Holocaust survivors’ ordeal didn’t end with liberation

“The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath,” by Dan Stone; Yale University Press; $32.50, 277 pages.

By Burton Boxerman, Special to the Jewish Light

Beginning in the summer of 1944 and continuing the following year, Allied forces began liberating the Nazi concentration camps, including the largest and most infamous ones at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau.  

As Allied soldiers, including a number who were Jewish, liberated these camps, they discovered mass graves and horrible torture rooms. These soldiers also came across hordes of gaunt and starving prisoners left by the retreating German army. These soldiers, presumingly accustomed to the horrors of war, were unable to stomach what they witnessed.

Liberation from the concentration camps was only the first step, however, in the process of recovery. Many prisoners were forced to remain in temporary barbed-wire encampments, not merely for weeks or months, but often for years, to achieve the difficult process of full recovery. These camps were given a new name – Displaced Persons Camp — where the newly liberated prisoners remained while the Allies determined their fate. 

Even after their liberation from their DP Camps, the former prisoners struggled to rebuild their lives.   


Their story is the subject of the book “The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath” by Dan Stone, a professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London.  Many historians have chronicled  Hitler’s rise to power, the onset of the “Final Solution” and the ultimate Holocaust, which was accompanied by Nazi death camps. Stone, however, focuses on the camp survivors during the months and years after their liberation.  

One reason for the paucity of books dealing with this subject is a reluctance on the part of scholars and historians to accept survivors’ written or spoken testimony. But Stone, along with other historians, has long felt that memory is a very valuable tool to describe events that took place decades earlier.  

Stone makes ample use of interviews by David Boder, a Russian-Jewish psychologist who was the first to use a wire recorder to collect testimonies of Holocaust survivors. 

After World War II, Boder spent two months interviewing more than 150 displaced people to achieve four goals: preserve an authentic record of wartime suffering; discover the impact of extreme suffering on personality; educate the public about what happened in the ghettos and concentration camps; and to use the stories told by the survivors to campaign on their behalf for immigration to America. Boder published his interviews in the summer of 1947 in the book “I Did Not Interview the Dead.” 

Stone did not immediately accept the usefulness of Boder’s oral interviews. To give more authenticity to Boder’s conclusions, Stone checked official reports;  journalistic accounts; statements by liberating soldiers and relief workers; and documentation from a number of organizations, among them the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Organization for Rehabilitation and Training, and the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad.

He also used numerous archival sources, including the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Witness to the Holocaust Project at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as numerous printed primary sources.  

The result is a highly readable and extremely detailed account of the aftermath of the liberation of the death camps. He adequately traces the long and sometimes painful road traveled from prisoner to survivor. 

Many of the testimonies given by those interviewed are very moving.  Many young survivors chose to go to Palestine rather than to stay physically close to their relatives. 

A 16-year-old Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz had the opportunity to live with her father in the United States but chose to settle in Palestine.  

“Unless we have a national homeland, we will perish as a nation,” she said. “I am young in years, but I am very old in experience. I am still strong, and I want to work for my people.” 

Stone has written a remarkable book that is recommended as an excellent follow-up to readers of Nikolaus Wachsmann’s “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps.”