Sixty years ago this month, advancing Allied troops came face to face with the horrors of the Nazi death camps

The liberation of Auschwitz: sixty years ago this month, advancing Allied troops came face to face with the horrors of the Nazi death camps

Joseph Berger

Sixty years ago, on Jan. 27, 1945, Russian soldiers pursuing the fleeing German armies near one of the anonymous towns of Poland came upon a gruesome scene.

Thousands of people–mostly European Jews but also Gypsies and other non-Jews the Nazis disdained as subhuman–had been reduced to emaciated skeletons while working as slave laborers in a complex of concentration camps outside the town of Auschwitz, 180 miles southwest of Warsaw.

Here and there, in the gray snow, were heaps of corpses–thousands of them. As the Russians were to learn, these bodies would normally have been disposed of in cremation ovens, just as the Nazis had done with hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children they slaughtered in methodical fashion in poison-gas chambers. But the Germans had spirited the ovens away to hide evidence of their crimes and of the murders of 1.1 million people at Auschwitz alone.


Auschwitz has since come to stand for the horrors of the Nazi regime and for genocide itself. There were almost 9 million Jews in the European countries under some degree of German control during World War II and the Nazis killed 6 million, two out of every three. In Poland alone, 3.3 million Jews were killed, more than 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population. The numbers testify to how close Adolf Hitler came to achieving his “Final Solution” to what he called the Jewish problem: complete eradication of Europe’s Jews once the usefulness of Jewish labor for his war machine was exhausted.


There have been other genocides before and since. Between 1915 and 1923, the Ottoman government in Turkey killed at least 1 million Christian Armenians through massacres or brutal marches. In the 1970s, the Communist government of Pol Pot in Cambodia murdered 1.7 million of its own people. And in just four months in 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were killed, most of them Tutsis massacred by Hutus.

But the collective murder captured in the word Auschwitz eclipses all of these genocides because of the Nazis’ systematic efficiency. The Germans built 1,634 concentration camps and more than 900 labor camps, all of which resulted in thousands of deaths from starvation and overwork. But six–Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Belzec, all in occupied Poland, where the local population was considered less sympathetic to the Jews’ plight–were deliberately outfitted for mass murder.

Auschwitz was actually a complex of three camps (including Birkenau and Monowitz) built on the site of a Polish artillery barracks. Freight trains arrived almost daily with shipments of thousands of Jews deported from Hungary, Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and other countries, as well as from elsewhere in Poland.

Deportees were forced to stand in crowded cattle cars without toilet facilities, and, upon arrival, were sorted into those fit for work and those–like children, the elderly, and the frail–destined for the gas chambers. Camouflaged as shower rooms, the gas chambers held about 20 people each. Instead of water, the spigots released deadly Zyklon-B gas.


Those not immediately killed had their arms tattooed with blue identification numbers and were sent to work in armament factories, mines, and stone quarries at Auschwitz. They worked–literally–until they dropped, or they were sent to other labor camps. They were clothed in thin striped uniforms even in winter, fed rations of bread and watery soup, and forced to sleep in bunks crammed with other inmates.

Thousands who managed to survive bore witness to the horror of the camps. Primo Levi, one of the leading chroniclers of the Holocaust, described his fellow inmates as wrecks of skin and bones, adding: “One hesitates to call them living; one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.”


Most historians agree that the majority of Germans knew about the mass killings since hundreds of thousands were employed in the roundups, camps, or railways, and millions more inherited the clothes, watches, and other belongings taken from the victims. Tens of thousands of Poles, Romanians, French, and other Europeans assisted the Germans. (An unknown number of others helped Jews by hiding them or providing them with fake identities.)

But the crimes encompassed by Auschwitz also called attention to the moral failure of countries at war with Germany which did little to prevent the genocide. According to historian David S. Wyman, two Slovak Jews escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 and wrote a 30-page report describing the gassing and cremations, which soon reached Allied authorities and the press. Yet the Allies did not bomb the crematoria nor the railroad lines leading to Auschwitz, something that might have prevented the slaughter of most of the 440,000 Hungarian Jews who were dispatched to the camp in late 1944.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt mounted no major rescue effort before or during the war. Historians like Wyman believe he took the politically expedient route of not alienating the many Americans who were either anti-immigrant or anti-Semitic. “In the end, the era’s most prominent symbol of humanitarianism turned away from one of history’s most compelling moral challenges,” Wyman wrote.


The New York Times itself has looked back on this period as one of its worst journalistic failures. In 2001, Max Frankel, a former executive editor, said that while The Times ran articles about the Holocaust during the war, “they were mostly buried” and rarely linked to Hitler’s campaign to annihilate the Jews. The reason, he said, was that the newspaper, which was owned by a Jewish family, “went to great lengths to avoid having The Times branded a ‘Jewish newspaper.'”

