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 January 27, the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau. 1,200 ill prisoners in Auschwitz, 5,800 prisoners in Birkenau (4,000 of whom were women) and 600 sick inmates in Monowitz were liberated. Throughout February and March, the Soviet Army continued to liberate camps in the east. The Nazis continued to gas prisoners or transport them under terrible conditions to camps in the west, such as Bergen Belsen and Ravensbrück.

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,

"We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against." (4)

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.

The 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,

"We tried to do everything we possibly could for them…They went into this commissary which was for the Germans, I'm satisfied. They were, like I say, milling around all over…The thing that impressed me was that the floor was littered with little cigars. They weren't after cigars; they went for the food that was there. The Germans had cheeses in toothpaste tubes-like, fine cheeses, and other crackers and condiments and food. They trampled the cigars all over the floor, and when they would pick up one of these, they'd heave it aside. They were looking for food. They couldn't care less about smoking one of the things."

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,

"I was lying wrapped in my blanket in the Block. Someone else was looking out the window, and I heard him say in Yiddish, 'An American soldier.' I didn't get up. I didn't move. I lay there. The feeling cannot be described. You would have to make up a new word. 'I've done it. I've made it.' But then I thought: who has survived? I, alone. My father had just died. My sister and my mother were gone. I covered my head and wept. That was the moment of my liberation."

Continue on to The Displaced Person