About Leslie Henry Hardman
Leslie Hardman was appointed MBE in 1998. In 1995 he was honoured by the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, wrote: Rev Leslie Hardman was a great man, a good man, a man who dedicated his long life to the service of others and of God. His calm courage and unshakeable good nature made him an outstanding spiritual leader and pastor.
The Reverend Leslie Hardman, Army chaplain who witnessed the horrors of Belsen when the concentration camp was liberated in 1945.
An admired and much loved United Synagogue minister, the Rev Leslie Hardman made his mark on the wider community by virtue of his Bergen-Belsen experiences.
The Reverend Leslie Hardman entered Belsen concentration camp after its liberation in his role as a British Army chaplain; himself Jewish, he was later to describe the terrible scenes which he witnessed in a moving book.
Bergen-Belsen, or Belsen, was in Lower Saxony, south-west of the town of Bergen in Germany. It had no gas chambers, as the mass executions took place in the camps further east. But the camp – originally designed to hold 10,000 inmates – housed, by April 1945, some 60,000 prisoners; and disease, particularly typhus, was rife. An estimated 50,000 people perished in the camp, among them Anne Frank, who died of typhus in March 1945.
On April 15 1945 the British unit to which Hardman was attached liberated Belsen. He was not present at this event, but on the following day he was called to see his commanding officer, who told him: "Keep a stiff upper lip. We've just been into Belsen concentration camp and it's horrible; but you have got to go there – you'll find a lot of your people."
Hardman drove to Belsen on April 17, and he later described in his book The Survivors: the story of the Belsen Remnant (1958) the sight which greeted him as he entered the camp:
"Towards me came what seemed to be the remnants of a holocaust – a staggering mass of blackened skin and bones, held together somehow with filthy rags. 'My God, the dead walk,' I cried aloud, but I did not recognise my voice."
The vast majority of inmates Hardman saw on that day were seriously ill, and some 13,000 corpses still lay unburied around the camp.
The survivors crowded around Hardman, "[peering] at the double star, the emblem of Jewry on my tunice - one poor creature touched and then stroked the badge of my faith, and finding that it was real murmured, 'Rabbiner, Rabbiner'."
In the days that followed Hardman did his utmost to comfort, provide help and bolster morale. "I sat there for hours," he later recalled, "smoking, talking, listening. I spoke to them of Jewish religion and Jewish life." On one occasion a survivor made a quavering attempt to sing a few lines of a Hebrew song: "The pathos of this attempt was so poignant that I put my head on the table and wept; and then they comforted me." A Belsen survivor later described Hardman as "our Messiah", telling how Hardman "spoke to us in Yiddish and gave us tremendous hope [but while] thousands listened to him, all around inmates were dying". Despite the best efforts of the British to help the survivors, some 9,000 inmates died in April alone. By the end of June another 4,000 had perished.
Years after the event, Hardman told a correspondent from the BBC:
"If all the trees in the world turned into pens, all the waters in the oceans turned into ink and the heavens turned into paper, it would still be insufficient material to describe the horrors these people suffered under the SS."
Leslie Henry Hardman was born into a Jewish family at Glynneath, Wales, on February 18 1913. His father had emigrated to Britain from Poland, while his mother came from Russia.
When Britain declared war against Germany in September 1939 Hardman enlisted as an Army chaplain. After training he was stationed in Hertfordshire with the East Central District of the Eastern Command. While serving in the military, Hardman remained observant, eating with Jewish families rather than in the mess hall with other officers; he prayed with other recruits, and arranged that he would not have to travel anywhere on Shabbat.
In the autumn of 1944 Hardman was sent to Holland, where he learned of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews. He spent time there with members of the remaining Jewish community, celebrating Chanukah with them. From Holland he was sent to Germany, where he remained until the end of the war.
After the war Hardman returned to England, serving the Jewish community at Hendon United Synagogue, of which he was Rabbi for many years. He was also the chaplain to the psychiatric unit at Edgware Hospital and a strong supporter of the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Leslie Hardman was appointed MBE in 1998. In 1995 he was honoured by the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance. His wife, Josi, whom he married in 1936, died in 2007, and he was survived by two daughters; two other daughters predeceased him.
The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, wrote: Rev Leslie Hardman was a great man, a good man, a man who dedicated his long life to the service of others and of God. His calm courage and unshakeable good nature made him an outstanding spiritual leader and pastor. Until his last few months, he seemed ageless.