“So for us even the hour of liberty rang out grave and muffled, and filled our souls with joy and yet with a painful sense of shame… and also with anguish, because we felt that this should never happen, that now nothing could ever happen good and pure enough to rub out our past, and that the scars of the outrage would remain within us forever.”
Primo Levi – The Truce
In the later stages of the war, as the Germans were retreating on all fronts, they murdered some of the Jewish forced laborers who remained in the ghettos that had been converted into labor camps. The Germans deported the rest to the extermination centres that were still functioning, such as Chelmno and Auschwitz, or to labour and concentration camps in the Reich on death marches during which many of the inmates were either murdered or died of starvation and exhaustion.
After the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews who somehow managed to survive, either in the camps, in hiding, or in the Soviet Union, returned to their homes, only to be met with anger and animosity by their neighbours. Anti-Semitic gangs murdered approximately 1,500 Jewish survivors in Poland alone, in the first months after the liberation. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled westwards and gathered in camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy.
After the war, many Holocaust survivors tried to reach Eretz Israel but the British authorities deported them to detention camps in Cyprus. With the establishment of the State of Israel the gates for mass immigration were opened for the survivors of the Holocaust. Approximately 100,000 Jewish displaced persons immigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and the Latin American countries.
In trials against Nazi war criminals, tens of thousands of Germans and their collaborators were tried and sentenced. However, most of the individuals who carried out the atrocities were never brought to justice, even until this very day. In the years 1945-1949, only 31,651 Nazi war criminals out of the hundreds of thousands active during the war were brought to trial.
Remaining Ghettos and Camps
The Last Ghettos
The last ghettos of Belorussia were liquidated in the fall of 1943. The Minsk ghetto ceased to exist on September 23, 1943. The Bialystok ghetto was one of the last to survive in Eastern Poland. Up to August 1943 it had about 30,000 inhabitants. The head of the Judenrat there, Efraim Barasz, set up extensive industrial facilities, hoping to prolong the life of the ghetto by making it vital to the German war economy. He also hoped that the Soviet advance would lead to the collapse of the German front and pave the way for the Soviet army to reach Bialystok and rescue the Jews in the ghetto. But here, too, ideological considerations were put before economic necessity, and on August 16, 1943, the Germans began to liquidate the ghetto. As in dozens of other ghettos throughout Eastern Europe, the Jewish underground resisted, but the uprising was brutally suppressed. The Lvov ghetto was liquidated in June 1943. The Krakow ghetto was liquidated in March 1943 and in September 1943 all the other ghettos in the area were likewise liquidated. The Vilna ghetto was liquidated in September 1943. About 3,700 Jews were sent to camps in Estonia and some 2,000 women were transferred to the Klooga camp near Tallinn. The Kovno ghetto existed as a labor camp until mid-August 1944. About two weeks before the Soviet army entered the city, the last Jews were transferred to various camps in the west. The last remaining Jews of Latvia were interned in the Kaiserwald camp, where most perished. The remnants of the Jews in the Estonian camps were transferred to the Stutthof camp near Gdansk (Danzig) in 1944. In the second half of 1944 the Germans assembled about 50,000 Jews in Stutthof and in January 1945 sent them on a death march to the west. On August 23, 1944, the Lodz ghetto, was liquidated, with most of its 80,000 inhabitants being deported to Auschwitz.
The Last Camps
With the Soviet army nearing the Polish border, the Germans also sped up the liquidation process in the camps. Most of the inmates were murdered on the spot while some were evacuated to the west. The elimination of the Jews in the camps of the Lublin area began in November 1943, under the code name “Erntefest”, meaning harvest festival. After the wave of deportations in summer 1942 the remnant of the Jewish communities of central Poland was concentrated in such ghettos as Radom, Kielce, Czestochowa, and Piotrkow Trybunalski. By mid-1943 all had been liquidated. Able-bodied workers were confined in the labor camps around Czestochowa and Piotrkow. These camps were evacuated to camps in Germany in late 1944.
