Auschwitz Camp II Birkenau - Page 5 (Liberation)

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     1 : Auschwitz Introduction
     2 : Auschwitz I
     3 : Auschwitz II Birkenau
     4 : Aerial Photograph
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Ruins of Crematorium II at Birkenau photographed after liberation (above).

(Photo with acknowledgement to USHMM Photo Archives)

Acknowledgement : The following report has been edited from a Wikipedia entry :

In November 1944, with the Soviet Red Army approaching through Poland, Himmler ordered gassing operations to cease across the Reich. Crematoria II, III, IV and V were dismantled, while Crematorium I was transformed into an air raid shelter.

The Sonderkommando were ordered to remove other evidence of the killings, including the mass graves. The SS destroyed written records, and in the final week before the camp's liberation, burned or detonated many of its buildings (photograph above). Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps in January 1945 and charged camp commanders with "making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy."

On 17 January 1945, 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were evacuated under guard and largely on foot; thousands of them died in the subsequent death march west. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945 (see below).

Those too weak or sick to walk (about 7,500 prisoners) were left behind. Six hundred of them died or were murdered before the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the camp on January 27. Among the items found by the Russians were 370,000 men's suits, 837,000 women's garments, and 7.7 tonnes of human hair.

The camp's liberation received little press attention at the time which has been attributed to three factors: the previous discovery of similar crimes at Majdanek concentration camp, competing news from the Allied summit at Yalta, and the Soviet Union's interest, for propaganda purposes, in minimizing attention to Jewish suffering.

Prisoners of Auschwitz greet their liberators (left).

(Still photograph from the Soviet Film of the liberation of Auschwitz, taken by the film unit of the First Ukrainian Front and shot over a period of several months beginning on 27 January 1945 by Alexander Voronzow and others in his group)

Another still photograph (right) from the Soviet Film described above. It shows child survivors of Auschwitz wearing adult-size prisoner jackets standing behind a barbed wire fence.

(Photograph with acknowledgement to Polish Central State Archive of Film, Photo and Phonographic Documents)

Author's Comment : The prisoners shown above and right appear to be well nourished. The following reasons come to mind:

1) The people shown were in good health at the time of liberation.

2) The pictures were taken some time after the liberation during which time the prisoners were properly fed.

3) The people were specially chosen by the Russians to minimize attention to Jewish suffering (as mentioned above).

Male survivors seen after liberation (left). Although this picture appeared on an Auschwitz website it was actually taken in Buchenwald when US forces liberated that camp in April 1945.
The emaciated state of prisoners when liberated was to be seen in all the camps and this picture captures a scene similar to that which would have greeted the Russian Army in Auschwitz in January 1945.

(Photograph with acknowledgement to US Defense Visual information Center)

Women in the barracks of the newly liberated Auschwitz concentration camp.

(Photograph with acknowledgement to Poland National Archives)

Acknowledgement : Much of the following report has been edited from a Wikipedia entry :

As mentioned above, on 17 January 1945, 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were evacuated under guard and largely on foot. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.

Bergen-Belsen (or Belsen) was a Nazi concentration camp near Celle in what is today Lower Saxony in north western Germany.

It was originally established as a prisoner of war camp but in 1943 parts of it became a concentration camp. Initially this was an 'exchange camp' where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps.

From 1941 to 1945 almost 20,000 Russian prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there, with up to 35,000 of them dying of typhus in the first few months of 1945 shortly before and after the liberation.

The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945 by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered around 53,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill. About 13,000 corpses were lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name 'Belsen' synonymous with Nazi crimes in general in Western countries in the immediate post 1945 liberation period. In April 1943, a part of the Bergen-Belsen camp was taken over by the SS Economic-Administration Main Office and became part of the concentration camp system run by the SS Schutzstaffel.

Having initially been designated a Zivilinterniertenlager ('civilian internment camp') in June 1943 it was redesignated Aufenthaltslager ('holding camp') to avoid the Geneva Convention stipulation that the facility must be open to inspection by international committees.

The 'holding camp' was for Jews who were intended to be exchanged for German civilians interned in other countries - or merely for hard currency. Between the summer of 1943 and December 1944 at least 14,600 Jews, including 2,750 children and minors, were transported to the Bergen-Belsen 'holding' camp.

Inmates were made to work and, in general, the prisoners of this part of the camp were treated less harshly than some other classes of Bergen-Belsen prisoner due to their perceived potential exchange value. However, only around 2,560 Jewish prisoners were ever actually released from Bergen-Belsen and allowed to leave Germany.

In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ('recovery camp') where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. Supposedly, they were in Belsen to recover and then to return to their original camps, and to resume work. However, a large number of them actually died of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.

As eastern concentration camps such as Auschwitz were evacuated before the advance of the Red Army at least 85,000 people were transported in cattle cars or marched to Bergen-Belsen. In July 1944 there were just 7,300 prisoners in Belsen but by December 1944 the number had increased to 15,000 and by February 1945 it had risen to 22,000. However, it then soared to around 60,000 by April 15, 1945.

The overcrowding in a camp originally designed to hold about 10,000 inmates led to a vast increase in deaths from disease: particularly typhus, as well as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, dysentery and malnutrition. At this point the special status of the exchange prisoners no longer applied and all inmates were subject to starvation and epidemics.

There were no gas chambers at Bergen-Belsen, since the mass killings took place in the camps further east. Nevertheless, an estimated 50,000 Jews, Czechs, Poles, anti-Nazi Christians, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) died in the camp.

When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found thousands of unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) at least 53,000 inmates most of whom were acutely sick and starving.

The scenes that greeted British troops were described (in this edited version) by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby who accompanied them:

"Here, over an acre of ground, lay dead and dying people. The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them.

"Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live.

"A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

"This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life."

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