal when he entered the infamous Nazi camp in April 1945, it wasn’t until 70 years later that Bernard, who died last month aged 96, opened up about the experience.

Bernard Levy, wearing his medals, meets the Queen at Bergen Belsen in 2015
Bernard Levy, wearing his medals, meets the Queen at Bergen Belsen in 2015

Tributes have been paid to a “humble and compassionate” British-Jewish soldier who assisted in the liberation of Bergen Belsen following his death aged 96.

Bernard Maurice Levy was just 19 when he was tasked with “sorting the living from the dead” at the Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany at the end of the Second World War in April 1945.

On the day the young corporal crossed through the gates, at least 50,000 men, women and children had already been murdered by the Nazis. About 60,000 were found still clinging to the last remnants of life.

So horrific were the scenes that he saw that Bernard found himself unable to convey the experience in words. His family have revealed that he suffered with insomnia for nearly 70 years until he finally spoke for the first time.

Bernard as a teenage soldier.

Speaking this week to Jewish News, his daughter, Judith, recalls how her Hull-born father – who died on 29 May – “went off to war a very naïve young boy and came back much more worldly-wise”.

Bernard signed up for The Green Howards, an infantry unit based in Yorkshire, on 6 April 1944, about a year before he arrived at Belsen, but as his daughter reveals her father was “not of a soldier physique at all”.

At just seven stone and 5ft 3½, severely asthmatic and with “only one good eye”, Bernard enrolled in secretarial training and joined the Royal Army Service Corp as a clerk. In usual circumstances, he may not have been able to join military service at all, but as Judith smiles, “at that point in 1944 it was ‘all hands on deck’ and they would take anyone.”

His role would soon, however, migrate from desk work to much more active service.

In the aftermath of D-Day in June 1944, Bernard crossed the Channel, and made his way towards the continent on a landing craft.

Judith’s husband, Howard Parker, said: “He remembers sitting on the deck sunbathing, because nothing seemed to be happening.

A sketch of Bernard Levy, believed to have been the last surviving British-Jewish soldier to have taken part in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps at the end of the Second World War, who died last month. The artwork is by one of the survivors Levy helped to free.

“But while the Germans had been pushed back in certain areas, they were still present along the coast and suddenly Bernard saw all these shells came flying overhead. He was certainly more active than I had understood.”

Bernard finally landed at Arromanches-les-Bains in Normandy, which had seen some of the heaviest of fighting on D-Day and as the war was ending, made his way to Celle, near Belsen, deep into German territory.

He was now tasked with helping to bring organisation back to Germany amid the chaos – starting with sending him over to Belsen.

Judith says: “At Celle he bunked up with another soldier who was sent over to Belsen. When he returned that day, the soldier didn’t say anything, but he was physically sick. The next day they sent Bernard.”

She remembers her father unable to articulate what he had seen and as a child she was reminded regularly by her mother, Doreen, never to mention the Holocaust.

“If there was a picture, a book, or something in the newspaper about concentration camps we had to hide it. My mum would say, ‘He can’t take it.’ As soon as something came on the telly, it was, ‘Quick, turn it off.’ He got upset if he saw something like that, so my mum protected him.”

Bernard with survivor Mala Tribich at Bergen Belsen in 2015.

Coupled with the humanitarian rescue operation at Belsen, Bernard was a scribe at the British military tribunal in Lüneburg in September 1945, where 45 high-ranking Nazi officials were charged with war crimes.

The testimonies he heard were “terribly distressing” and his daughter believes may have in some ways traumatised him more than the initial weeks he spent at Belsen.

For most of his life after the war, he never had a good night’s sleep.

She said: “He used to sleep with the radio on and get up three times during the night and he never really slept. I used to think he would be better if he talked about it and would encourage him to. I trained as a psychotherapist and knew that hidden trauma was not a good thing.”

But it was only at the age of 85 that he finally opened up, first to Judith’s son and then to a local historian, which led to an extended interview with ITV.

He was subsequently invited to return to Bergen Belsen, accompanied by the broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky.

Bernard said at the time: “[There was] barbed wire everywhere, chaos, bodies. Skeletons…Invariably they all looked like skeletons.

“You can’t help thinking about the people who were dying in there with no help, no food, no succour, no hospital treatment. It just feels terribly sad.”

Bernard said at the time: “[There was] barbed wire everywhere, chaos, bodies. Skeletons…Invariably they all looked like skeletons.

In his interview, he added: “I wish I could have done more, at least show more humanity. We were moving bodies, we were moving living bodies, we were moving people. Disinfecting them, moving them.

“I was a boy doing a job and that’s what I did.”

The veteran returned in June 2015 for the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation, where he was introduced to the Queen during her first visit to a Second World War concentration camp. He was also passionate about educating young people and worked closely with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Returning to Belsen was “a huge thing” for Bernard, but alongside the mass death he witnessed, he also saw a rebirth.

Having experienced unimaginable tragedy, many survivors at the camp began to forge new relationships and marriages skyrocketed.

In 1946, 1,070 weddings took place at Belsen alone – and in one week there were as many as 50.

His daughter says: “He talked about people coming back from the dead, that people looked like skeletons, but he saw them gradually come back to life.

“As he was a Jewish soldier, he was invited to all the weddings, all the bris ceremonies. That was a big memory for him.”

After the war, Bernard returned home to his parents and two brothers in Hull before, at the age of 24, marrying 18-year-old Doreen in 1950. The couple had two daughters, Judith and Ruth.

“As he was a Jewish soldier, he was invited to all the weddings, all the bris ceremonies. That was a big memory for him.”

Bernard joined his father at his menswear shop, where according to family folklore, an erroneous delivery of men’s suits arrived one day in extra-large sizes.

Rather than return them, he placed an advert in the Daily Express for ‘outsized’ men’s clothing and swiftly sold out, giving rise to the idea of selling more.

Within years, he had established the high street chain High and Mighty, which went on to have more than 40 stores across five countries. He eventually retired in the 1990s.

For all his success, Bernard – who had six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – remained humble to the end.

Judith adds: “In his eyes, he was just a very lowly soldier and very self-deprecating about his role. He even went to Hitler’s bunker, but never saw the enormity of it all. He was a great dad, a lovely man and had so much humanity. Without a doubt, being at Belsen gave him that compassion.”

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