Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Liberation Was Only the Beginning

LOOKING BACK AT WWII. A Washington, D.C., exhibit traces the postwar experiences of concentration-camp survivors and their long road to rehabilitation

ON May 7, 1945, revelers in Chicago -- joyously waving their newspapers -- celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of World War II in Europe. On the same day, survivors of the Ebensee concentration camp in southern Austria, having been liberated by American troops three days earlier, posed family-style for a photograph. The survivors, dressed in dirty rags and with dazed and drawn faces, expressed very different feelings from those of the American revelers.

In an exhibit that opened this week at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., these two photographs introduce the visitor to the close of the war in Europe. They make the point that at war's end, the concentration-camp survivors did not simply pack up and go home. For several hundred thousand camp survivors, Jews and non-Jews, their struggles continued, often under lamentable conditions. Many were close to starvation or fighting disease; their relatives were mostly missing or dead. Some had nowhere to go.

About these ads

''For the greatest part of the liberated Jews, there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug,'' wrote Hadassah Rosensaft, a Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen camps, who is quoted in the exhibit. Seventy thousand Jews survived the camps.

The liberators, mostly American and British troops (Soviet forces freed fewer camps, in the east), were in shock at the magnitude of this tragedy. Corpses littered the camps in high piles. Survivors were living skeletons. They were ''naked or barely clothed in the shreds of striped uniforms,'' wrote Robert Abzug, a historian of the Holocaust. At Ohrdruf, liberated by the Americans in April, General Patton was so shocked at what he saw that he became physically ill.

A massive rescue of Holocaust survivors was required.

''Liberation 1945'' -- the exhibit that opened May 9 in Washington -- takes a sober look at the attempt over 10 years to rehabilitate survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, providing a counterpoint to other celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Hitler's defeat.

''It's not a simple story,'' says Stephen Goodell, chief curator of the exhibit. ''Yes, the killing stopped when the camps were liberated. The Holocaust was over. But the dying and suffering continued.''

''We don't focus [in the exhibit] on the moment of liberation,'' he says, ''and we don't focus on the liberators; many just happened on the scene by chance. Our aim is to tell something about the survivor experience.''

Beginning in 1943 as the Red Army loomed from the east, the Nazis -- in an attempt to cover up massive crimes against humanity -- emptied their extermination camps in Poland and either gunned down survivors or forced them westward on agonizing ''death marches.'' Those who survived were dumped into concentration camps in western Germany, swelling their ranks and worsening the conditions.

About these ads

THE exhibit takes the viewer through the first days following the liberation of the camps, when US and British troops suddenly had to become nurturers and providers of medical care.

The combination of artifacts and period film delivers a powerful message. In the exhibit are a relief worker's ''typhus suit'' and film from 1945 showing survivors descending like vultures on a cart of potatoes brought by the Allies.

Other parts of the exhibit examine a postwar period unfamiliar to most Americans. For example, soon after the liberation of the concentration camps, General Eisenhower ordered German civilians living near the camps to see the atrocities that had been committed. Movies of German civilians touring the camps are shown. German civilians were also required to rebury camp victims.

Also shown in documentary footage is the construction of the courthouse in Nuremberg that was to house the famous war-crimes tribunal. The museum has acquired the 21 head sets, manufactured by IBM, that served the 21 defendants at Nuremberg, Rudolph Hess and Hermann Goering included.

AS the exhibit moves into the experience of Displaced Persons (DPs) after the war, it covers areas less familiar to the US public -- and thus, perhaps, even more startling.

As the war ended, many survivors, including Jews from western Europe, were able to return home. But hundreds of thousands of others, including Jews and non-Jews from Poland and other Eastern European countries, could not.

Suddenly, camps were needed for the survivors, and some of the concentration camps were turned into camps for the displaced. Hundreds of new camps also sprouted in the US and British-occupied zones of Germany.

''Jews were lumped in the DP camps with anti-Semites,'' says Goodell, talking about the Allied commitment to a nondiscriminatory policy that would serve as a counterpoint to Nazi policy.

But it didn't work. By summer 1945, Jews in DP camps were demonstrating against conditions. President Truman sent an envoy, Earl Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to investigate. His report was scathing: It strongly criticized the policy of confining Jews behind barbed wire in former concentration camps, often alongside Nazi collaborators. Afterward, Goodell says, conditions improved and the Jews were given their own camps.

With the US quota system biased against immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Truman pressured the British to allow 100,000 Jews to settle in British-controlled Palestine. By 1948, after the establishment of Israel, most of the displaced Jews were resettled. The last DP camp did not close, however, until 1957.

''Many of the elements that produced the war,'' Goodell says, ''continued after the war. The abandonment of the Jews continued, and racism continues today.''

Honored this week with the museum's Medal of Remembrance were Earl Harrison, who received a posthumous award, and Hadassah Rosensaft, who saved hundreds of concentration-camp inmates at Bergen-Belsen.

Says Mrs. Rosensaft about the Holocaust, which killed her parents, brothers and sisters, first husband and child: ''We developed a viewpoint on how to look at people and their actions. When you see so much suffering, you have to help. You don't leave the suffering of others unnoticed.''

* 'Liberation 1945' will be at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum until Jan. 16, 1996.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.