Bernice Lerner: Horror, Hope, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen
The occasion for this interview with Bernice Lerner was the publication of her book All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). The girl of the title is Lerner’s mother, Rachel Genuth, who narrowly survived the trials and atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, culminating in her experience of nearly dying at Bergen-Belsen. The doctor is Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, who was in charge of medical needs and services for the British Second Army, and was attached to its 11th Armoured Division when it liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. In her book, Lerner skillfully and movingly interweaves the stories of these two figures as they move over the course of one year toward the day of liberation. As powerful as this story is, it is the story of Rachel’s re-emergence into the world, mirroring the experience of so many others, that leaves us with a indelible testimony of hope and human resilience. Beyond the occasion of this book, Lerner has been involved with Center activities for many years, so we were pleased to have this in-depth conversation with her. She spoke with the Center’s Mitch Bogen on May 20, 2020.
Bernice, I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this book and the achievement of it. It combines two separate story lines, each with their own power, and each, I would guess, with their own technical challenges in terms of mastering the material and the writing of it. And also, structurally to have them come together ultimately at Bergen-Belsen is very effective and moving. So my first question is about process. What did you learn during the process as you faced assorted challenges?
I had published a book before, and had written chapters in books, but learned so much this time about the process of publishing, and finding an editor, and doing the research, and about trying to craft a compelling, evidence-based narrative about human nature. And I really learned a lot of things about biography that I didn’t know before; what it takes to track down a story is a story in itself. And you learn so much, because other people’s stories are a window into different milieus that you may not be familiar with, and professions, too, and whole periods of time. There is so much around the story you are telling, and really, only the tip of the iceberg makes it into the final product. So, even now, when I read about scientists who discovered things at various points in history, I sometimes find I know about them because I researched and wrote a whole chapter about Glyn Hughes’s medical schooling! You don’t know where to stop sometimes when you are a biographer because everything is so fascinating. We call it going down the primrose path. So I learned a lot that didn’t make it into the book. And I also learned that I can’t know everything about these lives. Biography is an inconclusive, unstable genre. Each life is full of unresolved possibilities and accidents and strokes of luck and secrets—and even when you know there are secrets you can’t uncover them all! But you do the best you can with the material you have to construct a story that hopefully will be interesting to readers.
You achieved that so well. I imagine you must have worked closely with your editor and other advisors to work the material into this focused and fast-moving format.
Well, you also learn that these days, editors don’t have a lot of time! But we did go through a process of several stages with different editors, from the developmental editor to the copy editor and so on. But the main thing was for them to second my idea that we should tell the story of these lives over a one-year period and that I should run with that.
How did writing this book change your understanding of these big matters of the Holocaust, the War, and liberation? Perhaps you had new realizations? Or if not new, then deepening realizations?
Yes, a deepening. I think that until I got really deep into the material, I maybe didn’t fully realize how amazing it is that I exist and that my mother survived. Because she so easily could have wound up in a pile of near-dead people to be buried alive, or else just buried dead. This was the norm in the place where she was and for how sick she was. She was at death’s door. How many people were lost that way? How many lives and life stories and future generations? How tragic it was. It was driven home to me, diving deep into the details of her rescue, and the kinds of decisions the liberators were faced with, how heart wrenching it was, and how it changed them. My book is really a whole story within the story of the Holocaust. It’s a story of people who had already survived so much. These were the strong ones and lucky ones that made it through. They evaded the gas chambers and they made it through slave labor. But they were just dying by the thousands in this place.
On one level there is the objective understanding of these matters—certainly you knew the story of what happened, the story of the deaths and the survivors, and had learned these things growing up. But to look at everything with fresh eyes really showed you the miracle of your being here.
Yes, yes. That, and also, whatever life stage you are at you can kind of identify with people in that place. Now that I am a grandmother, I feel empathy for my mother’s grandmother. She lost her husband and brother in World War I. At the beginning of World War II, her children, in their thirties, and five grandchildren, under age 10, were massacred in the first mass murder carried out by the Nazi death squads—called the Einsatzgruppen. And that was only the beginning of the war. I think it would just destroy my soul, what happened to her in her life. Then, every little story my mother shared, things she picked up as an 11, 12, 13-year-old was like a window into a larger context and deeper feeling for me about the situation.
What qualities did you come to admire most about your mother during the writing of this?
