Bergen-Belsen Through the Eyes of a Teenaged Inmate: A Conversation with Bernice Lerner
tags: Holocaust,Jewish history,World War 2,Bergen-Belsen
A Teen Inmate, a Physician Liberator, and Crimes Against Humanity: A Conversation with Dr. Bernice Lerner on Her New Book: All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, A British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen
By April 1945, as the Second World War neared an end in Europe, it was obvious that Germany was losing. Yet, many Nazi death camp and concentration camp commanders were furiously bent on exterminating as many “enemies of the state” as possible before the collapse of the Third Reich.
In an odd turn of fate in mid-April, the Germans surrendered the notoriously brutal and overcrowded Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to British troops on orders of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the official in charge of the Final Solution, the Nazi effort to destroy all European Jewry.
On entering the camp on April 15, 1945, Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Second Army, was shocked. He was not prepared for the squalid hellscape that greeted him: 60,000 living but extremely ill, starving, and wasting prisoners, and 10,000 putrefying, unburied corpses, as epidemics raged through the camp. Hughes assumed the monumental task of setting up medical services for this city of pain, suffering, and death in the middle of a combat zone.
A highly decorated veteran of both world wars, Hughes served with the invading Allied forces in the bloody and costly campaigns through France and Belgium and into Germany. Once at Bergen-Belsen, he called for and coordinated medical units and employed innovative tactics to treat as many of the ill and injured prisoners as possible. Survivors admired his compassion.
The experience of witnessing the horrific conditions at Bergen-Belsen unnerved and profoundly moved Hughes. He testified about the horrors of the camp at the trial of accused Nazi war criminals from Bergen-Belsen: “I have been a doctor for thirty years and seen all the horrors of war, but I have never seen anything to touch it.”
When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, 15-year-old prisoner Rachel Genuth was critically ill. By then, she and her sister Elisabeth had survived deportation from their home in Sighet, Transylvania; two months at the Auschwitz death camp where the rest of their family was murdered; enslavement at the Christianstadt labor camp; and then a death march to their last site of imprisonment and abuse, Bergen-Belsen. Rachel was near death by the time rescuers attended to her, days after the British arrived.
Author and scholar Dr. Bernice Lerner juxtaposes the stories of her mother, Holocaust survivor Ruth Mermelstein (ńee Rachel Genuth), and heroic British physician and liberator Glyn Hughes in her moving and compelling new book, All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, A British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen (Johns Hopkins University Press).
In this first Holocaust history to focus on a high-ranking liberator and a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Lerner traces the separate journeys of Hughes and her mother during the final year of the Second World War. She documents the Allied advances and costly setbacks that Hughes and the Allied armies endured as she intersperses the vivid story of Rachel’s deportation from her home to her horrific and heroic journey through cruel incarceration and enslavement, from brutality and dehumanization to survival and renewal.
As Dr. Lerner stresses, although Hughes and her mother Rachel never met, Rachel was the beneficiary of Hughes’s commitment to saving as many prisoners as possible at Bergen-Belsen. The book reveals harsh truths about war and atrocities and human suffering, but a story unfolds ultimately about empathy and courage and the will to live.
The book is based on extensive historical research and a trove of resources including the papers of Glyn Hughes, oral histories, interviews, and more. Dr. Lerner masterfully combines the fruits of her scholarly research with gripping and engaging storytelling.
Dr. Lerner is a senior scholar at Boston University's Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She also wrote The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivors' Lives, and co-edited Happiness and Virtue beyond East and West: Toward a New Global Responsibility. She earned her doctorate at Boston University's School of Education and her masters’ degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary. A specialist in adult education, she has lectured extensively on ethics and character in the US and around the world. Among courses she taught at Boston University were Resistance During the Holocaust and Character and Ethics Education. She also designed and taught Ethical Decision Making for Education Leaders for Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.
Dr. Lerner graciously responded to questions by telephone from her home. It was heartening to learn that her mother, Rachel Genuth—now Ruth Mermelstein—is living in her own home and thriving at age 90. Ruth is also a frequent and popular speaker on the Holocaust, and especially enjoys talking with school groups. She finally learned the details of her rescue at Bergen-Belsen from her daughter’s research.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Dr. Lerner on your groundbreaking new book All the Horrors of War that interweaves your mother’s Holocaust story with the story of British officer and physician, Brigadier Glyn Hughes, who supervised medical care during the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, the last site where your mother was imprisoned.
