Warsaw, Liberated Poland January 17, 1945

On this date in 1945 Warsaw fell to Soviet and Polish Com­munist forces as the Nazis beat a hasty retreat from the ruins of Poland’s capital. In moving against the retreating Wehr­macht (German armed forces), the Soviets lib­er­ated 800 Jews in Częstochowa and 870 Jews in Łódź, Poland. Ten days later, on Janu­ary 27, 1945, Soviet troops lib­er­ated the Auschwitz-Bir­ke­nau con­cen­tration/­forced labor/­death camp in South­west Poland, where an estimated 1.1 mil­lion to 1.5 mil­lion people died, the most of any of the 15,000 camps and sub­camps the Nazis had erected in occupied Europe. The troops found 648 corpses and 7,000 sur­vivors. In the store­houses they un­covered 836,255 women’s coats, six tons of human hair, carpets, eyeglasses, artificial limbs, and more. (Janu­ary 27 is Inter­national Holo­caust Remem­brance Day, designated in Novem­ber 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly.)

To the west, units of the U.S. Army on April 11 freed POWs in concen­tration camps at Buchen­wald, where 56,000 had died, and on April 29 at Dachau, where 28,000 had perished between 1940 and 1945. Amer­i­can soldiers were so horri­fied by con­di­tions at Dachau that a few GIs exe­cuted some of the SS per­son­nel found there, including sev­er­al pulled from the camp infir­mary (charges against the soldiers were dis­missed); many guards were also killed by some of the 32,000 lib­e­rated pri­soners. On April 15 Brit­ish and Cana­dian units reached the Bergen-Belsen concen­tration camp in North­ern Ger­many, where they were met by horri­fic scenes—mass graves, un­buried bodies, and nearly 40,000 “living skel­e­tons,” ema­ci­ated and filthy men, women, and chil­dren who were starving to death or dying from typhus, which they had cont­racted from lice-borne bacteria. On May 5, about 50 hours before Ger­many surrendered uncon­di­tionally, a U.S. armored unit reached the main Maut­hausen camp in Upper (Western) Austria, where 119,000 had died.

Three days later, on May 8, 1945, VE Day, Polish and Soviet units freed the camp at Stutt­hof (Sztutowo), Poland. A day later Soviet troops reached the Czecho­slo­vak camp and ghetto of Theresien­stadt (present-day Terezín in the Czech Republic), where they found 19,000 sur­vivors; many were recent arrivals to Theresien­stadt, having been brought by train or on foot from camps further north that lay in the path of the Soviet advance. Even after a camp’s lib­er­a­tion death took its toll: many victims suc­cumbed to the effects of dehydration, starvation, disease, and exhaustion.

The monstrous crimes uncovered by camp liberators figured prominently in the cases brought against leading Nazis before the Inter­national Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945–1946 (Trial of the Major War Criminals) and several of the subsequent Nuremberg trials (formally the Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals) in 1946–1949.

Dachau Concentration Camp on Liberation Day, April 29, 1945

Liberated Dachau camp prisonersFemale prisoners at Dachau smile and wave

Left: Liberated Dachau inmates cheer U.S. troops. Many broke into tears of joy, laughed, danced, and sang their national anthems—there were more than 40 nation­alities at the Dachau concen­tration camp. The camp lay a scant dozen miles northwest of the Bavarian capital of Munich.

Right: Female prisoners at Dachau wave to their liber­ators. On April 26, 1945, as Amer­i­can forces approached, there were 67,665 regis­tered pri­soners in Dachau and its sub­camps. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as polit­i­cal pri­soners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories.

Hitler youth examine boxcars of dead at DachauU.S. soldiers execute SS prisoners in Dachau's coal yard, April 29, 1945

Left: U.S. 7th Army soldiers force boys believed to be Hitler Youth to exa­mine open box­cars con­taining 2,300 bodies of pri­soners starved to death by the SS. Pro­vi­sioned with little food or water the Dachau Death Train of nearly 40 box­cars had trans­ported between 2,000 and 3,000 pri­soners from Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp 19 days earlier to the Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp 250 miles to the south in the last days of the war. Upon their arrival only 1,300 inmates out of the 5,000 who had left Buchen­wald were able to shuffle the short distance from the rail spur into the Dachau compound.

Right: Thrown off balance by the sight of starvation, cruelty, bestiality, and death all around them on the day of Dachau’s liberation, a small group of U.S. 7th Army soldiers exe­cuted at least 17 SS pri­soners and wounded many more who fell to the ground in a coal yard next to the camp’s heating plant. Many of the liberated camp inmates beat SS men, informers, and Kapos (inmates who were given privileges in return for supervising prisoner work gangs) to bloody pulps or to death with fists, sticks, and shovels. Few of their American liberators intervened.

Contemporary Footage of Dachau Concentration Camp’s Liberation, April 29, 1945