Oh, [laughs] I have long been an admirer of hers. She is such a positive person and when I was young, she would share amusing anecdotes about her pre- and post-war experiences. But in writing her story I came to an appreciation of those ten years after the war, when she was ages fifteen to twenty-five: what it was like for this young, orphaned girl to make her way in this world and come back to life. And it was good, in a way, that she was so young because she could start over with a new family. But she had her nightmares. And I think about how difficult it must have been for her in Sweden, and why she made certain choices she did while she was there. She was always productive—even when she was in TB sanatoriums. She was very sick, and felt like she lost so much of her teenage life, the best years of her life. But I think those came later, fortunately.
You know, I found this aspect of the book to be among the most eye-opening for me. In reading, I realized I had never really thought carefully about the process of how survivors reemerged into society. I knew that they weren’t just liberated and went on about their lives, but in reading your book I could see what an involved process it was. It took them a long time to even just leave the camp. What was involved during this time they stayed at the camp before leaving?
It depended on their age and their health. And it depended on where they were from in Europe. If they were from Western Europe, some of them could have gone back to their home, say in Czechoslovakia or France. But if they were from Eastern Europe, where their whole, entire communities were destroyed, then there was no home to go back to. But the first thing on people’s minds, if they survived, was searching for relatives; because of what happened for families there was no closure. I mean they pretty much knew the worst had happened but they didn’t know 100 percent for sure. Could my mother’s father—he was in his 40s—could he possibly have made it through a selection at Auschwitz and then been sent to a slave labor camp? You know, writing the book and doing the research, that’s a question that opened up for me. I always just assumed he died right away at Auschwitz. But now I’m not 100 percent sure. So that was the big thing: searching for relatives. There was no internet, but if they could, and if they were mobile, people got out. And there were signs posted everywhere, including at every train station. The trains were free—you just hopped on. There were refugees running around all over Europe.
Yeah, it was a crazy period. But if they were sick, they couldn’t really fend for themselves or mobilize to look for relatives. My mother could not make a single decision for herself. She knew she couldn’t go back to her home. There were rumors that there were Russians in that area raping women, and it was scary. She was fifteen and her sister was seventeen. Luckily, the Swedish Red Cross came to Bergen-Belsen and they took 7,000 of the sickest survivors to Sweden to rehabilitate them, including my mother and her sister. But other people hung out at the displaced persons (DP) camp because there was no home to go back to. Many were from Poland and Hungary. Many of them wanted to go to Palestine. Some had relatives in the United States. Some went to Australia. They went all over the world. The DP camp was almost a holding station. And many people came from other places to Bergen-Belsen; it was the largest DP camp in the British Zone of Germany. It became organized very quickly because it just so happened that there were people there in their 20s and their 30s who had been leaders in various organizations, including Zionist organizations, in their hometowns before the war. And they started to build a community. And within a year or two, the DP camp in Bergen-Belsen saw the largest baby boom ever in history! Everyone had lost so much, and they were looking to pair up and get married. There were so many weddings. And two thousand babies were born in the Glyn Hughes hospital from 1946 to 1950!
They were grieving, and looking immediately to create anew.
People did not lose the will to live, did they? It wasn’t destroyed. It sounds like they were bursting with desire for life.
Yes. They were grieving, and looking immediately to create anew. And soon their babies and toddlers became the center of life in the DP camp. And they had their own police force, and newspapers, and schools! They just organized themselves.
I found it fascinating that culture emerged so strongly during this time. Actually, I got right to the part in the book where Yehudi Menuhin performed at the camp and realized that I was listening to him on my stereo as I was reading!
[Laughs] Oh my goodness. Yes, they brought in performers, and they had theater. On the one hand they were grieving but on the other they needed to move forward with life. In my mother’s case, her lucky break in Sweden came when, after she had been in a tuberculosis sanitarium, once she was well enough, she was able to go to this school for teenage survivors, and there, the educators tried to give the young girls—mostly girls, there were a few boys—hope for the future. They wanted them to know that there were beautiful things in this life: there was art, there was music, there was culture. And not everything had to be terrible. Those seven months that she spent in that school changed her for the rest of her life. Every day, if you walk into her house, classical music is playing. It’s very soothing; she is very soothed by music, by stories, by art. And it was all from that school, because she had had no education of that sort before the War. You know, these kids missed out on years of schooling. Even now, during the pandemic, I think about kids missing school, and what they could be doing with their time. My first book was about seven Holocaust survivors who missed a lot of school, but went on to earn PhDs. You don’t necessarily have to be in a classroom to grow and to learn.
One half of the story of your book is the story of Glyn Hughes. The transitioning of displaced persons back to health and into society was largely because of his leadership, and the hard decisions he made, correct?