Before getting to your book, I want to ask first about your background as a writer. You're also a scholar with the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University.
Dr. Bernice Lerner: I was a previous director of the Center at Boston University where I worked for seven years after completing my doctorate in the School of Education. Many of the scholars I worked with were philosophers, so I became steeped in Aristotle and Plato and contemporary writers on virtue ethics. The Center trained teachers on principles and methods of character education. We worked with educators from all over the world, helping them to think deeply about goals for their students--at all grade levels, from preschool to college.
I did a lot of teacher training stateside and I went as far as Indonesia and Singapore and Japan. Virtue ethics fascinated me because it provides a lens through which you can analyze any material that you're reading or viewing or teaching. It involves asking questions about people’s choices. What is the right course of action in various situations? How do our habits and dispositions show who we are, our character? What does it mean to act out of character?
The study gave me a framework and a lens. And then of course, I was dealing with the most evil acts in the history of the world when doing my work on the Holocaust. And that subject has always been an interest—my parents are both survivors. I had a lot of questions, about what happened to them specifically, and what happened to my grandparents and my parents’ siblings.
How did your new book evolve?
At first, I didn't tackle my parents or my own family at all. My first book was about seven Holocaust survivors who were very different from anyone in my family—after having missed years of schooling they went on to earn advanced or terminal degrees. (My relatives did not have much formal education.) Finally, I wondered what happened to my mother at the end of the war, after she fell unconscious. There was a hole in her memory—she could not tell me what happened. How actually was she saved? Why am I here? How am I here? That led me to more questions. What were the mechanics of it? What if the British had come in two days later? I wouldn't be here. My children wouldn't be here. And my grandchildren. None of us would be here.
Of course, the tragedy is that so many lives, so many generations were cut short. And Bergen-Belsen was a dumping ground for people who had survived the entire war until the end. They were the ones who had evaded the gas chambers at Auschwitz and were doing slave labor and endured the death marches. It took so much to make it to the end of the war, and then people died by the thousands in Bergen-Belsen.
It was a miracle that your mother survived as you describe so vividly in your new book. I admire your lively writing and extensive research. What inspired your book apart from your mother’s story?
When I was trying to figure out exactly how my mother survived, that led me to Glyn Hughes. He was the man most prominently associated with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
I set out initially just to write a biography of Glyn Hughes. I was interested in what his character was like and what he was thinking and feeling when he entered and surveyed Bergen-Belsen. I wanted to know about his background and what he brought to the experience. And how it affected him.
Hughes was such an important figure to the Jewish survivors who knew him in Bergen-Belsen. He was a Schindler-type character in that he befriended survivors and he kept in touch with many of them for the rest of his life. He appreciated his role in their history. So who was this man? I tried to figure out who he was by meeting his surviving relatives and friends. So that was a journey, and that began almost 16 years ago.
What are a few things you'd like readers to know about Dr. Hughes?
He saw the humanity in the throngs of “living skeletons.” His motives were moral—immediately, he vowed to save as many lives as possible. As a doctor, he would have wanted to treat more people, but he had such a big responsibility. He faced an absolutely impossible situation that was unprecedented in the history of humankind.
When he came into the camp, there were 60,000 people who were still breathing and there were 10,000 corpses. Many of the people were dying, emaciated skeletons. Inside barracks built to hold a maximum of 100 people, 600 to a thousand were crammed in and there were no sanitary facilities. Hughes described what he saw when he came into the camp, and he was totally unprepared, totally shocked.
In Bergen-Belsen, the British liberators settled on a triage system, a factory-like approach that would help them save the most lives possible. Medics went into the huts and marked the foreheads of people who were still alive, who might have a chance. And they were dealing with contagious diseases. Typhus was raging and its germ was in the dust.
I would never compare anything to that time and place, but we face a situation of medical rescue with COVID-19, and it’s not over yet. Back in April, doctors in Boston wrote about how they might have to triage patients and treat only a limited number. They were using ventilators and they didn't have enough. And they were going to have to make decisions about who to try to save and who they couldn't—who was not worth the effort. This sounded to me like a wartime decision.
