In Depth

Auschwitz liberation 75 years on: how the world reacted

Liberation of Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz received relatively little international attention at the time

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, where more than one million people, most of them Jewish, were killed during World War Two. By comparison, the combined British and American death toll during the war was 880,000.

It was on 27 January 1945 that Soviet troops opened the gates of the concentration camp in Poland to find thousands of prisoners awaiting liberation, as well as seven tons of women’s hair, human teeth and tens of thousands of children’s outfits.

The majority of prisoners, around 60,000, had been marched away to other camps, thousands dying on the journey from starvation or cold or at the hands of SS guards.

Auschwitz has gained a reputation as the worst of the Nazi concentration camps, but at the time of its liberation it received relatively little international attention.

‘Most horrible crime ever committed’

January 1945 was not the first time that world leaders heard about Nazi concentration camps. Information about mass murder began to spread around the world in the early 1940s and, in December 1942, the Allies publicly condemned the “extermination” of the Jewish people in Europe and declared that they would punish the perpetrators.

After reading the first detailed account of Auschwitz in July 1944, Winston Churchill described the atrocities at the camp as “the most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world”, reports the BBC.

But, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner and former head of the International Auschwitz Council, says “not one country in the world reacted as the seriousness of the situation required”.

The Auschwitz bomb debate

The Allied decision not to bomb the gas chambers or the rail lines leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau before the 1945 liberation has been a source of “sometimes bitter debate”, explains the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The argument has centred on whether the Allied forces had the capacity for an attack, and whether or not it would have saved more lives than it might have destroyed.

The Jewish Virtual Library says it remains “unclear” to what extent Allied and neutral leaders understood the full import of their information. “The utter shock of senior Allied commanders who liberated camps at the end of the war may indicate that this understanding was not complete,” it says.

Lack of press attention

Historian Laurence Rees suggests that Auschwitz’s liberation initially received little press attention in part because it was not the first camp to be liberated, but also because the Soviet Union minimised the attention it paid to Jewish suffering for propaganda purposes.

“In order to strengthen their motivation to fight against Germany, the Soviet propaganda and press stressed that the Russians, Ukrainians and other Slavic peoples were the main target of the Nazi terror and extermination,” says Yitzhak Arad, an Israeli historian, in an essay for the book Why Didn’t the Press Shout? “Conversely, the Soviet press also conducted the policy of blurring the truth about the total murder of Jews.”

Journalist Laurel Leff has analysed how little attention the Holocaust received in The New York Times, the pre-eminent newspaper in the US at the time. In her 2005 book, Buried by the Times, she points to the sparse editorial space allotted to the subject and says the newspaper “contributed to the public’s ignorance”.

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Sights of camp ‘beggar description’

Three months after the liberation of Auschwitz, Dwight Eisenhower, who later became US president, visited Ohrdruf, another liberated Nazi camp in Germany, and reported that the things he saw “beggar description”. He added that the “visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick”.

Following Eisenhower’s visit, a group of prominent journalists, led by Joseph Pulitzer, came to see the concentration camps. The Jewish Virtual Library says it was the following reports, newsreel pictures and visits of important delegations that “proved to be influential in the public consciousness of the still unnamed German atrocities and the perception that something awful had been done to the Jews”.

The future of Holocaust education

Now, 75 years on, Holocaust education “is as important as ever and it is essential that we get it right”, says Sara Jones, professor of modern languages and German studies at the University of Birmingham.

Writing for The Conversation, she says “one particularly effective method of passing on knowledge and experience to the younger generation has been the involvement of survivors”. But Jones notes that the number of survivors are dwindling.

This is being addressed in different ways around the world, from books and plays to digital projections of survivors speaking. Some children of survivors have also been willing to speak about what happened to their parents, although Jones notes that this is not the same as a first-generation survivor recounting their feelings and experiences.

“Holocaust education is a cornerstone of teaching against prejudice and discrimination,” concludes Jones. “Survivors have used their own experience to make sure we never forget and we need to work together to ensure that their voices continue to be heard.”

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