On the warm and misty afternoon of 15 April 1945, Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Second Army, followed the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment into Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in northwest Germany.
After passing through the main gate, he ordered German escorts to take his reconnaissance party to check on food and water supplies, the availability of electricity and water, and to determine the method of administration and “head count.” He would explore the medical conditions and facilities. His men were to report back to him in one hour.
What his men discovered were scenes of utter horror: thousands suffering from starvation, decomposing human remains and a site devoid of grass, food and sanitation.
Here’s the harrowing story of Glyn Hughes’ efforts to liberate, and rehabilitate, the survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Inside the camp
The water supply had been cut and the electricity was down. Out of five cookhouses, four were completely bare, one contained five pounds of rotten turnips. There was not a blade of grass. The daylight was clouded over by a “heavy acrid haze” owing to “skeletal humans from hell” burning what infected and sodden materials they could scrounge.
Thousands – some stumbling, some hanging onto the ten-foot barbed-wire fences for support, some lying and dying where they had fallen – needed food and water, “as quick as possible, if not sooner.”
Five months later, Hughes stood at attention in a makeshift courtroom in the outskirts of Lüneburg, 48 miles north of Bergen-Belsen. As the first witness at the first trial to apply international law to war crimes, he assumed a solemn, forthright, tone.
45 defendants, Nazi functionaries who had served in Bergen-Belsen or in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, sat in a 3-tiered dock. The military court’s British officers and judge advocate would bend over backward to allow them to mount their defense.
Hughes described the layout of Camp One, the ‘Horror Camp’, indicating the numbers of inmates found in each of five compounds. Owing to the lack of food and water, everyone was suffering from starvation and gastroenteritis. With no lavatory facilities, “the compounds were absolutely one mass of human excreta.”
Without sanitation, “conditions were absolutely suitable for disease,” of which there was every form, including typhus and tuberculosis. Piles of corpses of various sizes were lying all over the camp and dead were found too in overcrowded huts, among the living.
More than half of 41,000 Camp One inmates required immediate hospitalization; despite all efforts, at least 13,000 died. Camp Two, located on the edge of Wehrmacht barracks, contained 15,000 to 17,000 recent male arrivals. Though emaciated, they had not been exposed to typhus.
Beneath the eloquent and composed demeanour of the first witness was a man of great heart. Hughes’ leadership in the days and weeks after the liberation had been appreciated by hundreds of victims of Hitler’s scourge, as well as by those with whom he worked.
Hughes brought the following qualities of note to the unprecedented situation.
Hardened soldiers and officers wept, vomited, and cursed upon confronting the “never-imagined depth of human depravity.” Feeling hopeless, wondering how he would “even begin to set in motion the machinery which might save as many lives as possible,” Hughes, from the outset, vowed to find a way.
He called for help from experts and pressed into service any able assistants, including local German nurses. With an initially small group of British army personnel, he arrived at a plan of triage that would “give the best chance of survival to the greatest number.”
Readiness to break rules
Hughes did not wait for approval from Second Army Headquarters. Arguing that “the dictates of humanity required quick action,” he diverted resources and personnel, despite competing needs – battles were raging throughout the region.
Eventually, more than 37 units of the British Second Army, as well as units from other Allied armies, volunteer organizations, and physicians from France, Belgium, Poland, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia, were involved in rescue efforts at Bergen-Belsen.
At evening meetings, Hughes weighed in on seemingly insurmountable problems. When the rescuers ran out of blankets to wrap around inmates stripped of lice-infested clothing, it seemed that evacuation from the Horror Camp to the hospital might be delayed.
Hughes directed a Lieutenant Colonel to approach the Bürgermeister (mayor) of Celle, the nearest town, demanding (as per his orders) that each civilian hand in one blanket by the next day. By the following night, the army had 1,800 blankets.
What to do with the 10,000 who had died in March and April, who lay about the camp in all stages of decomposition? With the impending heat of summer came the threat of cholera, so Hughes ordered the immediate burial of the dead in mass graves.
Two Jewish chaplains, deeply disturbed by the “helter skelter” casting of emaciated bodies into the pits, beseeched Hughes: was there not a more respectful way? Hughes promised to allow them to say prayers at the sites and made special appointments of chaplains and relief groups to assist. He personally, ever after, expressed reverence for the Belsen martyrs.
On his second day in the camp, while trying to grasp the extent of the crime, Hughes met a desperate doctor attending the birth of the first free child in Bergen-Belsen. The patient was in agony: blood gushed from the womb of her “typhus-infected, lice-ridden” body.
Running out of the barracks, Dr. Gisella Perl had grabbed Hughes’ sleeve with her filthy hands. She begged him for water and disinfectant. Within a half-hour, she got what she needed to perform the operation. Moved to tears, Hughes later described his encounter with the gynecologist who did “wonderful work… under appalling conditions.”
Noting Hughes’ gentleness with patients, survivors named the 13,000-bed complex in the Bergen-Hohne area (less than one mile from the concentration camp) the Glyn Hughes Hospital.
Receptivity to unfolding phenomena
It had seemed a miracle to the rescuers that an emaciated person who could barely move a muscle would weeks later begin to look human again, regaining the ability to stand, walk and display her true personality. Once former skeletons shed their dirty rags and obtained German garments from the newly established clothing center, they carried themselves differently.
The revolutionary effect of the emergency work was seen too in survivors who no longer appeared apathetic or frightened, who smiled at and began talking to their aides.
Unlike the pessimistic army psychiatrist who came to assess the situation, Hughes believed that “a large proportion” would again become “reasonable citizens.” He marveled at the constructive activities of still-grieving survivors.
The camp’s 30,000 survivors (including 13,000 in the hospital), began organizing themselves into what would become a thriving community. Eager to form families, they averaged 6 weddings a day for the rest of the year. Hughes received a special invitation to the first wedding: a Lithuanian girl and a Polish man stood under a gold-and-red chuppah (canopy) held up by 4 other survivors. After a feast, 100 guests – including British officers, Red Cross volunteers and survivors of various nationalities – danced to a military band.
That the Second Army had saved a remnant of the Jewish people from annihilation was a source of pride for Hughes. He considered the recovery of survivors and the formation of a self-governing community in Bergen-Belsen a “glorious moment in Jewish history”.
Bernice Lerner is the author of To Meet in Hell: Bergen-Belsen, the British Officer Who Liberated It, and the Jewish Girl He Saved and other writings on the Holocaust and on virtue ethics. She is the former dean of adult learning at Hebrew College, former lecturer on the Holocaust at Boston University, and a senior scholar at Boston University’s Center for Character and Social Responsibility.