British doctor who was forced to play God in Belsen: He was one of the first to stumble on the horrors of the SS camp in a forest – now, 75 years on, a new book captures the depths of wickedness he witnessed as he struggled to decide who could be saved.
Bernice Lerner has written her mother Rachel Genuth’s story as a Belsen victim Genuth arrived at Belsen via Auschwitz, where her family had all been murdered. Story is intertwined with her liberator Brigadier Glyn Hughes, in the new book
On a warm Sunday morning in mid-April 1945, a small team of soldiers and medics set off in Jeeps from British Army headquarters in north-west Germany on a special mission.
For 15 miles, they drove eastwards towards the enemy lines, passing through dense forest before rounding a bend in the road and coming to a sudden halt at a sentry box, appearing as if from nowhere.
A 15ft-high barbed-wire fence stretched out for miles in both directions, with manned watchtowers at 200-yard intervals. They had reached their hidden destination: the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. They had come — at the request of the Germans — to liberate it.
As they passed through the gates, the panorama before them was an utterly shocking vision of hell. Staggering towards them were thousands of starving, skeletal humans in rags, with pleading looks on their grey, wizened faces. Distraught mothers clutched long-dead babies in their arms. Everywhere were piles of dead corpses, rotting in the sun.
The leader of the British contingent, Brigadier Glyn Hughes, a battle-hardened veteran who had served in the trenches in World War I, reeled in horror, his eyes welling with tears as he took in what he later described as ‘the never-imagined depth of human depravity’.
Stepping inside crowded wooden huts with bunks piled to the ceiling, he was confronted by ‘a sea of crying, screaming bones’. He had been a doctor for 30 years and witnessed all the horrors of war ‘but I had never seen anything to touch this’.
The camp was ‘unique in its vile treatment of human beings’. Seventy-five years on, the name ‘Belsen’ still sends shivers down the spine, not least because it was from there that an on-the-spot radio broadcast revealed to a stunned world the full extent of the pure evil at the heart of the Third Reich.
Following the British troops into the camp, the BBC’s Richard Dimbleby, his voice choking with emotion, described countless men and women, some in striped pyjamas, others naked, all of them covered with lice, moving like ghosts through air thick with dust and typhus germs.
The ‘sickly smell of death and decay, of corruption and filth’ filled his nostrils. There was no water, no electricity and no food apart from 5lb of rotting turnips.
Dimbleby’s radio report was so shocking that the BBC at first refused to run it and only relented when he threatened to resign.
Adding to the fury of those who came to liberate Belsen was their discovery that just a mile and a half away was a fully-equipped 1,000-bed German military hospital with a full complement of doctors and nurses and tons of unused medical supplies. Stacks of Red Cross food boxes containing meat extract and biscuits intended for the inmates lay unopened. Relief had been at hand for the suffering inmates but cruelly and callously denied.
For all the mass death that took place at Belsen, it is often forgotten that it was never an extermination camp as such. It was no Auschwitz, Treblinka or Sobibor, which, with their gas chambers for the mass industrialised killing of Jews, were far away to the east, in Nazioccupied Poland, rather than on German home soil.
It began as a prisoner-of-war camp run by the Wehrmacht, the German army, for French and Russian POWs, then in 1943 morphed into an SS-run concentration camp and work camp, holding, among others, large numbers of Jews whom the SS leader, Heinrich Himmler, kept alive to use as possible bargaining chips with the Allies.
Originally built to house 4,000 inmates, it was always overcrowded, with five times that number regularly crammed into its wooden huts and tightlypacked compounds.
A bad situation then considerably worsened, descending into chaos, when, at the beginning of 1945, the camps in the east were about to be overrun by the rapidly advancing army of the Soviet Union. Thousands of prisoners were shoved into cattle trucks and evacuated westwards, ending up at Belsen.
Within weeks the numbers there soared to more than 50,000 — all of them exhausted, starved, emaciated, filthy, sick, little more than husks of human beings.
The overwhelmed camp authorities deliberately did nothing to help them — no medical services, no sanitation, no proper disposal of the dead bodies that were left where they fell.
But it wasn’t just this appalling neglect that cost lives. Not long before the British arrived, the sadistic SS brutes who ran Belsen played one last sick trick on the starving and disease-ridden inmates barely clinging to life.
British soldiers guarding SS men after the liberation at the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.
In an unparalleled act of cynical savagery, they baked loaves of bread and laced them with glass, then distributed them in one section of the camp, where they were eagerly snatched unknowingly by those with achingly empty bellies. How could the desperate inmates resist as they eagerly swallowed down the bread as if it were manna from heaven?
Thousands of them died in terrible agony, their intestines ripped to shreds, their deaths just more needless notches to add to the millions of victims of Hitler’s genocidal death cult.
