‘To Meet In Hell’ by Bernice Lerner: A Review

“Jews remember! Jews write!” These were the dying words of Simon Dubnow, the great Jewish historian, murdered by a Gestapo officer on a Riga street in 1941. His stirring mandate has been adhered to by generations of post-Holocaust authors who mined the darkness for acts of humanity that offer hope and optimism. Their narratives, describing the compassion and courage of saviours and survivors, comprise an invaluable literary legacy.

Gloria Goldreich

With the passage of time, Simon Dubnow’s dying words become ever more important: In a few years there will be no eye witnesses alive.  Fortunately there are many historical records of the Holocaust. However ‘To Meet In Hell’ may be unique. Why? First, because it’s written by the daughter of a Survivor, who is an academic; second, because it is the story not just of the Survivor but of the doctor who was one of the British Army liberators of Bergen-Belsen. The helpful map at the front of the book shows their journeys to the Camp. At age 14, on 15 May 1944 at 5am, Rachel Genuth was deported with her family from their home in Sighet in Hungary. The train took them to Auschwitz in Poland. On 1 August she was taken with her sister Elisabeth to the slave labour camp at Christianstadt in Germany. On 15 January 1945 in the face of the advancing Russian Army the order came through to evacuate the labour camp at Christianstadt. Anyone who could not keep up was to be shot. They left on 2 February. On 9 March, after walking 250 miles, the deportees were forced onto a goods train at Cheb on the Czech/German border. On 15 March they arrived at Bergen-Belsen in Germany.

Glyn Hughes was born on 25 July 1892 in South Africa; his father, a doctor, had moved there with his wife to seek his fortune. After his father died of septicaemia, Glyn’s mother returned to Europe. Glyn eventually attended medical school (at UCH) and served as regimental medical officer in the British Army in World War One.  He enlisted in the Army a short time before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939 and was appointed deputy director of medical services (DDMS) of the Second Army’s 8 Corps.

In the night of 12 June 1944 (six days after D-Day) 8 Corps set sail. Dr Hughes was to facilitate all the medical tasks for their advance into Germany: the establishment of field hospitals, treatment of the injured and evacuation if necessary. We read that Dr Hughes ‘paid meticulous attention to the smallest detail’. The 8 Corps’ journey took them through Normandy and Belgium.  After the Battle of Normandy  they entered Brussels on 16 September.  On 17 September the Allies launched the Battle of Arnhem. For his heroism in that conflict Dr Hughes was awarded a second bar to his Distinguished Service Order (DSO).  In his Foreword Dr James Le Fanu notes that a colleague called Dr Hughes ‘the bravest man I ever met‘. On 11 March 1945 the 8 Corps crossed the Rhine. On Sunday 15 April 1945 at 3.07pm – after thousands of casualties – they finally arrived at Bergen-Belsen.

Those are the facts about Rachel Genuth and Dr Glyn Hughes.  But Bernice Lerner’s terrific book (also published in the US, as All the Horrors of War) is far more than just the bare facts. For 11 months Rachel and the other deportees from Hungary are subjected to the most horrifically cruel treatment. On the train to Auschwitz buckets were emptied of urine and faeces and then filled with water. Revolted, Rachel swore she would never again drink water – the trauma was so great that she could not drink water for sixty years. But the worst obscenities occurred in Bergen-Belsen (hence the book’s title).  Everywhere was the stench of decaying bodies.  Each morning open trucks would come to collect the bodies that inmates had removed from the barracks. The bodies were dumped in a corner of the camp. The camp was riddled with typhus. People slept on top of corpses. Close to the end, the SS brought bread laced with glass to a section of the camp. ‘At the sight of a group around a concrete pit with a few inches of dirty water, trying to fill tins tied to the end of long sticks, Hughes’s eyes welled with tears.Bernice Lerner records it all, an everlasting warning of the obscene consequences of unchecked antisemitism.

On April 17 – two days after Dr Glyn Hughes reached Bergen-Belsen – a BBC Journalist arrived. He was the first to tell the world about the horrors of Bergen-Belsen. British readers will recognise his name immediately: Richard Dimbleby. You can listen to his broadcast and read the transcript here.  Bernice Lerner describes his visit and broadcast (page 136).  ‘During two hours of reporting, he broke down five times.’  The horrors Dimbleby reported were so awful that at first his editors at the BBC refused to believe him.

In the wake of the horrors, life resumed. Along with the creation of Israel just three years later, one can only marvel at the resilience of the human spirit – even as one weeps for the dead. Maybe the former is the greatest possible tribute to the latter. When foreign dignitaries visit Israel, the first place they are taken to is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial.

Bernice Lerner reports that on May 24 – barely a month after liberation – the DPs (Displaced Persons) ‘organised an international cabaret … British soldiers and men from the Canadian air force swung recovering girls, dressed in their new finery, on their arms’. Within weeks Dr Glyn Hughes attended a wedding at the DP camp. Twenty years later he met the couple and their family again, in Israel. The survivors married ‘at a staggering rate, averaging six weddings a day (!) in the Belsen DP camp for the rest of the year’. Yehudi Menuhin performed there in summer 1945, the survivors listening sitting on the grass.

While we honour individual British servicemen for their acts of heroism in the War – none more than Brigadier Glyn Hughes – we cannot forget the common antisemitism in British society at that time, nor the inhuman restrictions the British administrators of the Mandate placed on the DPs who wished to move to Palestine. Ms Lerner notes that references to Jews were edited out of Dimbleby’s early reports: ‘One of the two recordings he made – referring explicitly to the Jewishness of the victims – was not used’. Led by Josef Rosensaft,  a committee of DPs ‘irritated British authorities by advocating for survivors who wanted to make their lives in the Jewish homeland’.  Glyn Hughes was supportive of these aspirations: he has been described as the adopted ‘father of the Jewish survivors of Belsen.

20 years later, at the 20th anniversary commemoration of the liberation at the Habima State Theatre in Tel-Aviv, Brigadier Hughes gave a speech in which he ‘considered the recovery of survivors and the formation of a self-governing community in Bergen-Belsen “a glorious moment in Jewish history.” ‘ Ben-Gurion visited the DP camp on 25 October.

As noted above, Bernice Lerner writes that Hughes ‘paid meticulous attention to the smallest detail’. Precisely the same must be said of Ms Lerner!  As well as the privations suffered by her dear mother, she painstakingly describes the successes and setbacks of the 8 Corps’ advance across Northern Europe into Germany. We learn about the weapons used by the two sides, about the morale of the combatants and about the casualties. Ms Lerner describes the evacuation scheme set out by Dr Hughes, commenting on his ‘meticulous planning and organisational skills’ and including an image of the plan he sketched out. Ms Lerner’s mastery of military tactics is truly astonishing.

The book is also beautifully edited and produced by Amberley Publishing. Particularly welcome are the page references at the top of every page of the 50 pages of Notes. There are 482 such Notes – further evidence of Ms Lerner’s mastery of the detail.

Brigadier Glyn Hughes and Rachel Genuth never met. He died age 81 on 24 November 1973. He would surely have loved the fact that Rachel Genuth – now  Ruth Mermelstein – at 92 still gives talks in schools in the US about the Holocaust.

Jonathan Hoffman
London

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