In 1945, the first liberations began in the East, in January, when 800 Jews of Chestowa, Poland, all that remained of a prewar population of 28,500, were liberated by Soviet troops. The 870 remaining Jews of Lodz were also liberated.
The Nazi SS responded
to Soviet victories with increased gassing of inmates and mass evacuations
of camps such as Auschwitz in Poland. Prisoners walked in the snow or
traveled in unheated boxcars. The sick and the injured were killed. Those
that couldn't keep pace on the forced evacuations were shot on the road.
Many prisoners died in the forced evacuations. Inmates were sent to camps
already overflowing with prisoners, such as Bergen Belsen, where a typhus
epidemic resulted, killing many prisoners, including Anne Frank, age 15,
less than one month before the camp liberation.
On April 4-5, Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, was the first camp on German soil to be liberated, by advance units of the 4th Armored and 89th Infantry Divisions. Generals Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton visited Ohrdruf after liberation. The sights and smells of Ohrdruf made Patton physically ill. Eisenhower ordered every able-bodied soldier not on the front lines to tour Ohrdruf, saying,
On April 11, prisoners in Buchenwald revolted to prevent a forced evacuation of the camp. When the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions arrived, they found the camp already liberated by the highly-organized inmate troops, who had also taken 150 SS troops hostage. Bergen Belsen was liberated on April 15 by British troops. SS troops continued to evacuate camps in advance of the allied forces, including Sachsenhausen, Flossenburg and Neuengamme. In late April, the last gassings of mostly sick inmates occurred in Ravensbrück and Mauthausen camps. Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945.
Ravensbrück Camp was liberated on April 30, 1945, the day that Adolf Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun committed suicide. Camps and subcamps continued to be liberated the first weeks of May. Victory in Europe day was proclaimed on May 8, 1945. The Stutthof concentration camp was liberated by the Soviets on May 10.
liberators, ordinary soldiers fighting in the vicinity of each camp, were
mostly unprepared for what they found. The camp smell-body waste, partially
incinerated bodies, the smell of death and dying--was overwhelming. Fred
Mercer, a liberator of Buchenwald, described it thus:
"I don't know whether you have smelled the odor of human being, but it is a whole lot different from an animal. It's a very pungent, tangy odor. In other words, to be perfectly blunt, it opened your sinuses is about what it amounted to." (5)
Hunger was another pressing issue. Emaciated inmates asked for food, but many were so ill that too much food at once or the wrong kind of food resulted in death. At the liberation of Dachau, as described by Jesse Lafoon,
Many inmates found that the day of liberation, the day that loomed so large in hopes and dreams, brought a curious emptiness of its own. As Henry Wermeuth, an Auschwitz survivor, described liberation day,
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