You describe Hughes’ duties when he was in charge of dealing with mass casualties suffered by British troops after the invasion of Western Europe and during the Allied push into Germany. You do an excellent job of juxtaposing the Allied military advances and setbacks with your mother's experience. Perhaps some younger people think that the Allies landed in Europe on D-Day and then got into Germany and that was it. As you chronicle, there were many losses and setbacks for the Allies and months of brutal combat before they got into Germany. You do a commendable job of reminding people of just how incredibly bloody that Allied advance was.
I had read a lot about the Holocaust, but I felt very ignorant about the battles and what it took for the Allies to advance.
I traced Glyn Hughes’s journey and his responsibilities because I wanted to know what he had already seen before he got to Bergen-Belsen. He was in charge of medical services—first for the British Army’s 8 Corps, and then for the entire British Second Army. He had to decide, for example, how to efficiently evacuate casualties. And how to lift men's morale and make them feel that medical care was near and that they'd be taken care of. And they were facing the most feared units of the German Army. The Panzer and SS units were ferocious fighters and completely dedicated to Hitler. So many young men were maimed, so many died on the way to my mother's rescue. That's a personal way of putting it, but the sacrifices were enormous.
So Hughes had big responsibilities and he was always looking at the mega-picture. Where can I commandeer a hospital? How should the transportation work? And he was always liaising with higher-ups and meeting with his assistant directors of medical services.
Hughes had overall responsibility for treatment of the wounded and sick and setting up hospitals and all sorts of logistics. So, this was far beyond what we see in a movie or television program like MASH.
Yes. It was fascinating how he instituted down-to-a-science protocols and was also very innovative. His units had to learn to set up and take down casualty clearing stations and regimental aid posts very quickly. Everything had to be movable and they had to figure out ways of treating those who suffered wounds of various types and degrees. They computed exactly how long each surgical case would take. That was 48 minutes and 32 seconds or so. Attention was paid to every conceivable detail and there was a lot of practice and preparation. Finally, at Bergen-Belsen, he and his men met an unfathomable situation for which they were totally unprepared.
And you describe vividly Hughes’ impressions when he entered Bergen-Belsen, and how this horrid experience changed his life.
That was where you really saw his humanity because Hughes had seen every horrific aspect of military combat. He was a highly decorated veteran of the First World War. When he was a Regimental Medical Officer he would run onto the battlefield to try to save wounded men. He saw the bloodiest aspects of war, and he displayed great courage.
When he arrived at Bergen-Belsen, he had seen nothing like it. He said that he had seen all of horrors of war, but nothing to touch Bergen-Belsen—it was so obscene and perverse. Many who were there describe it as being like Dante’s Hell with the gruesome visions inside and outside the huts. And the stench. Hughes broke down crying, and I think that says so much because he was a tough, hardened, military man. And he cried. He did not initially know how he would go about creating order.
Hughes didn't follow Army protocol and file reports. He just immediately went into action to find help and impress upon the Second Army that, even though there were ongoing battles in northwest Germany, this was a humanitarian disaster and they needed to divert some units to assist at Bergen-Belsen. And he put very good people in charge of procuring resources and readying a hospital, and brought in experts in typhus control and feeding the starved. He tried to get help from wherever he could.
And the way people deal with disasters, as we see now with COVID-19, is to track numbers. Numbers are a way to get on handle on things, so that's what the British were trying to do when they arrived at Bergen-Belsen. More than 500 people were dying every day after the liberation for several weeks.
At the beginning of our current pandemic, not-yet-graduated medical students were pressed into service. In early May 1945, Hughes brought 97 medical students to Bergen-Belsen. They had been scheduled to do famine relief work in Belgium, but instead were diverted to Bergen-Belsen. And these young men did a very good job treating the backlog of patients remaining in the huts.
There were criticisms and questions about whether more could have been done.
If you put yourself in Hughes’s shoes, it was just an impossible situation.
By a month or two after the liberation, some people began to recover. Some, who had been active in Zionist groups before the war, emerged as leaders. They started to organize the survivors, to build a community of “displaced persons.” Many, in their twenties and thirties, paired up. There were a record number of weddings, and then, within a few years, of babies— born in the Glyn Hughes hospital. (Survivors who observed Hughes witnessed his compassion. They named the hospital that was set up near the camp for him.)
Hughes saw this forlorn group of people organizing themselves. They brought in entertainment. They had a theater. They had their own police force. They had their own newspaper. And once people had food and clothes and some supplies, they started to show their true personalities and all this captivated Hughes. So even when he didn't have to go there anymore, he kept going every day to the Belsen DP (Displaced Persons) camp. He witnessed a remarkable transformation. The summer of 1945 was a watershed in his life.
