Last week marked the 76th anniversary of British forces’ arrival at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. A few days after their liberation—a Friday—some of the survivors gathered for what Meir Soloveichik calls “one of the most remarkable Jewish prayer services in the history of Judaism,” which was witnessed by the BBC’s Patrick Walker:
The worshippers, survivors all, had not participated in a minyan in years. The prayers concluded with words Walker assumed were standard Sabbath liturgy but were actually the words of “Hatikvah,” the anthem of the Zionist movement, and later of the state of Israel. As their voices faded, one of the chaplains leading the service declaimed three Hebrew words, a clarion call that can still be heard on the recording of the broadcast: Am Yisrael ḥai, the people of Israel liveth!
What Patrick Walker did not know is that what was taking place was an almost-literal reenactment of the biblical story that inspired “Hatikvah.” The prophet Ezekiel is shown a valley filled with dry bones that miraculously come to life for the purpose of returning to the chosen land: “Behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost. . . . Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the Land of Israel.”
Our hope is lost, in Hebrew, is “ovdah tikvateinu.” [Hatikvah’s verse] runs “od lo avdah tikvateinu”—our hope is not lost. At Belsen, biblical and contemporary times merged. The Jews were literally surrounded by skeletons and were themselves a “staggering mass of blackened skin and bones,” [in the words of a Jewish chaplain present at the service]. But they found within themselves the wellsprings of hope, illustrating why am Yisrael ḥai and embodying the conclusion of Naftali Herz Imber’s original lyrics: “Hear, my brothers in the lands of exile/ The voice of one of our visionaries/ that only with the very last Jew/ There is the end of our hope!”