Section: Survival and legacy

What happened to the survivors?

Survivors' tent city at Bergen-Belsen after liberation.
Survivors' tent city at Bergen-Belsen after liberation.

© 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

By 1945 the Nazis had murdered six million Jews.

For many of the survivors within mainland Europe, the defeat of Germany did not bring instant freedom.

Some of the liberated camp survivors were so disease-ridden and weakened by lack of food that they died after liberation.

There were 10 million refugees in Europe at the end of the war. Many of them were forced labourers as well as camp inmates. The Red Cross and other relief organisations did all they could to help send these victims home. The situation for Jews was far more difficult. Many of them did not have homes, families or communities to go back to.

What were the death marches?

As the German army began to retreat westwards during the last months of the war, prisoners were marched and transported to camps in Germany and Austria.

The Germans still wanted to exploit Jewish slave labour from the concentration camps and wanted to make sure that there were no witnesses to their crimes.

The death marches often lasted for weeks at a time. Up to 250,000 people died due to the appalling conditions they faced either through marching on foot or being herded into freight cars.

After the war many hundreds of mass graves containing the victims were found along the routes of the marches.

In November 1944 some 70,000 Jews from Budapest were marched to Dachau (in Germany) and Mauthausen (in Austria). Many thousands were murdered on the way.

Likewise, on 18 January 1945, 66,000 prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps were evacuated, first on foot and then by open-top railway wagons. By the time the prisoners reached their destinations such as Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Dachau and Mauthausen in excess of 15,000 had died or were murdered by the guards. The SS also evacuated camps other camps in much the same manner.

Freddie remembers the death march

As the German army began to retreat westwards during the last months of the war, prisoners were marched and transported to camps in Germany and Austria.

On 18 January 1945, 66,000 prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau and its sub-camps were evacuated, first on foot and then by open top railway wagons. Freddie was one of those prisoners. In this video Freddie talks about his experiences on the death march.

Listen to Freddie’s testimony and reflect on his experiences during the freezing cold weather of January 1945.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.


What problems did survivors face?

By the end of the war, around two million Jews had survived in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands survived the camps. Rescuers had hidden some; whilst others had survived on false papers. In Eastern Europe in particular some had survived in the forests.

As survivors began to return home to search for relatives they were often treated with hostility from the non-Jewish population. A lot of Jewish property had been taken, not by the Nazis, but by the local people. Many of the locals feared that the Jews would demand that their property and belongings be returned.

In Poland from the end of the war to the summer of 1946, Poles murdered approximately 1,500 Jewish survivors. Included in this number was the man who had led the Sobibor uprising.

On 4 July 1946 the Blood Libel was revived in Kielce, a town in southern Poland; 42 Jews were murdered and as many as 80 others were wounded during the pogrom which followed. This led to over 100,000 Jews fleeing Poland, many to displaced persons camps (DP) camps.

What did the Allies find?

As the Allies fought their way across Europe, they discovered the concentration and death camps.

The conditions in the camps had always been terrible. However, by late 1944 and early 1945 the whole camp system was collapsing. The prisoners in the East were subjected to the death marches at the height of winter. The transportation to camps in Germany and Austria led to terrible overcrowding, resulting in many thousands of deaths. The Germans were unable to cope with the numbers within the camps. They could not house or feed the prisoners. This led to widespread starvation and disease.

As they liberated the camps the Allies discovered thousands of victims on the verge of death. In many camps they discovered piles of corpses.

In Bergen-Belsen during March 1945 around 18,000 prisoners of the camp died of disease or starvation. On 15 April 1945 the British army liberated the camp.

They found 60,000 prisoners. Many were dying and thousands of bodies lay unburied. The liberators were unprepared for the situation, but tried to help the survivors. Despite this 14,000 people died in the first weeks of liberation. Many died from disease. Some died because after prolonged starvation their stomachs and bodies just could not take normal food.

When Dachau was liberated on 29 April 1945, it held approximately 67,000 prisoners. Around one third of them were Jews. After liberation, around 250 survivors a day died in Dachau. Survivors of the camp had no possessions. In the beginning they still had to wear their prison uniforms as they had no clothes to wear.

In February 1945 Red Cross representatives had arrived at Sachsenhausen and offered to take control of the camp. The Nazis refused, and instead sent most of the camp’s prisoners on a death march through Germany. When Soviet troops liberated the camp on 27 April 1945, they found just 3,000 prisoners left alive.

What were displaced persons camps?

A displaced persons camp or DP camp is a temporary facility for people forced to leave their homes. To cope with all the refugees DP camps were set up by the Allies across Austria, Italy and Germany.

Often survivors found themselves in the same camps as German prisoners and Nazi collaborators, who had until recently been their jailers.

Initially the camp facilities were very poor. In addition, many survivors suffered severe psychological problems caused by their horrendous treatment at the hands of the perpetrators and collaborators.

By the autumn of 1945, Jewish DPs were recognised as a special group. They were housed in separate camps. They were given some authority to manage their affairs themselves. Most camps elected a committee that took responsibility for running the camp. These committees took care of sanitation, hygiene, cultural activities, education, and religious life.

Care of the children was a high priority and took various forms. DP camp committees established children’s homes and educational facilities. In addition, serious attempts were made to locate any surviving family members.

In DP camps survivors began to recreate lives. In addition to rebuilding their Jewish religious and cultural life, many survivors married and began to start new families. At their height the DP camps held in excess of 250,000 Jewish survivors. Eventually there was less of a need for DP camps. The last Jewish DP camp in Germany closed in 1953.

What happened in August