So the Glyn Hughes hospital was built at Bergen-Belsen?
No, it was a short distance from the camp. It had formerly been a hospital for the Wehrmacht, the German Army, and there was also a nearby complex that had been used for German soldiers. There was a “roundhouse,” a large hall adorned with portraits of Hitler. All these facilities were taken over for use by the Jewish DPs.
It’s striking that liberation didn't occur at the moment the British arrived. And the statistics you mention are staggering with more than 10,000 unburied dead when the British entered on April 15, 1945. And then 2,000 people died right after their first meal.
Yes. The British soldiers saw these starving people begging for food, and they gave them their rations. They gave them Spam and other foods that the digestive systems of the prisoners could not handle. Their intestines were all shriveled; their bodies were dried out and dehydrated. They were eating this very rich food and they had cramping and diarrhea and they died. They just died. That was very tragic.
The British liberators did not initially know what kind of food to feed these people. They didn't have experience with this level of starvation and abuse. In India, the British gave starved people “Bengal Famine Mixture,” some kind of gruel that proved too sweet for the European palates of Bergen-Belsen survivors. Hughes eventually worked up five different diets for people in various stages of emaciation and starvation, with very gradual increases in nutrients.
And one would expect the killing to stop with the arrival of the British, but it continued for days. Not just the Germans but also the Hungarian guards were shooting survivors. And didn’t Dr. Hughes witness shootings of prisoners by either the SS or the Hungarians guards?
Yes. When he first came into the camp he saw some inmates running to a potato patch and the SS guards were shooting them. He saw it. He and the British officer he was with had to put an end to what was a matter of habit.
People think that the liberation happened in one day and prisoners were cheering when the Allied soldiers came in, but it didn't exactly happen that way. It was really a process.
I would say that the liberation took place over an extended period. For the first couple of days in Bergen-Belsen, Hungarian guards were left in charge-- the British didn't have enough personnel to keep order and make sure contagious prisoners didn’t leave the camp. The Hungarian guards in watchtowers were shooting those who ran to the potato patches because they were starving.
There was chaos. The liberators faced problems you might not think of: trying to bring in food and water, repairing the water main break, restoring the electricity that had gone down. The Germans sabotaged camp operations before they left. It was a crazy interim period and the British were struggling to set up the facilities.
The cruelty you describe was horrific. You write that, shortly before liberation, SS guards baked ground glass into bread and fed it to prisoners as a way of eliminating more people before the Allies arrived.
Yes, and those who got the bread were so hungry that they ate it. I thought maybe that was a rumor that my mother heard, but I came across a survivor account and he said that's exactly what they did. It destroyed people's intestines, and so many died that way. The man who survived said he could feel the crunch of the ground glass between his teeth.
And then to your mother’s harrowing story. Have you been collecting your mother’s stories and those of other survivors since your youth?
Yes, since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, but not intentionally or consciously. When I was a kid, maybe six or seven years old, I would ask my mother about her childhood because it was so interesting and different than how I was growing up on Long Island. She grew up in Romania, which seemed exotic and romantic to me. And then she would tell me about her postwar life in Sweden.
She was smart in sharing her stories. She's just such a positive person. She never wanted to tell me how hard things were: how poor she was in Romania or how sick she was in Sweden. Mostly she told me about her adventures, the fun and daring things she did. And she talked about how kind the Swedish people were, and what a wonderful country it was.
But when I was about 14, the age she was when she had been taken away, she started to tell me what happened during the war. What happened in Auschwitz. What she experienced as a 14- and 15-year-old. She said, What would it be like if someone were to tell you that in two months your family would be killed and you would lose your friends, your entire community, everything you ever had or owned? You'd think they were crazy. You couldn't imagine that happening.
And she would tell me all this before the word Holocaust was out there. This was what happened during the war, and she wasn't talking about it to other people. She wasn't even talking about it with my father, who was also a survivor. But late at night, we'd be down in the basement laundry room, and she’d tell me. She was ironing one night and she put down the iron and she stretched her arms out behind her and knelt over. She said this was how she, then 50 percent dead, had to drag the dead to a mass grave. Some were not even dead-- they were still breathing.
