World War II concentration camp liberation began on July 23, 1944, when Soviet soldiers entered the Majdanek camp in Poland. Efforts by multiple nations to find and free prisoners continued into 1945. However, the story of the Holocaust doesn't end with the liberation.
Many recall the haunting pictures of prisoners in the camps, but there is more to these people's stories after the war. Sadly, many of the survivors who were found in places like Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz died shortly after being rescued due to disease, starvation, or suicide. Others survived and faced the long and difficult process of rebuilding their lives from scratch. For anyone who's ever wondered about the experiences these astonishing survivors went on to have, here are a few of the things concentration camp prisoners went on to do after the war.
Survivors Started Multiple Cultural Institutions
Despite the horrific nature of what they'd just endured, many survivors were more than ready to get on with the business of living. While staying in camps for displaced persons, survivors organized their own theater groups, started their own Yiddish and Hebrew language newspapers, and started multiple sports teams.
They also started schools for the few remaining children and created new places of worship. Through these activities, survivors formed communities, expressed themselves creatively, and established their cultural identity.
Many Committed Suicide
Tragically, many Holocaust survivors took their lives after being released from the concentration camps. While it's impossible to know the exact motivations these survivors would have for committing suicide, there are several reasons that are often cited. First, the traumatic nature of the Holocaust experience caused serious mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Second, while life was certainly improved by being released from the concentration camps, many were physically ill, in mourning for lost loved ones, or continuing to live in dehumanizing conditions.
Today, studies suggest that Holocaust survivors are three times more likely to commit suicide than the general populace. This flies in the face of what many held to be true in the past regarding survivors.
In 1947, Dr. Aharon Persikovitz, a gynecologist living in Tel Aviv who had survived Dachau, gave a talk where he said that "Holocaust survivors do not commit suicide; they heroically prove the continuity of the Jewish people." His words don't seem to be based on any study, but instead likely stem from stigma around suicide.
Survivors Started To Organize Politically
Almost immediately after their release, survivors began to organize politically. In Bergen-Belson, they formed a representative committee as early as April of 1945. These committees expanded from individual resettlement camps to entire geographic zones. The two major political leaders were Josef Rosensaft, a businessman hailing from from Bedzin, Poland, and Zalman Grinberg, a physician from the Lithuanian city of Kovno.
These politicians represented the interests of Jewish survivors. Their aims were explicitly Zionist, and the ultimate goal was for the creation of a Jewish state.
They Had Tons Of Kids
Compared to the general population, Holocaust survivors had children at much higher rates. For example, in 1945, there were 14 births per 1,000 Jewish displaced persons in Bavaria, but only five births per 1,000 within the non-Jewish population. This occurred for a couple of reasons.
First, most of the survivors were in their 20s and 30s, which is a time when people start having children. Second, nearly all the survivors had lost their families. For many, the most liberating and healing thing that they could do was form new ones.