He was overseeing the medical rescue. He was laying down the policies about what to do with these 25,000 people who needed immediate hospitalization, how to bury the dead, how to prevent disease from spreading. He was appointing other people who he would supervise, and he would weigh in on decisions. He wasn’t so much instrumental in helping survivors get back on their feet as he was an observer of what was happening among the survivors, which was a soul turning experience for him—seeing how the people that the British Second Army would have left for dead could turn around and with a few weeks of care and nourishment start to show their true personalities and get on their feet a little bit. And then he saw these leaders emerging from among the survivors and how they organized the community. He was so impressed. And that was a watershed for him, just witnessing this. I don’t think he had had many encounters with people who were Jewish before the War, but he saw himself now as part of the narrative of the Jewish people and he remained in touch with some of these leaders and many of the people surrounding them for the rest of his life. He became a real champion of their cause. And that was a big deal, because British officials were kind of irritated and annoyed by these survivors because they were agitating to go to Palestine, and that did not suit British political interests at that time. The British just wanted for the survivors to be repatriated, to go back to the countries they came from. They didn’t really have their fingers on the pulse of what the experience was like for the survivors, but Glyn Hughes did, and he opened his heart to them. So he was unique in that way.
The story you portray of how Glyn Hughes and the troops he was with made their way to Bergen-Belsen was incredible. The complexity and difficulty of the task before them, both medically and militarily, was immense. What did you come to respect or admire most about Glyn Hughes as you were writing?
I think that he was a very empathetic person. And he was sort of this no nonsense, strict military guy who was very disciplined and a very talented organizer, but he also had this huge heart. I really saw that in him, and I wondered: What was it about this man who survivors called the “father” of the Jewish survivors of Bergen-Belsen, and for whom they named the hospital in Bergen-Belsen? They were moved by his reaction and his response. And here he was: He had seen all the horrors of war, but he had seen nothing to touch this, and he even broke down crying at several points, and that was very much a human response to what he was seeing. And he was able to see past … a lot of these people were skeletons and had been very dehumanized by the end of the war, they had been starved. He came into a situation where people hadn’t had food or water for five days and had had just a very minimal diet before that. 17,000 people died in the month of March. It was a hell. But he saw the humanity in people. He saw the individual. He was a doctor and between the wars had a private medical practice. There was a part of him that was a healer and a doctor. I was imagining that if he could have had time to treat individual patients, and the resources and the way, he would have tried to help people as much as he could. And he did do what he could. He didn’t wait to follow Army protocol, wait to file the proper papers or spend the time to lobby his superiors; he just moved into action very fast and impressed upon the Second Army that there was a humanitarian problem at hand. Of course, we see now during the pandemic how long medical response can take!
Over the course of the year you portray how both Brigadier Hughes and your mother had to make excruciating decisions, one after the other. Did you mother ever talk about this, how hard the position was that people were put in?
Not really, she was just a kid—a kid going through it. On the one hand she thought of herself as very naïve and ignorant but on the other hand—I don’t think anyone could really prepare or prime somebody for this—but as a kid, she had had a very hardscrabble childhood and had had a lot of responsibility as the second of six children. She was kind of independent. Though she needed her parents, she had to fend for herself and she was able to do that. So, her choices … all she could think about was trying to survive and figure out where she could get food from. That was the biggest, most overarching thing. It was a matter of just trying to survive, obeying orders, and just doing what you had to. And she took a lot of calculated risks throughout. She exhibited a lot of agency in a place where there wasn’t a whole lot of choice. Her inclination was to volunteer for things—to volunteer for the work detail at Auschwitz so she could “earn” a piece of bread, to step forward when there was a call for volunteers at the Christianstadt labor camp. To do whatever it took to survive. Not stealing bread from somebody else, but getting whatever she could get for herself. And then at the end, there was nothing. Then, at the end, there was nothing more that she could do. And one of my aunts remembers her crying, because there was just nothing anymore. And there were rumors flying around Bergen-Belsen that they would all be poisoned, or that the Nazis would bomb the camp… it was a very unusual thing that happened, because never before had a German concentration camp been turned over to the Allies. In fact, Hitler had given orders that not a single inmate was to be turned over alive. She was that near death. And her last conscious thought before she fell unconscious: “we will never be human beings again.” [softly] It was just such a hell.
And that is such a big theme of the book: how their humanity reemerged through work and through cooperation. So very moving. What do you think, or hope, is unique about the contribution your book makes?
