Bernice Lerner is the author of two Holocaust-related books. Her first book, The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivors' Lives, covers the stories of seven Holocaust survivors who came to the United States from several different countries, ranging in ages from eight to their early 20s. They had suffered in Europe, had missed years of schooling, and did not know English. In spite of these obstacles, these people rose to the pinnacles of their careers in academia. Not only that, but they became compassionate and thoughtful people who fought for others. Bernice, a scholar herself, was fascinated and inspired by the fact that these Holocaust survivors had been able, despite incredible disadvantages, to become so successful and scholarly in a new country.
Her second book, All The Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, A British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belson, pictured below, approaches an aspect of the Holocaust in a unique manner. Bernice describes it as a "dual biography." Juxtaposed with her mother Rachel's survival story (she is the "Jewish girl" in the title) as an inmate in Bergen-Belsen is the story of the deputy director of medical services for the British Second Army, Brigadier Hugh Llewelyn Llyn Hughes. Faced with the daunting responsibility of saving thousands of people on the brink of death in Bergen-Belsen after liberation, this man became a hero to survivors. 25,000 of them were in need of medical care, 60,000 were interned at Bergen-Belsen, and 10,00 unburied, putrefying corpses were lying all over the grounds. Bernice's mother and Dr. Hughes never met but Hughes's work on behalf of Jewish refugees helped save Rachel's life.
The idea of presenting two protagonists places the events of the times in a larger context. The two came from different places yet their paths converged. One was a victim, struggling to live after enduring a series of horrors, and the other a liberator, doing all he could to save lives. Bernice was not only interested in her mother's story but in Hughes's as well, She wondered what was the perspective of someone in charge of liberation and how was he affected by seeing so much death. His work and his research on how people are treated at the end of their lives became the inspiration for the Hospice movement. His compassion and dedication to his difficult mission made him a hero to survivors and later a friend to Israel and the Jewish people.
Bernice threw herself into the research for this book, meeting Hughes's relatives and friends (he died in 1973) and digging through archives. The result is an exhaustive and unusual record of the Holocaust from two points of view -- that of a teenager liberated at 15 and that of a British military doctor in charge of thousands of ill refugees. In her writings about the Holocaust, which include articles and lectures as well as her books, Bernice hopes to challenge what she calls "failure of the moral imagination."
My mother is from Sighet, Transylvania (Romania when she was growing up and today; Hungary during the war) and my father is from Cinadievo, a village near Mukachevo (Czechoslovakia when he was growing up; Hungary during the war; now in Ukraine).
I knew that my parents were European-born for as long as I can remember. In my early teenage years, I learned that they had survived World War II. I don’t think I learned the word “Holocaust” until I was maybe sixteen or seventeen.
My childhood was colored—literally flavored (by my mother’s cooking of both Hungarian and Swedish dishes)—by the fact that my parents were not American born. I was captivated by their adventure-filled stories about faraway places. My father spoke of his youth in Czechoslovakia—about how hard and how sweet life was. My mother shared stories from both before and after the war—she had lived in Sweden for ten years before moving to the United States. Both of my parents had had a lot of responsibilities as children. They came from large, loving families that were part of vibrant, Jewish communities.
I was blessed to have survivor aunts, uncles, and cousins. (I have ten first cousins—all children of survivors.) Some of my cousins had cousins unrelated to me, who I got to know. There were some children in my (elementary) Hebrew day school who were children of survivors. There was one other daughter of survivors in my public high school; we became good friends before we even knew about each other’s parents.
I of course knew that my aunts and uncles were, like my parents, from Europe. During our summertime Sunday barbeques, they would sing Hungarian songs and speak in Hungarian and Yiddish. I did not realize that neighbors were observing us; they were curious about the “foreigners” on their block.
In elementary school I was not aware that my classmates’ parents were survivors. Only later did I realize this, as our parents had become friends.
With regard to my high school friend, a nice connection developed between our parents. My father never worried when I slept over her house after parties (he would not stay up waiting for me); her parents liked that she hung out with me (mostly because I was strait-laced). I think there was a level of trust there. Years later we shared stories about our parents and their survival.
I don’t think I felt different from other kids growing up. But it was interesting going to the homes of friends from different backgrounds.
My parents openly discussed their experiences. They did not ever deny or dismiss them. They answered all my questions but had a sense of what was appropriate to share with me at various stages. It was not until I was a teenager that my mother told me about what she endured in Auschwitz and in Bergen-Belsen.
Brigadier Hugh Llewelyn Llyn Hughes, who led the rescue work at
Bergen-Belsen, at times acting according to his conscience instead of
I always wanted to hear their stories and memories. I have been having regular conversations with my mother all my life. Her ability to recall and share details has enabled me to write All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, a British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020). I am now working on a book about my father, and wish I had asked him more questions when I had the opportunity to do so. (He died in 2011 after having suffered with Alzheimer’s for some years.) Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by their stories.
