Liberation Soviet soldiers were the first to liberate concentration camp prisoners in the final stages of the war. On July 23, 1944, they entered the Majdanek camp in Poland, and later overran several other killing centers. On January 27, 1945, they entered Auschwitz and there found hundreds of sick and exhausted prisoners. The Germans had been forced to leave these prisoners behind in their hasty retreat from the camp. Also left behind were victims' belongings: 348,820 men's suits, 836,255 women's coats, and tens of thousands of pairs of shoes.

British, Canadian, American, and French troops also freed prisoners from the camps. The Americans were responsible for liberating Buchenwald and Dachau, while British forces entered Bergen-Belsen. Although the Germans had attempted to empty the camps of surviving prisoners and hide all evidence of their crimes, the Allied soldiers came upon thousands of dead bodies "stacked up like cordwood," according to one American soldier. The prisoners who were still alive were living skeletons.

Bill Barrett, an American army journalist, described what he saw at Dachau: "There were about a dozen bodies in the dirty boxcar, men and women alike. They had gone without food so long that their dead wrists were broomsticks tipped with claws. These were the victims of a deliberate starvation diet..."

Allied troops, physicians, and relief workers tried to provide nourishment for the surviving prisoners, but many of them were too weak to digest food and could not be saved. In spite of the liberators' efforts, many camp survivors died. Half of the prisoners discovered alive in Auschwitz died within a few days of being freed.

Survivors had mixed reactions to their newfound freedom. While a few looked forward to being reunited with other family members, some felt guilty for surviving when so many of their relatives and friends had died. Some felt overwhelmed, as one survivor, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, expressed:

"Timidly, we looked around and glanced at each other questioningly. Then we ventured a few steps out of the camp. This time no orders were shouted at us, nor was there any need to duck quickly to avoid a blow or a kick. 'Freedom,' we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it."

Key Dates

July 23, 1944
Soviet forces liberate Majdanek camp

Soviet forces are the first to approach a major Nazi camp, reaching the Majdanek camp near Lublin, Poland. Surprised by the rapid Soviet advance, the Germans attempt to demolish the camp in an effort to hide the evidence of mass murder. The camp staff sets fire to the large crematorium at Majdanek, but because of the hasty evacuation the gas chambers are left standing. Soviet forces later liberate Auschwitz (January 1945), Gross-Rosen (February 1945), Sachsenhausen (April 1945), Ravensbrueck (April 1945), and Stutthof (May 1945).

April 11, 1945
American forces liberate Buchenwald camp

US forces liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany, in April 1945, a few days after the Nazis began evacuating the camp. On the day of liberation, an underground prisoner resistance organization seizes control of Buchenwald to prevent atrocities by the retreating camp guards. American forces liberate more than 20,000 prisoners at Buchenwald. American forces also liberate the main camps of Dora-Mittelbau (April 1945), Flossenbuerg (April 1945), Dachau (April 1945), and Mauthausen (May 1945).

April 15, 1945
British forces liberate Bergen-Belsen camp

British forces enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, near Celle, Germany. Some 60,000 prisoners, most in critical condition because of a typhus epidemic, are found alive. More than 10,000 die of malnutrition or disease within a few weeks. British forces liberate other camps in northern Germany, including Neuengamme (April 1945).