What Happened To Concentration Camp Prisoners Immediately After Liberation?
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.
- Photo: No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit - Oakes, H (Sgt)/Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Many Died From Starvation Despite Having Access To Food Once Again
As a result of prolonged starvation, many recently released prisoners lost the ability to digest food. When well-meaning liberators offered the emaciated prisoners something to eat, many were too weak to digest food and died soon afterward. Tragically, half of the prisoners found alive in Auschwitz died within days of being rescued.
A few were fortunate to receive an easy-to-digest, nutritionally dense concoction created by medical staff at resettlement camps that allowed them to slowly gain strength and stay alive.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
There Were Multiple Epidemics
When the prisoners were released from the concentration camps, they were filthy, starving, and vulnerable to disease. As a result, infections like typhus ripped through the resettlement camps like wildfire. These diseases often proved fatal. Out of 50,000 survivors from Bergen-Belson, 13,000 died. Despite doctors' attempts to treat the disease, many of these deaths were caused by typhus.
Significant efforts were put forth to contain these epidemics. These included thoroughly disinfecting the survivors' bodies and possessions, disposing of the thousands of dead bodies that might still be harboring disease, and in some cases, burning down the concentration camps to get rid of any infectious material. This was done with Bergen-Belson, which is why, unlike Auschwitz, it was never used as a memorial to the dead.
- Photo: Department of Defense / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
In Their Elation, Some Survivors Lifted Their Liberators In The Air
Though many felt overwhelmed and uncertain at the onset of their freedom, others felt an overwhelming sense of joy: they were finally free. At the liberation of Buchenwald, US troops were given a "heroes welcome" by the cheering prisoners. Some of these prisoners even found the strength to lift their liberators in the air as they cheered.
Edward R. Murrow was there that day, and he recalled:
I asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovaks. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description.
- Photo: Eva Spiers / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
Some Were Not Allowed To Leave Their Refugee Camps
The Harrison Report, the result of an American investigation led by Earl G. Harrison, dean of law faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, said the following about the treatment of concentration camp prisoners after their release:
...as matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.
This seems extreme except that previous camp prisoners were not allowed to leave their resettlement camps and were guarded by military personnel, a situation that must have felt quite similar to the conditions they had just left. The reasoning for these restrictions had to do with health containment.
- Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Belarussian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Many Couldn't Return To Their Homes
The obvious first thing a survivor of a concentration camp would want to do upon release is return home. For a few survivors from Germany, their homeland was what they now considered "cursed soil." They wanted to be as far away from it as humanly possible.
Many survivors couldn't return to their homes at all. In those cases, their homes were either destroyed or they had no surviving family members. Even sadder was that many of the European communities that survivors hailed from were rife with antisemitism and going back was still too dangerous a prospect. For these reasons, many survivors sought to leave Europe altogether.
There Were Revenge Killings
On April 29, 1945, American soldiers came to liberate the concentration camp Dachau. There, they found thousands of naked, emaciated corpses piled into box cars. There was a recently used gas chamber, piles of human excrement, splattered human brains on floors, and a few victims still alive but starving and critically ill.
They also found combative, resistant German soldiers who tried to fight them off. Horrified by what they saw, some of the American soldiers rounded up the German guards and shot them on the spot. Taking advantage of their freedom before the troops could organize their escape, prisoners took their own revenge. Several accounts describe inmates beating their former captors to death, including one who stomped on a German guard's face until it was completely destroyed. Approximately 50 German guards died that day.