I think my contribution is really unusual because, first, it tells the story of two protagonists from completely different walks of life, from different milieus, and from different life stations, and how they both experienced this extreme of extremes, this hell of hells. There are thousands of survivor accounts, but I think my mother is a compelling character—even forgetting that she’s my mother. She was an unworldly yet street-smart kind of kid. She came from this poor background; she was a few months younger than Anne Frank, caught at the same time and place as Anne Frank; her story continues where that of her iconic peer tragically ends. How does a child go through this? And then there is Glyn Hughes, who is an Oskar Schindler-type character in that he is very empathetic and he befriended and remained in contact with survivors for the rest of his life. Here was this little-known hero that I was able to shine a light on, so I thought that was an important contribution of my book.
Yes, and I think very successful in that regard. By putting the two figures together, it demonstrates interdependence, something at the core of our Buddhist-based work at the Ikeda Center. Other key concepts for us that come to mind in the context of your book are hope and dignity. What did writing the book teach you about those qualities?
They both are enormously important. Let’s start with hope. My mother would say, when she speaks to groups of children about the Holocaust, she would always tell them that they have to have hope. She often has in her audience kids who are suffering real personal difficulties. Whether they have lost a parent, or they are immigrants, or have had a difficult experience in their life or a personal loss, she says to them, you have to have hope, you absolutely have to have hope. And she herself had false hope sometimes, because she was hoping, throughout the war, that she would see her parents again, even after Auschwitz. And then, when she was literally dying in Bergen-Belsen, having hope enabled her to pull through in a way. She mustered all her will to survive because, one, she had a sister she knew was alive somewhere and if she didn’t survive, her sister would be all alone in the world. And, two, her father had confidence in her that she was going to make it, and she remembered his words. And, three, she hadn’t lived yet! She hadn’t experienced love or had her own family or experienced life. And she had to have hope with regard to this completely unwritten script, this future that she didn’t know would even happen. She didn’t know if she would get well, if she would be healthy, or what would happen to her. It was all uncharted. But she had to have hope and faith that things would turn out okay for her. And she had hope in human goodness. She and other survivors were so very grateful for any kindness shown them. They had known such evil; they did not take displays of caring or warmth for granted. My mother would never forget a doctor in Sweden who nursed her through the night when she had a high fever. My father would never forget a man who helped him get his first job when he came to the United States.
Anything you want to add about Glyn Hughes and hope?
As for Glyn Hughes and hope, I’m not sure. I think that seeing the survivors inspired him and gave him hope. And seeing how the State of Israel developed, and witnessing its progress, gave him hope. There are other elements of his life. He was a doctor and was giving people hope. He had written … I read a lot of his works and he discussed how you should talk to patients. What if a patient is dying? Do you tell them? Do you give them hope? Do you give the family hope? And he grapples with that, and ultimately decided it was situational. But he definitely recognized the power of hope in people’s lives.
There is the matter of your own dignity and then seeing the dignity in other human beings. And I think that for my mother and for all of the survivors, this was crucial. Would you believe that one of the best things that they brought in for the survivors in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, after they had food and after they had water … some organization or country shipped whole boxes of lipstick! And people looked at it, you know, the organizers and the doctors, and said, This is useless! This is the last thing we need. It actually turned out to be maybe the most important thing. Women were walking around, putting on lipstick, and it changed the whole way they felt about themselves, and brought a sort of femininity back to them. This was dignity. And as soon as people could, and had resources and had a needle and thread, they tried to make themselves look presentable, there in the DP camp. They tried to tailor garments. And I think the British realized this also. They set up this warehouse where people could come pick out clothing. They got a lot of clothing from the German people in the surrounding areas. So dignity was important for everyone and it was important for my mom. As soon as she could, in Sweden, she would knit clothes for herself. If she could save up enough money to buy a garment to feel good about herself, she would. I know I’ve been relating a lot about personal grooming! But I think that it mattered.
Then, to see dignity in other people; to treat other people as dignified, sacred human beings. For Glyn Hughes, to see the dignity in the human person: that was what was so special about him, that he saw that. And he gave people their dignity, even in dying. When he was with a patient behind closed doors in Bergen-Belsen, he fed him ice cream. He knew the man was going to die, but he wanted to do something for him, an act of kindness or respect, appreciating his humanity. And he cared about his personal appearance too! Hughes was always very well groomed. His uniform, his clothes, were important to him.
Last year you were one of the participants in our unique experiment in dialogue in which we paired scholars and leaders such as yourself with young people to engage in sustained dialogue that also was sort of open ended in terms of topics. Can you talk about your participation in that and what your takeaways are, now that you look back on it?
