By May 1945 all of the concentration and extermination camps across Europe had been liberated. In this final piece in a blog series by the author of The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath, Dan Stone explores the liberation of Theresienstadt, the last of the camps to be liberated. Stone focuses on a range of personal responses to this, the last of the liberations, and asks what it meant to be a survivor of the holocaust. Was this an ‘end to grief’?
Theresienstadt: 8 May, 1945
by Dan Stone
The Red Army entered the first camp to be liberated – Majdanek – and the last – Theresienstadt. Created as a holding pen for mainly elderly Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, Theresienstadt, situated in a former Austro-Hungarian walled barracks town north of Prague, was a strange mix of ghetto and camp. Its dissimilarity from a concentration camp meant that it was used by the Nazis to host a Red Cross visit, when that institution wanted to verify that the Third Reich was treating “prisoners” correctly. The fact that it was so easily hoodwinked was because Theresienstadt looked more like a self-governing Jewish town than what the Red Cross might have thought a concentration camp looked like. Yet behind the façade lay a story of immense suffering. Some 87,000 had been deported from Theresienstadt to death camps, of whom only 3,600 survived. Among the dead were those Jews interned in the so-called Czech “family camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the inmates were kept alive until after the Red Cross approved what it had seen at Theresienstadt; the Czech Jews in Birkenau were then surplus to requirements and were murdered on 8 March 1944, the biggest mass murder of Czech civilians during World War II.
As the end of the war approached, conditions in Theresienstadt worsened, though they did not reach the devastating levels seen at Belsen or Mauthausen. Although at the end of January 1945 rumours went round the camp that inmates who had previously been deported to Auschwitz were now passing by again through the nearby train station at Bauschowitz, Theresienstadt’s inmates would have to wait three months more before they would gain their freedom. As in other camps, at the end of that process, huge numbers of new inmates arrived from evacuated camps further east, further complicating an already precarious hygiene and food situation. One diarist at the camp, seventeen-year-old Alisah Shek, noted on 20 April that 1,800 “people from the camps” arrived in twenty-five wagons, “stinking, infested cattle wagons, inside stinking infested people, half alive, half dead or corpses.” That was just the start: between 20 and 30 April there were 12,555 new registrations at Theresienstadt and the camp’s population rose from 17,515 to 29,227.
When liberation came to Thereisenstadt, many hardly noticed. One moment the SS guards were there, and then they disappeared. “Our prison guards left us without a stir”, wrote Käthe Stark, “of which we were completely unaware.” Only a few days later, when the Red Army troops arrived, did the inmates really feel that they had been liberated. Yet for many survivors liberation was too much to bear. In an interview given to David Boder, one of the pioneers of recording Holocaust testimony, in 1946, Nechama Epstein-Kozlowski, a Polish Jew who had endured a succession of ghettos and camps, explained how liberation did not mean the end of her grief:
‘I didn’t have anybody, all alone. All night I lay and cried, “What will I do now? I have remained alone, without a home, without a father and without a mother. And now freedom. What did I survive for?” I was alive crying, but my fate had not been completely lost.’
What she meant was that she was able to get to Warsaw, where she was reunited with her husband, and together they were hoping to get to Palestine. Another survivor, Shmuel Krakowski, noted that for the many Jewish Red Army soldiers Theresienstadt was important since it was the first camp they had liberated where there were substantial numbers of Jewish survivors. Yet for those survivors, what awaited them was hardly appealing:
‘Although we had seen a lot and experienced the worst, we still had hoped, still had dreamed. All those days we struggled to survive, hour after hour, day after day, there had been no time to grasp the enormity of our tragedy. Now everything became clear. No longer were our families waiting for us; no homes to go back to. For us the victory had come too late, much too late.’
Throughout all the different liberations, whether carried out by the Western Allies or the Red Army, whether in a camp, on a death march, or emerging from hiding, one thing remained constant: the survivors’ mixed emotions. Liberation, for many, was indeed a joyous moment, for they had against all odds outlived the hated Nazi regime. But that joy was always accompanied by other emotions, including fear, shame and guilt at having survived and, above all, intense loneliness as survivors discovered that often they were the sole remnants of their families and that their communities and homes had been devastated. For most, liberation meant a new set of troubles as they struggled to find somewhere to live, to rebuild families, learn new languages and trades, and gradually rebuild their lives. But even those that did so never really got over liberation. As Ernst Israel Bornstein wrote, “While a former inmate of a concentration camp may laugh and be merry with others, he aches and bleeds inside because the old wounds will not heal. Even though he has left the spatially limited concentration camp, the terrible atmosphere of the camp still encompasses him; it is as though the KZ were still inside him.”
Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has published widely on the Holocaust, genocide and twentieth century European history.
The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath by Dan Stone is now available from Yale University Press.