While Hitler did not realize his ambition of destroying European Jewry, he came close. What was in 1933 a population of 9 million–half the world’s population of Jews–today stands at 4 million.

With nowhere to go after the camps were liberated, the 250,000 Jews who survived, along with the children they bore in the years just after the war, became refugees. About 25 percent emigrated to the U.S., while 10 percent remained in Europe. Two thirds of the refugees ultimately ended up in Israel, the Jewish homeland created by the United Nations in 1948 in what was then British-controlled Palestine.


As Mark Kurlansky described in The Chosen Few, a study of Europe’s surviving Jewish communities, Jewish life is thriving in cities like Paris and Budapest and holding on in Prague, Amsterdam, and even Berlin. Only in Poland is it imperiled–by the skimpiness of the remnant population and by intermarriage and persistent discrimination.

As the story of Auschwitz has been illuminated, the world has more often recognized its responsibility to act when faced with genocide. Speaking at the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993, Elie Wiesel, perhaps the most famous Holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Peace, chided the West for not doing more to prevent Yugoslavia’s ethnic cleansing during the 1990s. The world, he pleaded, must not forget the lessons of Auschwitz. “To forget would mean to kill the victims a second time,” Wiesel said. “We could not prevent their first death; we must not allow them to be killed again.”


AT AUSCHWITZ, it is estimated

that more than 1.1 million people

died, either in the gas chambers

upon arrival, or later, from

starvation, overwork, or disease.

Jews 1 million

Poles 75,000

Gypsies 20,000

Soviet POWs 15,000

Others 15,000


Hitter’s “Final. Sotution” manifested itself in camps like Auschwitz, where millions of Jews and other German victims were murdered


To help students understand some of the horrors of the World War II Holocaust, specifically the operation of Nazi death camps, in which an estimated 6 million Jews and unknown numbers of others were murdered.

BACKGROUND: Auschwitz was built in 1940, but public ostracism of Jews began within months of Hitler’s becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933. On Nov. 15, 1938,Jewish children were barred from German schools. The attitudes that led to places like Auschwitz were already in place.

PHOTO ANALYSIS/WRITING: Note the photos of young prisoners at Auschwitz (p. 22) and the men crammed into the bunks at Buchenwald (p. 24).

Have students write approximately 100-word essays about why they think particular groups were singled out and why ordinary citizens went along with such atrocities.

Have students write a short speech in which they speak to the civilians in the Auschwitz photo on p. 24. What lesson should the civilians learn from what they’re seeing? You might also have students research the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. How did they differ from German camps?

CRITICAL THINKING: Some historians say the U.S. and the Allies did not take steps to stop the Holocaust. Defenders of U.S. policy have argued that the best way to end the Holocaust was to quickly defeat Germany. Should the Allies have diverted some of their military against concentration camps or focused their military efforts entirely on defeating Germany? What are the pros and cons of each position?


* Some people deny the Holocaust happened. What do you think motivates such people? How would you answer someone who made such a claim?

WEB WATCH:, the Web site of Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, has a new database that allows visitors to research information about any of 3 million Holocaust victims. Also, visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum site at

Have students explore each of these sites and use their findings as the basis of additional class discussion.


Liberation of Auschwitz

1. Troops from — were the first to discover the horrors at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

2. Auschwitz was located in

a Germany.

b Austria.

c Poland.

d Czechoslovakia.

3. Most historians agree that a majority of Germans knew about the death camps because

a radio news from Allied nations low about them.

b hundreds of thousands of Germans aided the Nazis in rounding up Jews.

c Adolf Hitter revealed his plan.

d they could see that their Jewish neighbors had been taken away.

4. Some critics say President Franklin D. Roosevelt took no military action against the Nazi death camps because

a he feared that would divert resources away from the main fight against Germany.

b the United Nations objected to such a move.

c at the time, the Americans didn’t try to locate the camps.

d he was afraid of alienating Americans who were either anti-immigrant or anti-Semitic.

5. Noted writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel warns that to forget the Holocaust would mean

a that humanity has lost its humanity.

b that the Nazis had, in some part, won.

c history has lost its meaning.

d kilting the victims a second time

6. In addition to the Holocaust directed at Europe’s Jews, there were three other major genocides in the 20th century. Name at least one of the countries where genocide occurred. —

7. Identify the term Adolf Hitter used to describe his plan to kilt Europe’s Jews. —

1. Russia (or Soviet Union.) 2. (c) Poland. 3. (b) hundreds of thousands of Germans worked to help capture the Jews. 4. (d) he was afraid to alienate Americans who were either anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant. 5. (d) killing the victims a second time. 6. Turkey, Rwanda, Cambodia. 7. Final Solution.

Joseph Berger, a Times reporter based in New York. Often writes about immigration.

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