Last Jews in the Last Month of the German Reich
As the Third Reich crumbled and the eastern front collapsed, the Germans began a comprehensive retreat to the west, towards Germany. In the summer of 1944, while the Soviets were launching their massive push in the east, the Germans began clearing out the concentration camps and forcing the prisoners on death marches to the west. SS Chief Himmler ordered his subordinates not to allow the Allied armies to liberate living prisoners in the concentration camps – as had happened in Majdanek, where the murders had been discovered. The marches served a twofold purpose: to ensure that no witnesses would be left to testify to the murders, as well as to exploit the Jewish labor force until the last possible moment at the destination of the marches in German and Austrian camps. The guards who were ordered to lead the prisoners understood that these duties were an obstacle to their own escape from the Red Army; thus, they were all the more eager to kill the prisoners and get away. This mass murder continued until Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.
The first camps to be evacuated were in the Baltic States and in eastern and central Poland. At that time the camps were usually evacuated by train, with Kaiserwald also being evacuated by boat, but some prisoners also departed the camps on foot. Shortly afterwards a massive wave of death marches began.
On July 28, 1944, the camp established on the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto was evacuated and 3,600 prisoners, mostly from Greece and Hungary, were forced on a death march. Their destination was Kutno, approximately 130 kilometres from Warsaw. The Germans shot anyone who lagged behind along the route. Food was not provided for the inmates and they were prevented from drinking water. The surviving prisoners were transported on freight cars from Kutno to Dachau. Less than 2,000 inmates reached Dachau on August 9, 1944.
In September 1944, some 4,000 inmates were marched from Bor, Yugoslavia, to Hungary, from where they were sent to Oranienburg, Germany. More than 3,000 of the marchers were murdered. In November 1944, 70,000 Jews were marched from Budapest to concentration camps in the Third Reich, primarily to Dachau and Mauthausen. Tens of thousands were murdered during the march.
In January 1945, as a result of renewed Soviet attacks, the evacuation of the rest of the camps in Poland began. The larger death marches of that month left from Auschwitz in the south and Stutthof in the north. The evacuation of Auschwitz and its sub camps began on January 18, 1945. Approximately 66,000 inmates, mostly Jews, were marched and taken in freight cars to various camps, most to Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen. At least 15,000 perished during the journey. A few days later the evacuation of the sub camps of Stutthof began, and the main camp of Stutthof was evacuated on January 25. In total, some 26,000 of the 50,000 inmates of Stutthof perished in the marches or were shot on the beach.
The evacuation of Gross-Rosen and some its sub camps began in February 1945. Some 40,000 prisoners were evacuated. Thousands were murdered along the way and the remainder was sent to the concentration camps Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenburg, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen and Sachsenhausen.
From March 1945 until the German surrender on May 8, at least a quarter of a million prisoners were forced on death marches that lasted for weeks at a time. They perished throughout central Germany and Western Austria from suffocation, heat, starvation, hunger and thirst in freight cars, or were murdered on the foot marches.
At the end of March and beginning of April, 21,000-23,000 of the 48,000 inmates of Buchenwald were marched hundreds of kilometres to other concentration camps. Thousands of prisoners were murdered on this march. Marches started concurrently from Flossenburg, Sachsenhausen, Neuengamme, Magdeburg, Mauthausen, Ravensbrueck, and a number of sub camps of Dachau. Tens of thousands died on these marches.
The death marches continued until the last day of the war. In total, from the summer of 1944 until the end of the war, between 200,000-250,000 Nazi concentration camp inmates perished on these marches. Between one quarter to one third of the victims were Jews. After the war hundreds of mass graves with the corpses of tens of thousands of inmates who perished on these marches were found all along the routes of the marches.
The Nuremberg Trials
During World War II, the Allies and representatives of the exiled governments of occupied Europe met several times to discuss post-war treatment of Nazi leadership. In February 1945 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta, and agreed to prosecute the Axis leaders after the conclusion of World War II. In August, the Allies signed the London Agreement that enabled an International Military Tribunal to prosecute war criminals.
