Author interviewHughes was a humanitarian known as a British Oskar Schindler

75 years ago this week, ‘typhus fever’ met its match at Bergen-Belsen

In ‘All the Horrors of War,’ a survivor’s daughter describes how H. L. Glyn Hughes, first Allied Medical Officer to enter Nazi ‘horror camp,’ strived to save lives after liberation

Ceremonial burning of last hut at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, 1945 (public domain)
Ceremonial burning of last hut at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, 1945 (public domain)

BERGEN-BELSEN, Germany — Within days of becoming the first Allied Medical Officer to enter the so-called “horror camp” of Bergen-Belsen, Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes set about creating the largest hospital in Europe.

In the course of fighting typhus and starvation at Bergen-Belsen, the British officer began using an unusual set of parameters in making his plans: death rates, alongside numbers of mass graves and typhus-infected barracks. A highly decorated officer from World War I, Hughes was forced to make decisions about life and death on a daily basis.

In her new book, “All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen,” author Bernice Lerner juxtaposes the feats orchestrated by Hughes with the plight of her own mother, one of the inmates liberated by the officer.

When 15-year old Rachel Genuth — Lerner’s mother — was sent to Bergen-Belsen from Auschwitz, Belsen was entering its most lethal phase. A concentration camp built for 4,000 prisoners was swelling to 60,000 victims, most of them Jews.

By the start of spring 1945, thousands of corpses were piled up around the camp. Anne and Margot Frank were among the 35,000 victims who perished during the camp’s last winter, when typhus finished what the camp’s appalling hygienic conditions started.

“Rachel would learn that when kapos turned up with cans of dishwater-like soup, only those inmates strong enough to fetch it had some,” wrote Lerner. “Many would push and step on the weak and sick; those who rushed the line could be beaten to death.”

Bernice Lerner’s ‘All the Horrors of War,’ published in 2020 (courtesy)

Early in 1945, a transport of prisoners introduced typhus into the camp. Characterized by purple rashes, headaches, and delirium, typhus is most lethal during famines and wartime. Inmates at Bergen-Belsen were easy prey for so-called “typhus fever.”

When Hughes arrived with the British army, he was forced to make immediate decisions about triage. In addition to the corpses stacked everywhere, there were 60,000 survivors who needed urgent medical attention.

“His highly focused plan involved placing inmates into one of three categories,” wrote Lerner. “Those likely to survive, those likely to die, and those for whom immediate care would mean the difference between life and death.”

Assembly-line medicine

Assisted by army staff and 97 British medical students, Hughes coped with hundreds of daily fatalities well past the camp’s April 15 liberation. He told his medical officers to enter each hut and make “a quick determination,” wrote Lerner.

His highly focused plan involved placing inmates into one of three categories: Those likely to survive, those likely to die, and those for whom immediate care would mean the difference between life and death

“Would the individual stand a better chance of surviving if evacuated to receive rudimentary care? Rescue efforts sprang from this principle,” wrote Lerner, a senior scholar at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility.

Shortly after liberation at Bergen-Belsen in Germany (public domain)

Lerner’s mother watched friends die of typhus and was beaten to near-death by other inmates in her barracks. She also contracted tuberculosis, an illness that would affect her health for decades.

“Rachel would learn the macabre routine: each morning open trucks would come through the women’s camp to collect corpses — stripped of their clothes and anything else on them — that inmates had removed from the barracks and piled up outside,” wrote Lerner. “The stiff bodies were dumped in corners of the camp.”

‘Something to be done for them’

Although Lerner’s mother never met Hughes, she learned about him — and details surrounding her rescue — through her daughter’s research.

During her decade of working on the book, Lerner was able to ask her mother, now 90, about numerous details. The author was able to paint a detailed portrait of her mother’s family life before the war, as well as track what happened to those relatives.

Author Bernice Lerner (courtesy)

Across the Atlantic, Lerner spoke with people who knew Hughes before his death in 1973. By all accounts, Hughes was a great humanitarian who became known as a British “Oskar Schindler” for his heroic efforts at Bergen-Belsen.

When asked about the strategies applied by Hughes to end the plague at Bergen-Belsen, Lerner pointed to the enlistment of the British military.

“The military is serious and they work very fast,” said Lerner. “They can’t get in fast enough or have enough man-power when there is a situation like Hughes faced.”

In setting up what became Europe’s largest hospital, Hughes oversaw the care of 13,000 former inmates from among the survivors. “He was racing against time,” said Lerner.

Among the decisive actions taken by Hughes, the army took control of a hospital near the camp and emptied its German patients to make room for camp victims. He also authorized “tours” of Bergen-Belsen for German leaders from the region, hundreds of whom were forced to witness what had been done in their name.

Field of symbolic gravestones at Bergen-Belsen, Germany, November 28, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

“Belsen was unique in its vile treatment of human beings,” said Hughes after the war. “Nothing like it had happened before in the history of mankind. The victims of this infamous behavior have been reduced to a condition of subhuman existence, and there 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.”

Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes (public domain)

Working “methodically and factory-style,” said Lerner, Hughes eliminated the hold of typhus and other diseases on the camp. DDT power was sprayed into the corners of every garment while resources were stretched to the limit.

“Then he burned down the entire place,” said Lerner.

“Hughes gave the order,” wrote Lerner. “Army photographers captured the image of Hut 47, the effigy of Hitler ablaze, and [Hughes] conferring with fellow officers against a backdrop of smoke. A hoisted Union Jack now flew over the dramatic scene.”

An ongoing crusade

In his post-war career, Hughes continued to fight for people’s lives and dignity. After visiting hundreds of hospitals and nursing homes, he wrote the influential report, “Peace at the Last: A Survey of Terminal Care in the United Kingdom.”

In his report to the government, Hughes bemoaned the lack of resources available for the care of sick and elderly populations. He urged a significant increase in funding for systems traditionally reliant on religious groups and volunteers, helping to create the National Health Service along the way.

Mass grave for some of the 10,000 victims whose corpses had yet to be buried at the time of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation, November 28, 2019 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

During the last phase of their lives, wrote Hughes, terminally ill patients need to feel “a sense of security, that they are not alone, that there is someone to care for them and something to be done for them.”

According to Lerner, “Hughes really had empathy, he saw [the victims] as human beings.” The author added that not all British officers were known for their humanitarian impulses toward Holocaust survivors.

“Hughes regarded each survivor of Bergen-Belsen as one he personally saved,” wrote Lerner. “Unable to prevent thousands of people from dying as no person should be, he embraced  an opportunity that came fifteen years after the liberation — he would prescribe humane treatment for those in their final days.”

Iconic photo of a Bergen-Belsen victim taken after liberation, April 1945 (public domain)

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