It was a wonderful, wonderful project, very worthwhile. I met these fantastic young women, who were so wise and thoughtful and spiritual. It was an example of how you can come in contact with people whom you wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths with in your life necessarily – you know, we were from different generations and different environments and different upbringings and different pasts. Maybe in college I might have had some experiences like this—in this encountering of the Other, and how the Other is not a stranger and how we are all deeply connected in our yearnings, in what causes us suffering, what brings us love. And I was just really blessed to have met those women. They were just wonderful, and we got to some pretty deep subjects pretty quickly. And of course it deepened over time as we got to know each other better and got to know each other’s stories and where we were in our lives. It was just a great thing for the Ikeda Center to do.
I found in listening to the young people who shared their experiences at the Center later that year, that some of them came in feeling a little intimidated since all the people, such as yourself, that they were paired with are highly accomplished. But they said that it soon became apparent that this wasn’t a matter of hierarchy, and that people were meeting as equals.
That was very true. There was no hierarchy.
In fact, your partners shared that they were moved when you asked them for advice; you weren’t one to simply dispense it, because of your, shall we say, advanced age.
[Laughs] They were so wise. So I was very fortunate. I wonder how they are during these times? It would be so good to get back in touch.
This was one way that you have been a valued friend of ours. But you have also been a participant in events here and you have been a speaker. What was your Ikeda Forum topic when you spoke a few years ago?
It was on Viktor Frankl and the choice of attitude and realizing attitudinal values. Frankl was a survivor and an existential philosopher. By the time he was incarcerated, he was an accomplished professional. He came to Auschwitz with a manuscript reflecting his life’s work, his deepest thinking, in his coat pocket. Of course, it was taken away. But the content remained with him, and he could apply it in a terrible situation. When he was performing backbreaking labor and thinking only of his ration of soup at the day’s end, he trained his mind to focus on his wife or on a future date in which he would be giving a lecture. When his fellow inmates were threatened with collective punishment, he gave them a hope-filled speech about rebuilding their lives after the war—even though he calculated his own chances of survival as small. He believed that even in facing death, one can give one’s life meaning by how one “bears one’s cross.” One can choose one’s attitude.
That’s one good example of how you are coming with a set of references and inspirations and finding that you can put them into conversation with our themes. What are some of the things that you click with that we are doing?
Oh, I think the work you are doing is so important: in terms of dialogue and peace and in terms of realizing human goodness—seeing the other not as a stranger, and treating people with dignity and treating the other as a sacred human person. And really cutting through the misconceptions and prejudices that people have. I would like to learn more about Buddhist philosophy. I’ve loved what the Dalai Lama teaches about human suffering and all humans basically wanting to be happy and to avoid suffering, and realizing that we all share these same fundamental desires. And how all this informs morality. I know this is also a major point for Daisaku Ikeda.
Your thoughts remind me of my favorite quote from Mr. Ikeda’s 20th anniversary message to the Center, which is that “Whatever country we hail from or interests we represent, in the end we are all human. We are comrades together confronting the universal human experiences of birth, aging, sickness and death. Our lives are like precious gems bearing within them an indomitable force for good.”
I love this quote. All of our lives are like precious gems, aren’t they? The question is, how do we walk the path from birth through aging and death so that we exercise this force for good within us? As I was suggesting with Frankl, I think it’s a choice we make. But this requires a certain consciousness, which may come with right instruction and practice. In my own life and teaching, I’ve found that one of the best ways to overcome our negative inclinations and give shine to the gem that is our lives is to look to the exemplars among us, all those noble people who radiate goodness. They can show us what it looks like to express caring, compassion, generosity, and moral courage.
Just before we close, I wondered if you could talk about the chapter you contributed a couple years ago to Peacebuilding Through Dialogue, on the topic of compassion and dialogue. How does dialogue fuel compassion?
It melts away barriers. In that exchange, if it is open and honest, and people share what they are feeling and what they are thinking, and you can really listen and be receptive to what they are saying, you can reach some sort of understanding and bring people together who may have very different backgrounds and beliefs—but you need to be trying to reach across the divide and strive for understanding. What came to me as I was writing that chapter was that dialogue doesn’t always have to happen in real time. It can happen across time. You can read something and have a dialogue in your mind and make references. Something that makes an impression on you and that stays with you can change your thinking and it can turn your attitudes and your views about things. I’m always carrying around, for example, Victor Frankl. Or other works I have read by historical or contemporary figures. Sometimes, I have an internal dialogue with the author of an interesting opinion editorial. This might even be subconscious. Anything that strikes us. I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I read something, I have to write the words down because they are so profound or on-the-mark.
Yes, I do that too! Thank you so much, Bernice. I would say that your book inspires just such an experience. In reading it I felt I was entering into dialogue with the thoughts and lives and hopes of Glyn Hughes and your mother.
That is so nice. Thank you.