All the Hor­rors of War: A Jew­ish Girl, a British Doc­tor, and the Lib­er­a­tion of Bergen-Belsen

September 1, 2019

Fol­low­ing 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 as they move across Europe in the final year of World War II, All the Hor­rors of War tells the pow­er­ful sto­ry of their con­ver­gence in Bergen-Belsen, where the girl fights for her life and the doc­tor strug­gles to save thou­sands on the brink of death. In the ensu­ing months, as Rachel grad­u­al­ly recov­ers and as Belsen sur­vivors mourn grave loss­es and form a vibrant com­mu­ni­ty, Glyn Hugh­es expe­ri­ences a water­shed: moved by the rebirth he wit­ness­es, he becomes (against the stance of British offi­cial­dom) an advo­cate for sur­vivors with whom he forges life­long friend­ships. All the Hor­rors of War com­pels read­ers to con­sid­er the full com­plex human­i­ty of both the lib­er­a­tor and a sur­vivor for whom the author has spe­cial under­stand­ing: after ten years in and out of tuber­cu­lo­sis sana­to­ri­ums, Rachel mar­ries anoth­er sur­vivor, moves to the Unit­ed States and becomes Ruth Mer­mel­stein — the author’s mother.

Discussion Questions

Ques­tions cour­tesy of Ber­nice Lerner

  1. In what ways were any of your pre­con­ceived notions about World War II altered after read­ing All the Hor­rors of War?

  2. All the Hor­rors of War begins and ends with episodes from The Belsen Tri­al.” What was the pur­pose of giv­ing forty-five SS and guards a fair tri­al? Do you agree with those who thought the tri­al absurd” or a sac­ri­lege”? Why do you think thou­sands of con­cen­tra­tion camp guards got off scot- free”?

  3. As Rachel’s daugh­ter, the author had a unique per­spec­tive. In what ways did this shape — or reveal itself in — the book? How may the book have been dif­fer­ent had it been writ­ten by some­one else?

  4. The author describes the dev­as­tat­ing sit­u­a­tion in Bergen-Belsen at the time of its lib­er­a­tion: 10,000 unburied corpses; 55,000 war-rav­aged inmates, 25,000 of whom required imme­di­ate hos­pi­tal­iza­tion — of these, the British would be unable to save 14,000. How does a focus on indi­vid­ual lives, such as depict­ed in this book, help us begin to grasp the larg­er, unfath­omable, picture?

  5. How does the med­ical res­cue in Bergen-Belsen — where epi­demics raged, where deci­sive action was crit­i­cal and resources, lim­it­ed — inform your under­stand­ing of med­ical res­cue efforts in extreme situations?

  6. Rachel does not have a sin­gle pho­to­graph of her fam­i­ly or her­self from before the war. Hav­ing no evi­dence of a pre­vi­ous life, she has said that she felt as if she were born from a stone.” What is the impor­tance of arti­facts (includ­ing pho­tos and doc­u­ments) in your life?

  7. Rachel had impor­tant respon­si­bil­i­ties as a child, includ­ing help­ing her par­ents and keep­ing the ledger for her grandmother’s butch­er busi­ness. How do our child­hood expe­ri­ences for­ti­fy or soft­en” us? What attrib­ut­es were cul­ti­vat­ed in Rachel — and what instruc­tion did she receive — that may have helped her endure hardship?

  8. Why did Rachel’s birth­day cel­e­bra­tion with her kitchen co-work­ers in Chris­tianstadt have such a pow­er­ful effect on her? Is the mark­ing of events in cre­ative ways, in abnor­mal” times, espe­cial­ly meaningful/​memorable? If yes, why is this so?

  9. Rachel sur­vived with her sis­ter Elis­a­beth. In what ways did they dis­play their devo­tion to each oth­er? What aspects of their sib­ling rela­tion­ship seemed typ­i­cal or unusu­al to you?

  10. Through­out her incar­cer­a­tion, Rachel took risks. She begged for and stole” food, vol­un­teered for work,” and car­ried out acts of sab­o­tage. What ben­e­fit did she derive from such acts and was it worth risk­ing death or severe beat­ings in var­i­ous instances? What might you have done?

  11. What most helped Rachel in Swe­den? What impressed or sad­dened or sur­prised you about her post-war return to life?

  12. Glyn Hugh­es became an unin­tend­ed lib­er­a­tor.” Is he a hero? Did his inten­tions and/​or actions at Bergen-Belsen dif­fer from those of any­one who might have been in his posi­tion? What qual­i­ties become evi­dent in extrem­i­ty? What do you con­sid­er heroic?

  13. Sev­er­al eye­wit­ness­es recount­ed how Glyn Hugh­es broke down cry­ing when he was first shown around Bergen-Belsen. What does this say about the war-hard­ened mil­i­tary offi­cer? What does it say about the sit­u­a­tion? Was there any­thing in Hughes’s past (that we know of) that might have fore­shad­owed his empa­thy for sur­vivors? His deep feel­ings for the Jew­ish people?

  14. The author con­nects Glyn Hughes’s research on the treat­ment of sick and dying patients — decades after the war — to his knowl­edge of Bergen-Belsen, where he wit­nessed thou­sands of ago­niz­ing deaths, about which he could do noth­ing. Is this con­nec­tion plau­si­ble? How may lat­er pur­suits redeem a past that was in some way dif­fi­cult or troubled?

  15. Much of Lerner’s nar­ra­tive is devot­ed to Sec­ond Army bat­tles. What chal­lenges and advan­tages did Hugh­es have in his role as Deputy Direc­tor of Med­ical Ser­vices — first of 8 Corps, then of the entire British Sec­ond Army? What impressed or sur­prised you most about the Allied effort? About defend­ers of Hitler’s mur­der­ous regime?

  16. Were you able to relate to any aspects of either Rachel’s or Hughes’s expe­ri­ences? What anec­dote about the sur­vivor or the med­ical offi­cer will you most like­ly remem­ber? What lessons may their lives offer for those who will nev­er endure or wit­ness the hor­rors of war?