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Recalling the horrors of Bergen-Belsen

Reporter David Medcalf has been reading about the children of Belsen concentration camp as recalled by two members of a Red Cross medical team who were there in 1945. He also spoke to the couple's nephew about their Wicklow home


Bob Collis and Han Hogerzeil

Bob Collis and Han Hogerzeil

Bob Collis and Han Hogerzeil

Irish medic Robert (often Bob) Collis later recalled his first impression of one of history's most shameful sites: 'It was the Belsen smell of death and decay.'

Victory in Europe Day was commemorated two weeks ago, 75 years on from the day when the guns fell silent across the continent. On that day, May 8, in 1945, Doctor Collis crossed the English Channel with a Red Cross relief mission. In a memoir published two years after the events described, he told how he arrived in Holland to find the population rejoicing at the end of the war.

He volunteered along with fellow Irish doctors Nigel Kinnear and Patrick MacClancy to work in Germany at the already notorious concentration camp - Bergen-Belsen. They were allocated the services of a Dutch nurse and a Dutch translator who spoke four languages and had studied law. The latter was 25-year-old Johanna (always Han) Hogerzeil, whom Bob was destined to marry, though she was 19 years his junior.

On their way to the camp, the Red Cross team called to Han's native village of Oosterbeek, which had been all but flattened during the conflict. Throughout the next few months, they saw at first hand constant reminders of how Europe had been battered and scarred by war. And together they witnessed the fallout from the worst savagery of the Nazi regime as they set up and ran a children's hospital in Belsen …

Robert Collis was born in 1900 into an Anglo-Irish family who lived at Kilmore House in Killiney, close to what is now the DART station. He came from a long line of solicitors and doctors, and he was sent to England to be educated at Rugby School before studying to be a doctor. He played rugby for Ireland, proud to have been a member of the side which drew 6-6 with England in front of 50,000 spectators at Twickenham.

When he first met Han Hogerzeil in 1945, she was a lean seven stone in weight. She had striven heroically during the war to conceal Jewish families from the invading authorities after her legal studies were cut short by the German occupation. She later went on to study medicine at King's College in London as a mature student and became a doctor.

The memoir, entitled 'Straight On', gives a very personal record of what occurred in the liberated concentration camp. Bob reckoned that it had been designed to hold not more than 10,000 people but the numbers grew and grew until over 60,000 were accommodated. When British troops arrived to free them, the inmates were horribly emaciated, with starvation aggravating typhus, dysentery and tuberculosis.

The Red Cross party took charge of 500 orphan children ranging in age from one month to 16 years old, belonging to nine different nationalities. Treatment was undertaken despite the fact that there were 'no temperature charts, weighing machines, few medicines and no paediatric drugs. There were no blankets, no sheets, no napkins, no towels, no crockery, nothing.'

However, the work had its compensations: 'The sight of those who recovered rapidly was one of the most exciting and comforting things it is possible to imagine. People who had been skeletons, reduced to the last stages of starvation, who had lain half naked in such filth that all feelings of decency had had to be abandoned, now began to come back to life with amazing rapidity. Once the corner was rounded they put on weight almost hourly, it seemed.'

Patients and staff alike created a social life of sorts, culminating in a gala which featured a steeplechase, with Bob Collis as the winning jockey. The Old Vic theatre company deserted the West End, setting up a stage in Belsen to perform George Bernard Shaw's 'Arms and the Man' with a touring cast that included such stellar actors as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier and Sybil Thorndyke, no less.

Bob and Han brought a batch of their young charges home to Czechoslovakia and they were also present when most of the remainder were removed from what they called the Horror Camp to the safety of Sweden. Half a dozen of the children who had been their patients ended up in Ireland in breezy defiance of adoption formalities.

The Collis/Hogerzeil connection with County Wicklow dates back to the late 1930s when Doctor Bob bought a farm in the hills between Newtownmountkennedy and Roundwood. It is believed that he found the property, complete with romantic cottage, while rambling through the countryside on horseback. At the time he was running a prosperous medical practice at Fitzwilliam Square in the centre of Dublin.

Later he and Han worked abroad - in Nigeria and India - as well as in Ireland but when the couple retired in 1969, they headed for the old farmhouse to take up full-time residence.

They had two children together but suffered the grief of losing their son Sean, who died at the young age of 14. Their nephew Uto was of a similar age and he was dispatched by his family to Ireland for a holiday with the still-grieving relatives.

'My aunt never got over it,' he says of Han's reaction to the tragedy. 'I was sent over to fill the gap.' It was an impossible mission but the teenager from Den Haag fell immediately in love with this remote spot which he first saw in 1972.

With time on his hands, his uncle was in his element there, free to indulge his fondness for horses. Bob had played polo in his younger days and he continued to officiate as a referee, so Uto was brought on match days to the polo grounds in the Phoenix Park. Not a tall man, his uncle retained some of the broad-shouldered build and strength which had helped to make him such a useful member of the Irish rugby pack.

As he and Han had no direct interest in agriculture, the farm was run by the Hamilton family while Bob spent as much time as he could in the saddle. Uto had no riding experience whatsoever, but soon found himself sitting with reins in hand on a docile mount after receiving minimal instruction. Four hours later, having trekked all the way to Luggala and back, the novice was in a bad state but still on board.

Bob, he recalls with mixture of amusement and incredulity, had never once looked back at the first-timer during the four hours to see how he was doing: 'I was dying! And then I couldn't walk for three or four days afterwards.

'They were different, unconventional, eccentric - but in a nice way,' muses Uto more than four decades later as he recalls his hosts.

'Both were highly intelligent. They adored each other and they were very compatible. They always saw the big picture.'

His uncle continued to offer his services as a part-time GP and he also occasionally showed his enduring fondness for children. Local folk legend persists among those who were children in the early seventies, telling of the times around Christmas when Bob would hire a projector.

Audiences of as many as 70 youngsters would arrive at the farm to enjoy a film or two, along with hefty rations of lemonade and cake. Eventually, his love of horses proved fatal for the great man, as he fell from his mount at the age of 75 and broke his neck.

Though they had lived quite affluent lives, Han suddenly found herself widowed and with scant pension provision. So she was obliged to sell the farmhouse and most of the 125 acres which went with it - though not without making provision for her nephew.

As he had always shown a love for the place on his annual visits, she held back a site for Uto, half a mile from the house. He and his Dutch compatriot wife Sylvia now have a modern home on this piece of land where they have raised children who are Irish in everything except surname.

Uto - now a well-regarded graphic designer - was always aware that his aunt and uncle had come through the Belsen experience. However, as a teenager, he never explored their memories of the death camp in any depth.

It was only in later years that he talked about the subject with his aunt.

Doctor Bob Collis is still remembered as the ground-breaking founder of Cerebral Palsy Ireland, with 'My Left Foot' author Christy Brown among his patients. He also wrote several books and a play.

Han went on in 1983 to marry retired accountant Donald McLean who died in 1997. She passed away herself in 2005 shortly after her 85th birthday while in the care of a nursing home in Greystones.

An obituary noted that she had been a regular volunteer in the War on Want shop in Bray for many years.

War on want - it was a fight this remarkable woman engaged in for all of her adult life.

Bray People