And I couldn’t shake that image from my mind. I was going to high school then and I wasn’t hearing anything like that in my history classes. Later, I studied and taught the Holocaust. But I knew little about the war. Finally, I started to research events—larger contexts—that bore on my mother’s fate. But I also held her particular story. By following an individual, one can begin to grasp the wider story. Writers and film producers understand that.
The story of your mother and Glyn Hughes would make a gripping movie. Her odyssey was incredible. She and her sister Elisabeth were rounded up by the Nazis. They were taken to Auschwitz first and then to a labor camp and then marched to the horrific Bergen-Belsen. She experienced different forms of incarceration. Each was brutal and dehumanizing, but younger readers may not understand the different forms of imprisonment used by the Nazis.
Yes. She was captured in the last year of the war. The Germans were losing the war, and already millions had been murdered. My mother and her family were taken in the massive Hungarian deportation in the spring of 1944 and deported to Auschwitz—the largest death camp where one and a half million people were killed.
My mother was shocked and she might have been numb. In Auschwitz, those who were temporarily spared were given ersatz coffee or “food” laced with bromide, a drug that numbed their senses.
There was a chance—for those who were fit—of surviving Auschwitz. There was this tension among German higher-ups between needing slave laborers and wanting to kill as many Jews as possible. About ten percent of the more than 424,000 arrivals from the Hungarian provinces who were deemed strong enough were siphoned off—they could be worked to death slowly.
Some were tattooed—they were meant to be around for a while and given a number. My mother was not tattooed. She was among thousands of “depot prisoners” who were being held to see if they might be needed for the war effort or sent to the gas chambers, which were operating day and night. It must have been hell seeing the smoke from the ovens and the red sky and smelling the stench of burning bodies. When my mother asked a longtime prisoner where her parents were, the woman told her to look at the smoke. That’s where they are.
It was just horrific. And to think she was a kid who had never been outside her little town. She had never traveled anywhere away from home. She had never slept anywhere else. And here she was in this inconceivable place called Auschwitz—a death camp. And everyone around her was in the same terrifying situation.
She missed her parents’ protection, but she was the type of kid who could fend for herself. She had had big responsibilities at home—heavy chores and helping with her grandmother’s butcher business. She had to deliver orders of poultry to distant parts of town, and made her way back in the dark after curfew. And so, once she somehow acclimated to Auschwitz-Birkenau, she looked to what she could do to survive.
And she volunteered for different duties. She took out the pail of excrement at night to see if there was something useful she might find. She volunteered for work that would earn her a piece of bread. She dared to beg privileged prisoners for a bit of something they might have on them.
For the two months she was in Auschwitz, she did not know whether she would die the next day. I describe in the book the various “selections”—to think that some SS officer would determine whether you would live or die by looking you over for a second is crazy making. Harrowing. And so difficult for we who were not there to imagine.
Bergen-Belsen, this center of one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, had to also seem insane to an innocent young teen.
Yes. And no matter where you came from, no matter what your background or profession, everybody was equal there. It didn't matter if you were rich or poor or had an education or not. Everyone was in the same horrifying boat. But some people knew better than others how to cope with hardship. I would ask my aunts and uncles—all survivors—about their experiences. They told me that those who were not used to hard work at home, those who had maids and had been pampered, had a harder time than people who had not been coddled.
That my mother and her sister Elisabeth managed to leave Auschwitz together was a miracle. They were selected to work in one of the thousands of labor camps because again, the Germans needed slave laborers.
Conditions varied by camp and much depended on the type of work that you were forced to do, the dispositions of the overseers, the rations that you were given—the Germans realized they had to feed prisoners if they wanted them to produce before dropping dead.
At the Christianstadt labor camp, my mother was picked to work in the kitchen. This was like winning the million-dollar lottery. She could eat the SS officers’ leftovers. And that's probably the reason she survived ultimately because she had six months in this environment. It was still a very dangerous place, but she could take chances and get nourishment.
But at the beginning of February 1945 came the death march. During the final chaotic months of the war the Nazis evacuated camps in the paths of would-be liberators so no inmate would fall alive into Allied hands.
That was the Nazi plan. You vividly describe the death march of your mother and her sister to the camp. So many people died or were killed by guards on that brutal trek to Bergen-Belsen.
Yes. My mother and her sister were on this death march. After five weeks on the road and one torturous week in a cattle train they arrived in Bergen-Belsen. It was mid-March, about two weeks after Anne Frank died there. She was older than my mother. And death was the norm. About 17,000 people died in March in Bergen-Belsen.
