Deliverance from the Hands of Death
In my anguish I cried to the LORD, and he answered by setting me free.
In 1933, the Nazis began a campaign to eradicate all trace of Jews and Jewish culture on the European continent. Because Aryan Supremacy taught that all Jews and others of "non-Aryan" races were biologically inferior, they were persecuted and sent to concentration camps, where they were imprisoned, exploited, and eventually exterminated. From 1933, when the first camp became operational, to Germany's surrender in 1945, the Nazis murdered over 6,000,000 Jews. These innocent victims perished because xenophobic people who were desperate to assign blame for their troubles perceived them as "different." 300,000 Jews, however, somehow managed to live through this atrocity and against all odds, lived to see liberation. These Jews, surpassed overwhelming odds and survived, by ingenuity, sheer determination or divine intervention. They stand as a testimony to the human instincts of self-preservation and hope.
The Allied power, starting from Normandy, advanced steadily into the heart of Germany as the Nazis slowly dissipated. As the Allies moved closer, the Nazis deported Jews held in cities and ghettos to concentration camps. As the Allied front advanced inexorably near to the camps furthest east and west, many Jews were forced on marches until they died of exhaustion or were killed. The Nazis desired to prevent the Allies from liberating the Jews, and killing them seemed the quickest way.
The world got its first glimpse at the barbarism of concentration camps when the Red Army entered the camp at Majdanek, Poland. Correspondents from the Allied armies relayed stories and photographs of the crematoria, gas chambers, deplorable living conditions, and the ashes and remains of those killed. Unfortunately, there were no inmates, for they had all been deported to other camps. This was only the first in a long line of liberated amps, the first of a series which would reveal even more horrors. The slave labor camp of Ohrdruf is an example. On April 4, 1945, US forces entered the village of Ohrdruf. Outside the village, the victims of an eleventh-hour massacre littered a labor camp. Several high-ranking military figures witnessed the carnage, including Generals Eisenhower and Patton. Churchill circulated pictures among the British Cabinet which sparked another "wave of revulsion" back to the United States and Britain.
When the Allies liberated a camp, there was often a period of confusion and anarchy before prisoners realized that they were free to move around and receive food. Moshe Sandburg, liberated when the Allied forces seized a train station filled with deportees, recounts:
Only when soldiers wearing conspicuously non-German uniforms came into the camp did many realize they were free. Those of relatively decent health jumped for joy and ran, as the teenage Samuel Pisar did:
Fania Fenelon, like others, wasted from disease and acute malnutrition, quietly praised in her own way:
After the initial joyous frenzy abated, surviving Jews inquired about relatives and their hometown: "Who was left? Are we the only survivors?" Having only limited answers, the Allies replied with the all-encompassing "I don't know" to soothe the survivors' concerns until the day arrived when they could find out for themselves.
Feeding and administering to the sick proved a daunting task, not only due to insufficient amounts of food and medicine, but also because of the mad dash inmates made upon discovering their freedom. Hunger grew strong in the inmates. Inmates helped themselves to as much food as they could grab, steal, bargain or beg. Shalom Reichman recalls:
Soldiers, moved by mercy and compassion, shared food with the inform and prisoners in camps where there was no food. Chocolate was a favorite, for soldiers commonly carried it, and people longed to taste sugar. The liberators also distributed canned meats and bread. They provided the sick with medicines and in some cases, surgery. In exchange for his aid, the Jews told their stories of hardships and atrocities witnessed or endured. Through this exchange of testimonies for aid, the liberators and the liberated shared bonds of friendship. They became witnesses for each other, witnesses to the horror of the Holocaust and the struggle to survive - witnesses to the liberation.
The memory of liberation still lives through the soldier liberator and the liberated inmate. The Jews will never forget the day of deliverance and neither will the veterans who witnessed the carnage and the miraculous survival of the few. These survivors lived to carry the memory of the millions unjustifiably murdered, and to show the endurance of the human spirit. Their testimonies echo in the hearts and minds of all who behold them, as a warning to future generations that this bloody period of history must never be repeated again.
notes and sources
1 Psalm 118:5.
2 Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust, New York, William Morrow and Company, 1993, p. 315.
3 Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: a History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, New York, Henry Holt and Company, Inc. p. 711.
4 ibid, p. 790.
6 ibid., p. 803.
7 ibid., p. 802.
8 ibid., p. 794.
9 Shalom Reichman, "The Liberation" in The Living Testify, Moshe Sandburg and Meir Hovav, ed., Jerusalem, Gefen Publishing, Ltd., 1994, p. 56.
10 Aviva Liebeskind, "After the Liberation" in The Living Testify, Moshe Sandburg and Meir Hovav, ed., Jerusalem, Gefen Publishing House, Ltd., 1994, p. 46.
11 Evelyn Irons in 1995: Fifty Years After Liberation, Donald Peet, ed., St. Petersburg, Pinellas County Schools Publications, 1994, p.14.
• Gilbert, Martin, Atlas of the Holocaust, New York, William Morrow and Company, 1991.
• Gilbert, Martin, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1985.
• Irons, Evelyn, "Interview with Evelyn Irons" in 1995: Fifty Years After Liberation, Donald Peet, ed., St. Petersburg, Pinellas County Schools Publications, 1994.
• Liebeskind, Aviva, "After the Liberation" in The Living Testify, Moshe Sandburg and Meir Hovav, ed., Jerusalem, Gefen Publishing House, Ltd., 1994.
• Reichman, Shalom, "The Liberation" in The Living Testify, Moshe Sandburg and Meir Hovav, ed., Jerusalem, Gefen Publishing House, Ltd., 1994.
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