The tribunal of American, Soviet, British and French judges and prosecutors met in Nuremberg and put on trial senior Nazis accused of three charges: crimes against peace, war crimes (including murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor of civilian populations, killing of hostages, plunder of property) and crimes against humanity, namely, murder, extermination, enslavement and deportation of civilian populations.
In October 19, 1945, the accused individuals were indicted and a year later on October 1, 1946 the verdicts against them were given. Twelve of the twenty-two defendants were sentenced to death.
Eleven subsequent trials were held in Nuremberg between 1946 and 1949. In these the Allies tried Nazi physicians, commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, officials of the Reich Ministry of Justice, judges of the Special Nazi Courts and other senior members of the Nazi party.
The prosecution provided many examples of the unprecedented inhumane conduct of Nazi Germany. In November 1945, the Americans screened a film shot by Allied photographers in liberated areas, and in February 1946 the Russian prosecutors offered as evidence a 45-minute film, which included footage from captured German films. Both films provided graphic detail of Nazi atrocities. In addition, during the French phase of the prosecution, the French journalist Marie Claude Vaillant-Courturier provided eyewitness testimony of the brutality in Auschwitz.
The tribunal discussed Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policy on different occasions. Over 800 documents and more than 30 witnesses referred to the persecution of the Jews. Among them Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever testified on Jewish suffering in the Vilna ghetto. In addition, SS officer Dieter Wisliceny and the commandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss testified on the origins of the Final Solution. The crimes against the Jews, however, were not separated from other crimes, and Nazi anti-Semitic policy was seen as motivated by utilitarian considerations: to achieve political control of German society and to drive a wedge between the government and the population of the Allied countries.
The Anguish of Liberation and the Surviving Remnants
The two million Jews who survived in the Soviet Union and the hundreds of thousands who somehow managed to survive the camps or in hiding desperately sought out surviving relatives. Usually their attempts were in vain. Many Jews who emerged from camps, forests and hideouts, or who returned from the Soviet Union under the repatriation agreement, received an enraged and hostile welcome. Many of the locals feared that the Jews would demand restitution of the property they had stolen. Anti-Semitic gangs murdered approximately 1,500 Jewish survivors in Poland alone, in the first months after the liberation.
As a result of their hostile reception, survivors turned to the west. Many settled provisionally near the Polish-German border and established community institutions with an eye toward new lives. Hospitals to treat the ill and exhausted survivors, orphanages, schools and training farms were set up. After a period of convalescence, survivors moved on to Western and Southern Europe en route to the Italian coast. The survivors demanded free immigration, particularly to Eretz Israel. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee operated among the displaced persons (DPs), helped with food and clothing, underwrote educational endeavours, and provided money for organized underground immigration to Eretz Israel, known as Aliyah Bet. About one-third of the 300,000 Jewish DPs immigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and the Latin American countries.
At the war’s end, the Allies gathered hundreds of thousands of survivors in DP camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. Over one year, tens of thousands of additional refugees, mostly repatriates returning from the Soviet Union, streamed westwards towards the DP camps with the assistance of the Beriha. 250,000 people were living in these camps by the end of 1946. The survivors managed to organize a vibrant Jewish life, which incorporated educational and cultural activities, religious worship and political activism.
After the war, the Jewish people fought the British White Paper policy that severely limited immigration to Palestine. Between 1945-1948, some 70,000 Jewish survivors made their way to Palestine, often on vessels that were unseaworthy. In response, the British began deporting these illegal immigrants to Cyprus, where they were held in detention camps. Some 52,000 illegal immigrants were deported to the detention camps in Cyprus, once again finding themselves being held behind barbed wire fences. The Joint Distribution Committee and emissaries from the Yishuv (Jewish community in Eretz Israel) mobilized to help them and maintain their link with Palestine.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations resolved to terminate the British Mandate for Palestine and to divide the country into two states: one Jewish and one Arab. The following day, the War of Independence broke out, and the survivors played a major role in the fighting. About half of Israel’s fighting force after the establishment of the Israel Defence Forces were Holocaust survivors, and approximately one-third of all those who fell in battle were members of She’erit Hapleita.