Meanwhile, trigger-happy guards from Hitler’s ally Hungary continued to patrol the miles of barbed-wire fence, taking potshots at inmates on a whim and enjoying the sight of the weak crawling their way over the even weaker to get a sip of dishwater-like soup and the slim chance of staying alive.
Everywhere, macabre scenes were playing out, as if from an unremitting horror film. A man lying among the dead and dying suddenly sat up and announced: ‘My name is Dr Weiss. I am a physician from Budapest. I’m not dead, I’m just weak.’ He then lay back down and died.
Another man grabbed what he thought was a white blanket from a dead body. Only when he shook it and swarms of lice fell off did he realise it was actually black. The huts were so cramped that some inmates shared bunks with the dead, using them as pillows, mattresses and blankets. Others chose to sleep on top of piles of corpses outside, simply to be able to stretch out.
Each day began with hundreds of corpses being dragged out of the huts and dumped in the open to rot. There were so many, the Germans in charge quickly gave up bothering to burn or bury them. Instead, they focused on destroying the many incriminating volumes of the camp’s records. And then the Germans gave up completely. They wanted nothing more to do with Belsen.
Knowing the British Second Army was closing in on the area, three officers passed through the front line to tell the British about the camp’s existence and ask them to take it over. Otherwise, they warned, they would abandon it entirely, leaving thousands of sick and starving ‘detainees’ (as they called them) on the loose, spreading deadly diseases everywhere.
General Brian Horrocks agreed a local truce and on April 15 sent Brigadier Hughes of the Royal Army Medical Corps — his top medical man — forward to reconnoitre the camp.
Hughes drove along that remote forest road to Belsen not really knowing what to expect. Once he stepped inside, he saw at a glance the magnitude of the crime against humanity perpetrated there.
And it was still going on. In front of him as they showed him round, the guards casually shot any prisoner who came too close or was seen stepping out of line to forage for something to eat. Hughes ordered the commandant, Josef Kramer (formerly commandant at Auschwitz) to stop the shooting, on pain of death, and had all the SS troops rounded up.
Then he assessed the terrible situation it was now his responsibility to deal with — the 10,000 corpses littering the ground but, most urgently, the 40,000 survivors, bewildered, barely alive.
How many could he hope to save? And where, dear God, did he begin? The 52-year-old Hughes was an exceptional character, says Bernice Lerner, author of a new book on Belsen. Compassionate, strong-willed and a quick and confident decision-maker, he was the perfect man for what lay ahead.
‘He embodied the qualities of both healer and soldier. He could not see injustice without doing something to try to put it right.’
With a Herculean task ahead of him, he sent for reinforcements, and British medical units and detachments of soldiers were diverted from the front line. They were stunned by what they saw when they got there.
Tough soldiers vomited, cursed, and cried. Some froze, like statues, unable to move. All that one of them, Michael Bentine, the comic actor (and future Goon), could ever bring himself to say about Belsen was that it was ‘the ultimate blasphemy’.
But then they swallowed down their anger and disgust and threw themselves into a major relief operation that was not only unprecedented — and with no clear guidelines on how to proceed — but also a race against time.
Food for the starving was the immediate priority. Emergency kitchens were erected at record speed and cooks boiled up a watery stew from army rations of tinned beef, pork and bacon. Disaster.
This first meal was gobbled down but proved too rich for shrunken stomachs. It killed 2,000 of the inmates before the mistake was realised and medics rushed round the camp shouting ‘Stop eating!’ to starving, bewildered men and women. Hughes called in experts in famine relief who prescribed a gruel of skimmed milk, sugar, salt and vitamins to be taken in small amounts but often. Vats of it were prepared for doling out to survivors.
They took it gratefully but many of them were distrustful, unable to throw off the habits that had kept them alive under the Germans. Though there was now plentiful food, many of them still pilfered and hoarded. A nurse in the swiftly set-up hospital found two chickens under a pillow and half a calf under a bed.
To Hughes fell the hardest decision that any doctor has to make: who to save, who to let die? He and his medical team trawled through the stinking Belsen huts with their tightly-packed bunks of skin-and-bone bodies and triaged the inmates.
Forced to play God, they put them into three categories — those likely to survive, those likely to die and those for whom immediate care would be the difference between life and death.
Those with a fighting chance if treated in time were marked on the forehead with a red cross, taken to a washing station — dubbed the ‘human laundry’ — to be sponged with soap and water and dusted with anti-louse powder, often by German nurses made to lend a hand.
Then they were evacuated to makeshift wards in a German army military barracks requisitioned for the purpose. Once a vast training camp for the Panzer crews who had led Hitler’s bid to conquer the world, its job now was to save the last of his victims.
A separate camp was commandeered for those who, though weak, were considered fit enough to recover on their own. The test was if they could clamber up the steps into a lorry. Those who passed were deemed to need simple nursing, suitable feeding and to be kept away from infection until arrangements could be made to evacuate them.
