Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, by Bernice Lerner, the daughter of Rachel Genuth.
Following a negotiated truce, on April 15, 1945 (three weeks before VE Day), units of the British Second Army entered Bergen-Belsen. Fifteen-year-old Rachel Genuth was among the 55,000 war-ravaged inmates languishing in the camp’s putrid huts. Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, deputy director of medical services (DDMS) of the Second Army, was among the liberators. A quick assessment told him that 25,000 of the “displaced persons” needed immediate hospitalization. Rachel was one of them.
Following Rachel, a Jewish teenager from the Hungarian provinces, and Hughes, a decorated British military officer, as they converged in this hell in northwest Germany, affords two vantage points from which to try to fathom the complex liberation of the largest Nazi concentration camp in the spring of 1945.
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One year earlier, Rachel was in Sighet, an isolated mountain town in the Hungarian provinces, celebrating the Passover holiday with her parents, grandmother, and five siblings. That their family was together seemed a miracle. In April 1943, Rachel’s father had survived a conflagration and massacre: Hungarian officers set fire to a barn containing more than 600 Jewish slave laborers; they gunned down those who tried to flee the burning building. Moshe Genuth was one of the few escapees.
With her father home, Rachel had had a blissful year. But shortly after Passover the unimaginable happened: Hungarian gendarmes ousted the Genuths and all of their Jewish neighbors from their homes. They marched them to the train station and shoved them into cramped cattle wagons destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau. By May 22, Rachel’s entire family, save her and her older sister Elisabeth, had been murdered. Most of Sighet’s Jewish population of 11,500 (nearly half the town) met the same tragic fate.
In the shadows of Birkenau’s crematoria, Rachel volunteered for hard labor that earned her a piece of bread. She begged privileged prisoners for an iota of any sort of food — a few grains of salt might help her survive. During the interminable tzel appel (the counting of prisoners) she stood erect and obeyed orders. During harrowing selections for the gas chamber or for slave labor, she pinched her cheeks and covered her sores in efforts to appear healthy.
In midsummer 1944, Rachel and Elisabeth were among 250 able-bodied women sent from Auschwitz to Christianstadt, a labor camp attached to a German munitions factory in Upper Silesia. Their precarious reprieve lasted until they were forced on a death march in the bitter winter of 1945. After a five-week trek and a week in a locked freight car — where, starved and parched, the sisters picked fat white lice off of each other’s clothing and bodies — they arrived in Bergen-Belsen. It was mid March — the month in which 17,000, including Rachel’s iconic peer Anne Frank, succumbed to starvation and disease. (Epidemics of typhus and gastroenteritis raged.) Rachel and Elisabeth soon became inured to the sight of skeletal beings shambling, and of dead and dying lying everywhere. Rachel contracted tuberculosis and was herself at death’s door.
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Upon entering Bergen-Belsen, Glyn Hughes found himself responsible for an unprecedented situation: Nothing had been done to accommodate hordes of inmates, most of whom had long suffered terror and depredations. With no habitable housing, no sanitary facilities, no food and no water, the camp was, in the words of a survivor, the “worst of the worst.” In his vast experience of war, Hughes had seen “nothing to touch it.”
One year earlier, Hughes, as DDMS of Britain’s 8 Corps, was preparing for the evacuation and treatment of battle casualties. From Operation Overlord (D- Day) to the fighting in Normandy, to ensuing battles in the Netherlands and finally, in Germany, he oversaw the work of medical units, commandeered hospitals, coordinated with military leaders, and tackled problems — including “exhaustion,” the World War II version of shell shock. Facing Germany’s Waffen-SS divisions — fighters who would go to the limits of endurance for the Volk, Führer, and Fatherland — inexperienced British soldiers met booby traps, surprise attacks, and the enemy’s powerful, dreaded weapons.
Beyond the battlefield, Hughes encountered horrific scenes — asylums in Venraij, Holland, where hundreds had been kept in bunkers without any provisions for hygiene; stalag (POW) and oflag (officer) camps in Germany. But nothing would compare to the concentration camp that Heinrich Himmler would — defying Hitler’s orders — formally turn over to the approaching Allied forces, ridding the Germans of a situation that threatened the local population (diseased inmates might escape), that had gotten out of control.
On the afternoon of April 15, Hughes conducted a reconnaissance of Bergen-Belsen. He estimated that of the sick and dying, he and his men would be unable to save 14,000. Wondering how to begin the rescue operation, he despaired. Second Army divisions were still engaged in battle; he had few available medical units to call upon. Feeding the starved, disinfecting and evacuating dying patients to a yet-to-be-readied hospital, and burying thousands of dead posed enormous logistical challenges.
On April 18, a unit of Britain’s Royal Artillery arrived and pitched tents near the horror camp’s huts. When those able to walk moved into the tents, the rescuers would be better able to get food and water to the dying in the dung-filled, overcrowded huts. Rachel shared a tent with four others. Soon, the eldest of them told her she had to leave — as she was too weak to perform her duty when it was her turn to pull the flap down, she did not belong in the tent. Rachel crawled back to the hut. There, she tried to reclaim her preferred spot against the wall. Incensed, her compatriots beat her to a bloody pulp. She now lay in the filth, unconscious. She would not know how she was saved.
After three weeks hovering between life and death in a makeshift hospital, Rachel was asked by a nurse, “Aren’t you lucky you survived?” How lucky am I? she thought. I lost my family, my friends, and my health. She would spend much of the coming decade in tuberculosis sanitaria and rest homes in Sweden.
At Bergen-Belsen, Hughes supervised leading aspects of the relief work, communicated with Second Army Headquarters, called for help, and attended to patients. Within weeks of the liberation, he witnessed an extraordinary phenomenon: Survivors whom the British Army would have left for dead began to recover and form a post-war community. He would remain in contact with many of them. Of all his accomplishments and career successes, he would consider his role in saving a remnant of the Jewish people his crowning achievement.
Rachel never met Glyn Hughes or any liberator of Bergen-Belsen.
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Nothing had to happen the way it did, and no one could have predicted the course of events in that last, fateful year of World War II. Hughes’s meticulous planning contributed to the Allied victory, but it was his ability to lead and to improvise, and his warm heart, that prompted a British military chaplain to call him “The Man of Belsen.” After the deportation and shock of Auschwitz, Rachel mustered whatever teenage wiles she possessed to survive one trial after another. The greatest test came when she was deathly ill in Bergen-Belsen. She reminded herself of her father’s last words to her: I have confidence you will make it.
The journeys of Rachel and Hughes tell a larger story — about those in their positions caught in that ruinous war, about courage in the extreme. Defying characterization, the young girl summoned the strength to pull through. And the tough war hero broke down crying. Though forced to institute a triage system, Hughes felt empathy for the dehumanized “other.” More than many British officials of the time, he displayed compassion.