By Sheldon Goldberg, Ph.D.
Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis built more than 20,000 transit, slave labor, and extermination camps throughout Germany and conquered territories. Millions of men, women, and children were imprisoned, and many millions died in them in cruel and inhuman ways. As one American Jewish liberator said, they were stripped “of the dignity of death.”
In “The Liberation of the Camps,” Professor Dan Stone presents a well-documented, but often heart-breaking rendering of what he called the “process of liberation” and the aftermath. Stone presents the reader with five chapters, covering the liberation by the Red Army, by the Western Allies, the chaos that followed the initial liberation, life in the Displaced Persons Camps, and the issues faced by primarily Jewish survivors as they sought to transition into a new life.
One question that has been asked by other reviewers is how does one define liberation? Is it a joyous end to some form of incarceration or occupation? A time for flag waving and parades? Or is it, as in the case of many of those liberated from the concentration camps, a moment of shame for having survived while so many others did not; a moment of loneliness because everyone they knew and loved were murdered; or of wondering where they go now that their life and home no longer exists? For many, the only liberation granted in the days and weeks that followed was death. Being free was not the end of the trauma for many.
Stone writes that liberation was a complex process, and the events that followed were “fundamental to the unfolding of the post-war years in Europe, to the geopolitics of the Cold War” as well as the future of the British Empire as it impacted events in Palestine and the Middle East. These events and subsequent Allied policies also drove many survivors to reject Europe as a home, insisting that only Palestine could provide them a future.
The Red Army was the first to liberate ghettos and death camps in Eastern Europe. However, Stone fails to differentiate between labor camps and extermination camps. Several of the camps, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka were demolished by the SS, even though evidence of what had taken place there remained. The Soviets took care of the survivors for a short time, but primarily used them for propaganda purposes. “Jews were mentioned only in passing” Stone writes, as they had no ideological value. The defeat of the Nazis was simply a victory for international working-class anti-fascism. Several Soviet reporters who attempted to write the truth had their works suppressed and/or destroyed.
While liberation was not an allied goal, their discovery was mostly accidental. French troops were the first of the Western Allies to discover a concentration camp – Natzweiler-Stuthof – in Alsace in November of 1944. It had a small gas chamber but appeared to be an aberration. That perception changed when the Americans found Ordruf in April of 1945. The troops found thousands of corpses everywhere. Despite being surrounded by death since Normandy, the Americans were totally unprepared for what they found. General Eisenhower, who visited the camp a week later, implored London and Washington to take the reports coming out of Germany seriously. As Rafael Medoff, author of “The Jews Should Keep Quiet,” and others have written, London and Washington knew as early as 1942 that Jews were being murdered in the camps.
Within days of discovering Ordruf, many more camps in Germany and Austria were liberated by American, British, and Canadian troops. The liberation of those camps was well documented, but this was primarily due to the much larger numbers of survivors freed and those who had arrived at these camps following forced death marches from camps in the east as the Nazis fled the Soviet advances. Stone does not hide the fact that many SS officers and camp guards who were captured in the camps were then killed by American forces who were appalled by what they had found. The sights, sounds, smells, and emotions experienced by the liberating soldiers stayed with them for many years afterward.
Stone goes to lengths to describe the misunderstandings that took place between the various liberating militaries, the rescue/relief agencies that came to help, and the liberated. Additionally, he describes the unpreparedness of some agencies to deal with what confronted them after their arrival, and the bureaucracy they had to deal with given the war was still ongoing. He also describes the lack of understanding among the military authorities who looked upon the Jewish survivors as no different than the other displaced persons they were now responsible for. This led to animosity between the Jewish survivors and the Allies who were now viewed as their jailers. Stone describes the efforts of the Jewish survivors to move forward with their lives and organize themselves. Having nowhere else to go, they created sports clubs, theater clubs, orchestras, newspapers, schools for children, celebrated marriages and births, and developed groups designed to be kibbutzniks.
Stone also introduces the role of the burgeoning Cold War which made anti-Communism a higher priority than the needs of Holocaust survivors and prevented liberated Jewish survivors from immigrating to Palestine in order to keep the British relationships with the Arabs intact. The book does not discuss the failure of the then anti-Semitic U.S. State Department and the anti-immigration Congress to fill unused German and Austrian immigration quotas which would have allowed Jews to enter the U.S. during and after the war, possibly saving thousands of lives. That said, “The Liberation of the Camps” puts a different perspective on the current understanding of liberation, what it meant to those who were liberated, and how they fared afterward. It sheds a sliver of light on a time that still affects those who lived through it and their families.
Volume 75. Number 3. 2021