Didn’t Anne Frank die of typhus?
Yes. And probably of other things as well.
Many people don't understand the difference between Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Auschwitz was a killing factory. You didn't see emaciated people there because people had come (in the case of the Hungarian transports) straight from their homes. Most inmates didn't last long. They were killed right away or within a short time.
Bergen-Belsen was a camp of the war ravaged. It had the largest number of inmates at the end of the war. They had been through so much. Many were but musselmanner, living skeletons. And disease was rampant. At least three epidemics were raging in the camp at the time the British came in.
Tens of thousands of prisoners congregated at Bergen-Belsen. Didn’t the Nazis disagree on whether these people should be exterminated or still used as slave labor? And didn't Himmler suggest keeping the camp intact because he knew that the war was nearly over and he didn't want to be responsible for more extermination?
Yes. At that point in the war, there wasn't a question of using the prisoners for slave labor. The focus was on getting them away from the liberators, on following Hitler’s orders: no inmate was to be left alive. That's why they were dumped in Bergen-Belsen and other camps inside Germany.
In early April, Himmler ordered the killing of all the inmates in certain camps. Then, he turned Bergen-Belsen over to the British Army intact. This is a “truth is stranger than fiction” story. His masseuse played a part in it. As I describe in the book, it’s just an unbelievable story about how he was convinced to hand over this camp to the British Second Army rather than kill everybody. Maybe he thought that a show of humanity would somehow save him. But he killed himself when the British found him.
Anyway, in this unprecedented move, the Germans handed over Bergen-Belsen to the British. It was a crisis situation, because if they bombed the camp or there was fighting in the area, some prisoners could escape and spread disease throughout the countryside and that was a risk for the people fighting in the area, the Germans and the British, as well as civilians.
The handover occurred just three weeks before the end of the war. If that had not happened, my mother wouldn't have survived. I wouldn't be here. It was a race against time for her and other of the inmates to “hold on.” Tragically, the race was lost for too many. Thousands kept dying even after the liberation.
There are so many strange twists to the story. You write that the Bergen-Belsen Commandant Josef Kramer and a brutal SS guard Irma Grese conducted a tour of Bergen-Belsen for the first British troops who arrived on the morning of April 15. Kramer and Grese seemed quite proud of this hellscape they’d created.
It was bizarre. They were in the habit of killing. This was what they did for their jobs. And they believed in what they were doing. They regarded the inmates as subhuman.
And in the meantime, your mother registers the liberation and she was elated but, within a couple of days, she's very ill, and then some fellow prisoners beat her mercilessly. And so, your mother was actually dying?
Yes. In telling the story, I wanted to show what was actually happening on the ground, behind the scenes. My mother was beaten to a pulp by her fellow inmates days after the British arrived. People treated so poorly had been reduced to this animalistic state, and they didn't just snap out of it on the day of the liberation. It was a long process to come back to life. My mother was near death after having been beaten so badly. I explain that in the book.
My mother was placed in a makeshift hospital room for dying prisoners. Every day for three weeks, 11 of the 12 people in her room died and 11 nearly dead were brought in to fill their beds. She hung on. She described those details to me when I was a teenager. Later, when I wrote her story, I could calculate practically the day that she was evacuated to the hospital because I had read accounts of the evacuation. The bits of information she told me were windows into larger contexts.
It’s an amazing survival story—a story of the narrowest escape. The rescuers presumed your mother would die, yet she hung on for weeks. If they used triage, then she was grouped with those who weren’t expected to survive.
Yes. And she was unconscious when she was taken to “the human laundry.” She didn't know it was called that until I researched the rescue.
Before she was beaten, but after the British arrived, she wandered to this warehouse that contained tons of clothing and she picked her way through seams and lapels and found all these treasures—gold pens, rings, currency—the deportees had brought with them. And her greatest heartbreak was the moment she came to and realized her precious stash had been taken away from her. There were all these heartbreaks. And then, when she came to full consciousness she thought, “I survived, but how lucky am I? I lost my home, my family, and my health.”
Her sister Elisabeth also survived and Elisabeth was with your mother for much of the time? Helping each other must have had a role in their survival.
