From Death Camps to Death Marches

Map of the camps (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Marilyn Spencer)

As the Soviets advanced in late 1944 and early 1945, the Nazis evacuated camps close to the front. Many prisoners were crammed into freight trains, some with open-topped carriages, and transported in freezing conditions. Others were forced to cover huge distances on foot. Tens of thousands of already weakened Jewish men, women and children died during these evacuations to camps further west.

About 60,000 prisoners were evacuated by the Nazis from Auschwitz a mere matter of days before the Soviets liberated the camp. Only some 7,000 prisoners remained in the Auschwitz camp compound.

Child survivors of Auschwitz (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography)

At Auschwitz, the Soviet troops of the First Ukrainian Front found horrible evidence of atrocities against Jews. This included hundreds of thousands of coats, 45,000 pairs of shoes and over 7 tons of human hair. 

Buchenwald in eastern Germany was liberated on 11 April 1945. But the SS had already evacuated thousands of prisoners earlier in April, sending them south towards other camps such as Dachau. Many died on the way. Dachau was not liberated until 29 April 1945.

Slave labourers at Buchenwald after liberation (copyright: Private H. Miller)

At Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, the prisoners were not evacuated by the Nazis for fear of spreading typhus. When the British liberated the camp on 15 April, they found 60,000 prisoners inside: but many were too sick to be able to recover. 14,000 died after liberation, mostly from typhus. Anne Frank and her sister Margot died in Bergen-Belsen. They are remembered there today.

Memorial to Anne and Margot Frank, Belsen (copyright:

Paalso Paal Sørensen. CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reusing the Camps

After liberation, many of the former concentration camps were put to a new use. In August 1945, Buchenwald – which had been liberated that April – became one of ten so-called “Special Camps” run by the Soviets. Mostly, the Soviets held local Nazi functionaries at these camps, but they also interned people who had been denounced or who were regarded as politically suspect.

After liberation, Dachau became an internment camp for former camp guards, SS members, and other Nazi functionaries. In November and December 1945, the United States military conducted a trial of former Dachau concentration camp staff at the site. 36 defendants were sentenced to death, 23 of whom were hanged in May 1946. Between 1945 and 1947, a number of other American military tribunals were held at Dachau. In every case, those accused were former camp personnel: of Mauthausen (1946), Flossenbürg (1946-1947), Buchenwald (1947), Mühldorf (1947), and Dora-Nordhausen (1947).

Rudolf Wolf, who testified that more than 600 prisoners at Dachau had been killed in a "death march", points to Franz Trenkle, number 4 on the list of forty accused torturers at Dachau being tried for their actions (copyright: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Displaced Persons

After the war, survivors of the Holocaust became “displaced persons” or DPs. They had been deported from their home countries and towns, and separated from their families. Many had lost their families in the Holocaust. Many had no home to return to any more.

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) set up many of the DP camps. The DP camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy housed at least one million people. They included survivors of concentration camps, labour camps, prisoner of war (POW) camps, and other former forced labourers.

Jewish musicians and actors in the Feldafing displaced persons camp pose beneath a Yiddish banner that reads: “The blood of the victims of fascism calls for vigilance” (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Peter Feigl)

There were about 250,000 Jews in the DP camps. They were occasionally housed together with non-Jews, including in some cases German prisoners and Nazi collaborators. Numbers at DP camps were swelled by those Jews coming from eastern Europe, where anti-Semitic violence had not ended in 1945.

One of the biggest Jewish displaced persons’ camps was at Föhrenwald in Bavaria. Its population varied, but was significant. It housed between 4,000 and slightly over 5,000 inhabitants in the 1946-1947 period. At Föhrenwald, as in other Jewish DP camps, there developed a rich Jewish cultural, religious, and social life.

 Children at Föhrenwald (copyright: Yad Vashem)

Where now?

For the Holocaust survivors living in displaced persons’ camps, and for those agencies who helped them such as the Joint Distribution Committee, there was one big question: where would they make a future for themselves? Many came originally from eastern Europe and had no wish to go back – or reason to do so given that their homes and families there had been destroyed. Staying in Germany, the land of the perpetrators, was unthinkable for the majority.

In the USA, quota restrictions initially made it difficult for Jews to go there. President Truman relaxed these restrictions in December 1945. As a result of the Displaced Persons Act (1948) and amendments to the act in 1950, around 82,000 Jewish DPs had emigrated to the USA by 1952.