My feelings about their experiences changed as I got older -- particularly when I was writing about my mother. She is such a positive person; she would tend to emphasize certain parts of her past more than others. As I got deeper and deeper into her life story, I realized how much her parents depended on her (she was the second of six children) and then how difficult it was being orphaned and very sick after the war—she was in and out of tuberculosis sanitariums for ten years.
As I now begin to plumb aspects of my father’s story, I am coming to new realizations about him as well. He escaped seven months before the war’s end and had to evade capture by the Hungarians, the Russians, and the Germans. How did he do that?
I was fortunate to have two loving, caring, and hardworking parents. They were warm; they were loved by my friends and by their community. They were exemplars of practical wisdom and moral conduct. I gained from them the knowledge that really terrible things could happen—and are still happening—in this world. We listened to the news with a heightened sensitivity to the plight of suffering others.
Because I was American-born and they were not familiar with this culture or our education system, I’ve had to make my own way. Like many other immigrant children, I was the first generation to go to college. Everything I’ve accomplished was due to my own efforts. The same could be said of them. My father came to this country with nothing. Together with my mother, he built a business and planned for their future.
I don’t think I was scarred by being a 2G. I am terribly sad that all four of my grandparents were murdered. And that two of my uncles and four of my aunts (all children at the time of the war) were killed in Auschwitz-Birkenau. And that my mother’s aunts, uncles, and cousins were killed—some in the first mass massacre of the war in Kamenets-Podolsk. What does one do with this knowledge?
I feel motivated to understand and to tell—I’ve spent many years studying, teaching, and writing about the Holocaust, and about virtue ethics. In no way have I suffered—I’ve always had nutritious food and good medical care and all the comforts of home. I have inherited my parents’ patriotism—I appreciate life in the United States, a land of opportunity.
As an adult child of survivors, when I hear people say they have “Holocaust fatigue” or can’t bear to see a film or read about the Holocaust, I on one level get it. Maybe they must protect themselves. But maybe their attitude reflects a failure of the moral imagination, particularly if they have the time and opportunity to learn a true story. What might the victims have felt if they knew that their existence and what happened to them would not matter?
As a daughter of survivors, the way I read the newspaper, watch the news, and study history often involves trying to “walk in the other’s moccasins,” to imagine the plight of those subjected to dehumanization, extreme suffering, or murderous action.
I believe that there are as many ways of coming out of the experience of the Holocaust as there are survivors, and that 2Gs and 3Gs likewise have individual proclivities and dispositions. I have more in common with my friends who are non-2Gs than with many 2Gs that I know. Having said this, I do find that being a 2G is often a touchstone. When I meet someone new who is also a 2G, the first question is usually, “Where are your parents from?” I think we naturally look for those points of commonality. (I am very nosy. If given an opening, I will also ask where their parents were during the war and where and when they were liberated.)
I am not a psychologist, but I think there is something to the concept of "inherited trauma." At least in my case. I (sometimes unduly) worry about loved ones and it doesn’t take much for me to go in my head to dark places.
A pivotal moment for me was when I realized that I ought to write my mother’s story. Earlier, in 2004, I published a book about seven Holocaust survivors who became scholars in their post-war lives. I was earning a doctorate in education, and I was interested in learning how those who missed years of schooling, who were subjected to grave depredations, went on to achieve pinnacles of academic success. My protagonists—whose fascinating and instructive lives I will forever carry—were all unrelated to me.
Someone then suggested that I write about my mother. And now I am beginning to research my father’s life. I realized that if I don’t capture their stories, they will be forever lost. (Though thankfully they did give videotaped testimonies. Because of that, I can relay more—including little known or understood contexts they navigated—in my writing.) I could be doing other things with the next chapter of my life, but this mission has become pretty important.
I am deeply concerned with others’ perceptions of the Holocaust. It is incredible to me that there is so much ignorance and denial while survivors still walk this earth. I am interested in Holocaust education and know that in some places it is done well, but that there are no assurances. Many Holocaust education organizations are making valiant efforts. I won’t get into the issues I see—I am simply grateful for whatever can be done to bring Holocaust education, at whatever level, into every high school.
I am proud of my mother, who is a speaker for the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County, NY. To date, she has spoken to more than 250 groups.
Bernice's mother, Ruth Mermelstein
I am in a sense engaged in Holocaust education—giving interviews and author’s talks in various venues and writing articles pertaining to the (vast) subject. I was invited to give a keynote lecture at the 52nd annual Scholars’ Conference on the Holocaust and the Churches at the University of Texas in March, an event to which I am looking very much forward.
Has my parenting been influenced by being a 2G? Oh my. You would have to ask my children! I think my husband may have provided some balance as they were growing up—he (not a 2G) was never as worried as I (quietly) was. My son and my daughter are now grown and married, and we’ve been blessed with five adorable grandchildren. Thankfully, my mother is alive to know them, to watch them grow. Had she not by sheer will pulled through in Bergen-Belsen at the age of 15, they would not be here.
I invite you to visit my website—www.bernicelerner.com—for information about my recent book, other of my writings, and links to talks I’ve given.