How a bottle of vodka symbolises the horrors of war
By Victoria Page, Communications Officer, Discovery Museum and Tyne & Wear Archives
Holocaust Memorial Day: 27 January was decided as part of the Stockholm Declaration, to learn about the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and the genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, in the hope that there may be One Day in the future with no genocide.
[Content warning — the film below shows images of and includes references to extreme human suffering in concentration camps]
When you were 21 did you have a huge party? Travel? Get a car? Or in this time of Covid-19 were you safe behind a laptop chatting to friends and family?
For Ian Forsyth, radio operator in the 15th/19th Hussars, his 21st year was one he — and the rest of the modern world, and our descendants — will never forget.
On 15 April 1945, towards the end of the Second World War, Ian Forsyth, as part of the 11th Armoured Division, was one of the first to arrive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They were met with unimaginable human suffering and degradation.
This is what Ian said:
Thousands of dead bodies were strewn around the camp. Over the course of the camp’s existence 50,000 people died there. The 60,000 people who were found barely alive upon liberation were in extreme states of malnutrition, suffering from rampant disease, with no food, water, and little to no sanitation. Many did not survive.
What Ian witnessed and felt that day was seared in his memory for the rest of his life. He was adamant that this episode in history should not be forgotten and regularly attended memorial events over the years.
At one such event, in 2017 when Ian Forsyth was in his 94th year, he was given a bottle of vodka.
“The bottle of vodka was given to me by a Ukrainian inmate, on the 65th anniversary of our arrival with the words ‘I have waited 65 years to meet a liberator and say my thanks, you are the first I’ve met, so this is for you?’
“I cannot open it. I do not want it to be opened, but kept as a reminder of the reason we were there in the first place. I have listened to their stories, I still keep in touch with those who are still alive or the families of those who died in the camp.
“I still have nightmares and I still cannot understand why this had to be.”
This bottle of vodka is on display, unopened, in Charge! The Story of England’s Northern Cavalry at Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, in North East England.
Ian Forsyth became a teacher after the war, and dedicated his life to educating people about the Holocaust. In 2011 he received an MBE for Voluntary Services to the Royal British Legion Scotland.
Ian visited the gallery and saw his bottle on display, and contributed his story to the museum for future generations.
You don’t have to travel to the North East of England — you can explore the gallery here in an online 360 degree tour.
Ian Forsyth died in December 2021. He was one of the last few remaining liberators to experience the unimaginable horrors of Bergen-Belsen first hand.
Ian Forsyth 23 December 1923–15 December 2021