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In The Liberated Camps

Page 22-23

Upon liberation, prisoners were freed from the killing and terror inflicted by the Germans and their collaborators, but many still faced death from disease and malnutrition. The effects of prolonged starvation and brutal treatment continued to claim hundreds of lives each day. At Bergen-Belsen, which held mostly Jews, 13,000 internees died after liberation, often from mild cases of typhus that proved fatal to malnourished survivors. One physician with the Royal Medical Corps at Belsen, Lieutenant Colonel M. W. Conin, recalled how helpless he felt watching former prisoners die:

Those who died of illness usually died at the huts, when starvation was the cause of death they died in the open for it is an odd characteristic of starvation that its victims seemed compelled to go on wandering until they fall down and die. Once they have fallen they die almost at once and it took a little time to get used to seeing men, women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance. One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count. One knew that 500 a day were dying and that 500 a day were going to go on dying before anything we could do would have the slightest affect. It was, however not easy, to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew a tracheotomy and nursing would save it.

The first Allied medical units to reach the camps were attached to combat forces and equipped to give only the most basic care. More elaborate hospital units usually arrived within a few days of liberation, and organized evacuations of the sick began. Army doctors, nurses, medics, the Red Cross, and other relief workers struggled to feed and clothe tens of thousands of people and to treat and control typhus, tuberculosis, and other diseases that ravaged the camp populations. Medical teams dusted the survivors with the insecticide DUT to destroy typhus carrying lice. They vaccinated the freed inmates and isolated those with contagious diseases. The squalid prisoner barracks were scrubbed, disinfected, or burned, often by German townspeople recruited for the task. Engineering units restored sewage, water, and electricity.

To help with spiritual needs, army chaplains conducted religious services, and thousands welcomed the opportunity once more to begin a life that had a semblance of normality. In addition to prayer, the survivors needed such basic staples as soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, mirrors, hairbrushes, blankets, clothing, and sanitary supplies. The survivors required assistance to return to their former homes. They also needed help in finding relatives from whom they were separated during the war.

Unfortunately, military units were not equipped to deal with all the physical and emotional rehabilitation that the survivor required. Extreme food shortages were the norm in devastated postwar Europe; adequate supplies and provisions were not available to the military units charged with assisting the camp populations. As a result, after the first few days of contact, food distributed to the survivors consisted of not much more than the bread, watery soup, and coffee that had been their diet under the Nazis. Nor was there sufficient clothing or sundries.

On April 12, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander-in-chief of the Allied military forces, visited the Ohrdruf concentration camp. After viewing the evidence of atrocities, he ensured that these unbelievable scenes that “beggar[ed] description” would be witnessed and documented so that firsthand testimony of the crimes could be given “if ever, in the future, there developed[ed] a tendency to charge . . .allegations [of what was seen at the camps] to ‘propaganda.'” Eisenhower ordered members of the U.S. military forces to see what had been done and urged politicians, dignitaries, reporters, photographers, and filmmakers to inspect the camps and describe the atrocities they saw to their constituencies. Subsequently, explicit photographs appeared in Life magazine, leading newspapers, tabloids, and exhibitions in the United States, Great Britain, and France.

Eisenhower and his subordinates also ordered nearby German townspeople to come and witness the results of Nazi depravity and to help clean up the areas and bury the dead. At burial services, Allied chaplains harshly reminded ordinary German citizens of their responsibility for the crimes. In Ludwigslust, Germany, for example, Army Chaplain George G. Wood said:

Though you claim no knowledge of these acts you are still individually and collectively responsible for these atrocities, for they were committed by a government elected to office by yourselves in 1933 and continued in office by your indifference to organized brutality. It should be the firm resolve of the German people that never again should any leader or party bring them to such moral degradation as is exhibited here….

In a broad informational campaign in the occupied zones of Germany and Austria, the Allies distributed booklets with graphic photographs, such as KZ, a pictorial report from five concentration camps. The Allies also set billboard displays and sponsored radio programs and film screenings. Almost everywhere, the Germans appeared to accept the facts of the atrocities but were reluctant to acknowledge responsibility for acts of their government. Most Germans were too busy focusing on rebuilding their lives, homes, and cities after the devastation of the war.

Courtesy of: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum



from the collection of the Virginia War Museum
Newport News, Virginia