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Liberation of Nazi camps

As Allied troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they began to encounter tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners suffering from starvation and disease. Only after the liberation of the Nazi camps was the full scope of their horrors exposed to the world.

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As Allied troops moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Nazi Germany, they began to encounter tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners suffering from starvation and disease. Only after the liberation of the Nazi camps was the full scope of their horrors exposed to the world.

Soviet forces were the first to approach a major Nazi camp, reaching Majdanek near Lublin, Poland, in July 1944. Surprised by the rapid Soviet advance, the Germans attempted to hide the evidence of mass murder by demolishing the camp.

In the summer of 1944, the Soviets also overran the sites of the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka killing centers. The Soviets liberated Auschwitz, the largest extermination and concentration camp, in January 1945. Although the retreating Germans had destroyed most of the warehouses in the camp, the Soviets found the victims' personal belongings including hundreds of thousands of men's suits, more than 800,000 women's outfits, and more than 14,000 pounds of human hair.

Allied forces overran hundreds of camps and subcamps across Europe. U.S. forces liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, on April 11, 1945, a few days after the Nazis began evacuating the camp. American forces liberated more than 20,000 prisoners at Buchenwald. They also liberated the Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenbürg, Dachau, and Mauthausen camps.

British forces liberated concentration camps in northern Germany, including Neuengamme and Bergen-Belsen. They entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, near Celle, in mid-April 1945. Some 60,000 prisoners, most in critical condition because of a typhus epidemic, were found alive.

In the Netherlands, Canadian troops liberated the Westerbork transit camp.

Liberators confronted unspeakable conditions in the Nazi camps, where piles of corpses lay unburied. The small percentage of inmates who survived resembled skeletons because of the demands of forced labor and severe lack of food, compounded by months and years of maltreatment. Many were so weak that they could hardly move. Disease remained an ever-present danger, and some of the camps had to be burned down to prevent the spread of disease.

Survivors of the camps faced a long and difficult road to recovery.

[George Salton, Survivor:] "I was seventeen. I was free, but what it meant I wasn't sure."


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  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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