Lerner, Bernice. “All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen”, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.
Fighting for Life
Rachel Genuth, a poor Jewish teenager from the Hungarian provinces, and Hugh Llewelyn Glyn Hughes, a high-ranking military doctor in the British Second Army, meet in Bergen-Belsen, where she fights for her life and the doctor struggles to save thousands on the brink of death.
On April 15, 1945, Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes entered Bergen-Belsen for the first time. What he found were 10,000 unburied, putrefying corpses and 60,000 living prisoners who were starving and sick. One month earlier, 15-year-old Rachel Genuth came to Bergen-Belsen; with her family from Sighet, Transylvania, In May of 1944, Rachel had by then already endured Auschwitz, the Christianstadt labor camp, and a forced march through the Sudetenland. Bernice Lerner’s “All the Horrors of War” follows both Hughes and Genuth as they move across Europe toward Bergen-Belsen in the brutal last year of World War II.
The book begins at the end with Hughes’s testimony at the September 1945 trial of Josef Kramer, commandant of Bergen-Belsen, along with forty-four SS (Schutzstaffel) members and guards. “I have been a doctor for thirty years and seen all the horrors of war,” Hughes said that he had been a doctor for thirty years and has never seen anything like what he saw at Bergen-Belsen. We then go back to the spring of 1944 and follow both Hughes and Rachel as they deal with their respective forms of wartime hell until they are forced to confront the worst which included Christianstadt’s prisoners, including Rachel, are deposited in Bergen-Belsen, and the British Second Army, having finally gained control of ghastly camp after a negotiated surrender. Though they never met, it was Hughes’s commitment to helping as many prisoners as possible that saved Rachel’s life.
Using many sources, including Hughes’s papers, war diaries, oral histories, and interviews unites scholarly research with narrative storytelling to disturb the suffering of Nazi victims, the horrible presence of death at Bergen-Belsen, and characters who represent and symbolize the human capacity for fortitude. Lerner who is Rachel’s daughter, has special insight into what her mother suffered. This is first book to bring together the story of a Holocaust victim and a liberator allowing us to see the complex humanity of both.
We feel the traumatization of the liberator as well as that of the survivor in two fascinating and original stories.
Lerner humanizes an event that is often described only from one perspective: either that of the liberators, “for whom the survivors were often dehumanized ‘living skeletons’ because of their deplorable living conditions”, or that of the survivors, “for whom the liberators were angels of mercy descended from heaven after months and years of utter dehumanization by their tormentors.”
The narrative takes us into the depths alongside its central characters and gives us the strength of their respective forms of courage and generosity that allows us to rise from it. The research is staggering.
We see how luck, courage, and factors outside her mother’s control allowed Rachel to survive. The story of two people who never met is Lerner’s way of documenting “the ways World War II made allies of strangers and transformed forever the lives of those caught in the maelstrom.”