But for thousands of others — the ‘living corpses’, their bodies ravaged with typhus and dysentery — there was no hope. They would be eased as far as possible to their inevitable end.
Hughes vented much of his anger on his German captives, forcing them at gunpoint to clean up their own dirty work.
Forty SS guards who had not fled before the British arrived were put to work picking up decaying bodies with their bare hands and digging vast burial pits, jeered on by survivors.
Speed was vital to stop the spread of disease and, though it seemed disrespectful, there was no choice but to use bulldozers to shovel the dead into communal graves. Civilian mayors from nearby towns were made to watch, ‘to witness what their countrymen had perpetrated on innocent people’.
Those towns were combed for medical supplies, scouring powder, beds, bedding, towels, pillows and furniture, anything useful. Local seamstresses were instructed to stitch together hospital gowns for the sick. And when the hospitals ran out of blankets, Hughes ordered each civilian in the area to hand over a blanket of their own, or else. From their cupboards, the cowed — and, one hopes, now shamed — Germans produced 1,800 in less than 24 hours.
At the various hospital sites, medical staffing was stretched to the limit, with just two nurses for every 600 patients. Here the German nurses proved to be of no use. Not surprisingly, given what they had been through at German hands, many patients became hysterical and refused to be treated by them.
A group of 97 volunteer British medical students from London saved the day. Fresh from their studies, they were pitched in to help the thousands still lying in their huts in the main camp.
Conditions here were still horrendous, ‘a mixture of post-mortem room, sewer, sweat and pus’, as one of them put it, but they put their hearts, souls and backs into the work of saving lives and easing distress. Yet the dying went relentlessly on, with an estimated 13,000 just too far gone from malnutrition, dysentery, typhus, sores, boils and gangrene to survive.
Fifteen-year-old Rachel Genuth lay in a hospital ward with 12 beds. Every morning when she woke, she found all 11 of her fellow patients had died in the night, and were replaced with 11 more, who also died. This went on for three weeks.
It was a month after liberation before the daily death rate fell below 100 for the first time.
But finally the crisis was coming under control. Shortly after, the last inmate was removed from what had been the main camp, and the huts where so many had suffered and died were burnt to the ground.
Hughes could at last take stock and be rightly proud of what he had achieved. ‘We were a mere handful of war-weary men trying to save those who could still be saved and to allay the sea of suffering and the depths of agony.’
What now struck him was the incredible resilience of many of the 25,000 survivors. Once properly fed, they quickly put on weight, flesh and muscle restored where once there had been skin and bone. They no longer looked apathetic or frightened, and, their prison garb gone, replaced by requisitioned German clothing doled out from a storage centre nicknamed ‘Harrods’, they were coming back to life and looking to the future.
The first marriage took place — a girl from Lithuania to a man from Poland — and scores more followed, six weddings a day some times. Spirits were raised even higher when in June violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin came to play.
For all that, what they had endured and what they had lost could never be erased. Rachel Genuth had arrived at Belsen on a transport from Hungary via Auschwitz, where her family had all been murdered.
Asked if she felt lucky to have survived, she replied: ‘Lucky? I lost my parents and almost all my family, my home and my friends. On top of all that, I lost my health.’
She feared she would never feel human again. ‘We’d been treated worse than animals and dehumanised with little to hope for. I just could not imagine getting married and having a family.’
Yet, in time, both these things happened to her, and it is her daughter, Bernice Lerner, who has written her story as a Belsen victim, intertwined with that of Hughes, her liberator, in the new book, To Meet In Hell.
Like her, the vast majority of survivors were Jews from eastern Europe whose family and friends had disappeared in acrid smoke through the genocidal chimneys of Auschwitz et al.
Hughes was proud that he and his men had saved this remnant of the Jewish people from annihilation. The Jewish community was grateful to him and honoured him for the rest of his life.
Curiously and inexplicably, however, from the outset British authorities played down the fact that those freed from Belsen were mainly Jewish, preferring to categorise them by their various nationalities. Richard Dimbleby’s references to the Jews in his early radio broadcasts from Belsen were cut out by the censors.
Even at the subsequent trial of the camp’s SS leaders for war crimes, the inmates were referred to as ‘Allied nationals’ rather than by their race, even though it was their race alone that had caused their transportation, the final fling in Hitler’s drive to exterminate them.
Sad to say, there may well have been some institutional anti-Semitism going on here on the part of British officialdom. They failed to grasped the basic lesson of Belsen.
But the inhumanity of what happened there should never be forgotten.
Seventy-five years on, with our world now in a battle to fight off coronavirus, it is a sober reminder that though, as we are finding out, Nature may be cruel and uncaring, it is nothing compared with the evil that man showed he was capable of in that dreadful camp hidden away in a German forest.
To Meet In Hell:
Bergen-Belsen, The British Officer Who Liberated It And The Jewish Girl He Saved by Bernice Lerner is published by Amberley
Daily Mail Article
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