Yes. It was very important to have a partner in one’s struggles. Elisabeth sacrificed her life for my mother at Auschwitz. She was ready to die with my mother when she herself was picked for possible labor. At that moment, Elisabeth showed her love and deep compassion for her sister. From that point on, my mother did everything in her power to help my aunt survive whatever trials they went through. She would “organize” food for the both of them. They helped each other. And when my mother was in that makeshift hospital, knowing that her sister was alive and in decent shape was a real driving force for her because, if she died, she would be leaving her sister all alone in the world.
My mother mustered her will to live because of Elisabeth and because she was only 15 and felt she had not yet lived much of life. She didn't know how very sick she was or how long recovery would take, but she fought to have a chance. And her father's parting words to her in the cattle car before they got to Auschwitz came back to her—he had confidence that she would make it. She had to live up to his words.
Your mother was eventually evacuated from Bergen-Belsen to Sweden. What was the role of Sweden in helping survivors of the camps, and how did your mother, unlike many other people, wind up there and then live there for ten years?
The Swedes led a humanitarian mission to save these people and help them get back on their feet. Perhaps they felt guilt over their neutrality or how they helped Hitler during the war. Who knows? But they took in about 7,000 really sick people from Bergen-Belsen. The idea was to rehabilitate them and, after about six months of medical treatment, they would go on their way and maybe be repatriated in their home countries.
When my mother got to Sweden, she was very sick. She had tuberculosis, and she was in various TB sanatoriums and rest homes in Sweden for ten years. I don't know any survivor who went to Sweden who didn't say that Sweden was wonderful and the Swedish people were kind, and that meant so much. These people had seen the worst of humanity and then in Sweden they were so well cared for. My mother had certain post-war experiences that showed her that there was still humanity in the world.
My mother loved Sweden. When we (my sister and I) were growing up, our house was a mixture of cultures, with certain traditions and foods from Hungary, Romania, and Sweden. Though my parents wanted to be American, they couldn’t help but transmit what they carried from Europe.
Robin Lindley: You describe many moving moments in your writing. I can’t recall if this scene was from your new book, but after the liberation there were thousands of displaced persons left at Bergen-Belsen. One drop of supplies included a large shipment of lipstick. The soldiers thought that this shipment just useless, but women survivors were thrilled and eagerly accepted the lipstick. It was almost part of their resurrection—a restoration of human dignity after being dehumanized for months and years. That story was so moving.
Yes, that was fascinating.
Humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross and Jewish organizations, were sending shipments to Bergen-Belsen. And they got this huge box of lipsticks and whoever opened it thought that was ridiculous and completely useless. And then they distributed the lipsticks and that was the best feeling for the women when they started to put on lipstick. They felt like human beings again. And when they were given clothes or a needle and thread and some old garments that they could tailor, life came back to them. They wanted to make themselves look presentable and attractive to the opposite sex. Little things that you might not think about really mattered.
Yes. A marvelous story of the renewal.
And becoming human again. There are so many of those little stories. In one instance, a soldier turned to Jewish leader and said, “Look at that woman. She's crazy. She's combing her hair with a broken piece of a comb.” And the leader said, “You give her a real comb and see which she would choose. Then you could see if she were crazy.”
These people were so deprived and they didn't have the basic supplies that we take for granted. If they had a choice, and they were given the real thing, they wouldn’t have looked crazy. And they were used to saving every little thing they could get their hands on—a piece of string had uses.
Adjusting to life after the war had to be challenging. How is your mother doing now?
She's doing well. Thank you for asking. I worry about her because of the pandemic. I can't visit with her and she normally has a lot of speaking engagements. She’s really wonderful. She has such a great message when she speaks to kids, and she speaks to a lot of middle and high school students about the Holocaust.
What did she think of your book?
She read drafts of it, and I kept her abreast of the entire publishing process, so she learned a lot. She is happy that I achieved the goal of writing her story, and we are both happy to have saved members of our family—a few of the six million—from oblivion.
She must be really proud of you.
We are proud of each other.
Does she live in a senior facility?
No. She’s going to be 91 in a few weeks, and she lives in her own home and takes care of everything in the home herself.
That’s amazing. She’s still doing well after all of those narrow escapes. Please give her my best regards.
I will. Thank you so much for your interest and this interview.
It’s been a pleasure talking with you Dr. Lerner. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful and moving comments. And congratulations on your compelling and illuminating new book All the Horrors of War on the journeys of your mother and the liberator Brigadier Glyn Hughes, MD.
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is a features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us), and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Re-Markings, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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