Britain, fearing Arab unrest, restricted emigration by Jewish Holocaust survivors to the British mandate of Palestine. But in an operation called Aliyah Bet, Jewish organisations coordinated illegal emigration to what later became Israel. In April 1947, the British intercepted the Theodor Herzl (carrying 2,500 Jewish passengers). Three passengers were killed and 27 were injured.

Protesting passengers on board the Theodor Herzl (copyright: Getty Images)

The fate of the ship Exodus became symbolic of the difficulties of illegal immigration to Palestine. With around 4,500 Holocaust survivors on board, the Exodus was intercepted by the British, and towed to the port of Haifa. The passengers were ultimately shipped back to Germany. The British detained about 50,000 Jews who had attempted to reach Palestine in camps in Cyprus.

Jewish refugees crowd together aboard the Exodus in 1947 (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Giza Wiernik) 

The refugee crisis was one factor in the decision of the British to pass the problem of the future of Palestine to the United Nations. The UN General Assembly partitioned Palestine, leading to the foundation of the state of Israel in May 1948.

Most of the DP camps were dissolved in 1950. About 300,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors had emigrated to the new state of Israel by 1951/1952. Now, life began for Holocaust survivors in new homes around the world, above all in Israel.

Trials and Tribulations

It is often claimed that the Nazi genocide of the Jews was not adequately acknowledged in the immediate post-war period. The Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946) of major Nazi leaders and war criminals did address the Nazi murder of Jews, but this was not really treated as distinct from other Nazi crimes.

The western Allies put up posters in Germany which showed images of Nazi atrocities. This poster tells the Germans: “These shameful deeds: Your guilt […] You stood by and let it happen without speaking out […] You too are responsible for these terrible crimes.” (Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)

In 1945, the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews – which represented Jews in the American zone – began to gather information on the Nazi persecution of Jews. The documentation was sent to Israel. In the DP camps, surviving Jews published articles about the Nazi persecution and murder in newspapers and commemorative books.

A meeting of the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in the US Zone of Germany (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alex Hochhauser)

Liberation had freed Jews from Nazism, but in the 1950s their suffering was not widely remembered. Jews continued to suffer persecution, particularly under communism in eastern Europe. Thus Rudolf Slansky, a communist politician and a Jew, was sentenced to death in a show trial in Czechoslovakia in 1952 for “high treason”. In the Soviet bloc, Jewish communists and communists who survived the Second World War in western exile frequently stood accused of “counter-revolutionary” tendencies.

In May 1960, Israeli security service agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. Eichmann was an important figure in the deportation of Jews during the war. He stood trial in Jerusalem where he was sentenced to death.

Adolf Eichmann listens to the proceedings through a glass booth during his trial in Jerusalem (copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The Eichmann trial did much to raise awareness of the genocide of the Jews. The trial in Frankfurt (1963-1965) of 22 of Auschwitz’s former camp personnel intensified this awareness. 17 defendants were convicted either of murder or of aiding and abetting murder.

Remarkably, many Jewish intellectuals returned from emigration to what became East and West Germany after 1949. These included the philosophers Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Ernst Bloch, the writer Anna Seghers, and the composer Hanns Eisler. Slowly, the German-Jewish dialogue began over again.

Philosophers Horkheimer and Adorno in Heidelberg, 1964 (copyright: Jjshapiro. CC BY-SA 3.0)


The above overview focuses on some of the main concentration and death camps, but what do you know about Nazi satellite camps? What does this expression mean?

What is the connection between the founding of the state of Israel, and the Holocaust?

How was it possible that, after the Holocaust, persecution of Jews could continue, for instance in Soviet-controlled countries?

The Allies liberated countries occupied by the Nazis, and they liberated Nazi camps. They also liberated Germany from Nazism. Yet many Germans did not feel “liberated”. Why not?

Was it right of the Allies, in postwar posters for instance, to suggest that the German population as a whole was to blame for the atrocities in the Nazi camps?

The Jewish community in contemporary Germany is much larger now than at any time in the postwar history of West Germany. How can this be explained?

Reading List

Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2009)

Deborah E. Lipstadt, The Eichmann Trial (Nextbook/Schocken: New York, 2011)

Ben Shephard, After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 (Pimlico: London, 2006)

Dan Stone, The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2015)

Ann Tusa and John Tusa, The Nuremberg Trial (Skyhorse: New York, 2010)

Rebecca Wittmann, Beyond Justice: The Auschwitz Trial (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2005