Liberation of the Nazi Concentration Camps 1933-1945

The information and quotes in this timeline is from the book Inside the Vicious Heart written by Robert H. Abzug.

1933 - American newspapers and magazines reported the existence of concentration camps in early 1933, when Dachau first slammed its gate shut on a group of Communists and other political enemies of the Nazis. The camps had gained reputations for harsh and sadistic treatment of prisoners.

1937 - Buchenwald was built by the Nazis as a camp for political prisoners like German Communists and Social Democrats. Between 1937-8, Jews were added as Germany's anti-Semitic campaign was set in motion. With a population of 15,000 prisoners, the camp was one of slave labor, with German Communists at the top.

August 18, 1940 - Hans Frank, Nazi governor of occupied Poland, announces plans to make Cracow free of Jews, declaring, "the Jews must vanish from the face of the earth."

1941 - In eastern Alsace, up a winding road from the village of Natzwiller, the Nazis built a labor camp, Natzweiler-Struthof, the only concentration camp on French soil. The inmates originally were German who were to supply labor for building V-2 factories in man-made caves dug out of the Vosges Mountains. The prisoners would live in the cold, damp tunnels as they built them.

1943 - Natzweiler-Struthof was expanded by the Nazis with the installation of a gas chamber and crematory for the mass killing of Jews, Gypsies, and captured Resistance fighters from Holland, Belgium, and France. Under Paragraph 175 of the German legal code, male homosexuality was punished by imprisonment, but not female lesbianism. After 1943, male homosexuals were forced to wear a pink trangle and were sent to the death camps. The Americans did not repeal Paragraph 175 and sent homosexual inmates liberated from the camps to other prisons.

July 24, 1944 - At Lublin in Poland, Red Army soldiers discovered the abandoned Majdanek extermination camp, the first major camp to be liberated. Despite hasty efforts of the Germans to burn the camp to hide its purpose, the Russians found the remains of gas chambers. During the next month, Soviet troops liberated the abandoned Belzec and Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps.

August 31 1944 - The SS began the evacuation of the Natzweiler-Struthof camp as Allied troops approached; 2000 prisoners died on the death march to Dachau.

September 1944 - American reporters visited Lublin and the Majdanek camp in Poland. Stories with pictures of a warehouse bursting with 800,000 shoes that had once belonged to Nazi victims were widely published.

October 26, 1944 - Canadian forces liberated the abandoned Vught concentration camp in the Netherlands.

November 23 1944 - The French Army entered the abandoned Natzweiler-Struthof camp in Alsace.

December 5, 1944 - The New York Times's Milton Bracker toured the abandoned site of the Natzweiler-Struthof camp, explaining, "It might have been a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, from the winding road to the bald hilltop, the sturdy green barrack buildings looked exactly like those that housed forestry trainees in the United States during the early New Deal." Members of the Free French showed Bracker a small dark room with almost fifty S-shaped hooks suspended from metal rods on the ceiling. Prisoners hung from the hooks by their bound wrists before Zyklon-B gas was pumped into the room to kill them. A dissection room, with an autopsy table , and a small storage room crammed with burial urns was also discovered. Reportedly 16,000 persons had come as prisoners to Natzwiller between late 1941 and the evacuation in the summer of 1944, and 4,000 perished.

December 9, 1944 - Americans Colonel Paul Kirk and Lt. Colonel Edward J. Gully of the American Sixth Army Group arrived to inspect Natzweiler-Struthof. They duly reported their findings: a disinfestation unit, a large pile of human hair, a gas chamber, an incinerator room with equipment intended for the burning of human bodies, a cell room and an autopsy room. After their first-hand look and detailed report to war crimes investigators, they retained a certain measure of disbelief, or "double vision" as Bracker described it. The correlation between the remains of the camp and millions dead could not be grasped even on personal inspection. This "double vision" was as much a story as the discovery of the camp itself. The term came from the first Great War when false propaganda about German atrocities was widely reported. Many remembered this and thought perhaps the reports coming from Europe to the United States were false too. However, Bracker attributed the disbelief to simply the inability to conceive the magnitude and detail of the horror. "Double vision" was typical of many American officers in France, who infuriated local populations by doubting and sometimes even scoffing at stories of German inhumanity.

January 27, 1945 - Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death camp.

Ohrdruf from Patch-NA

April 5, 1945 - In search of secret Nazi communications along the Autobahn, units of the American Fourth Armored Division of the Third Army moved on Gotha and Ohrdruf, discovering the first of the camps containing prisoners and corpses to be uncovered by American armies. 10,000 men had lived and slaved at Ohrdruf. Near the end, the SS had marched the prisoners to other camps, known as death marches, or killed them. Ohrdruf was a minor sub-camp of Buchenwald, and on the edge of the camp was a gigantic pit, where the Nazi's had stacked bodies and wood and burned them. Ohrdruf had actually been discovered by accident. After the Americans had taken the town where part of the communications center was located, reconnoitering troops found the main gate to the camp just over the crest of a small hill. Corpses in striped uniforms were found right inside the gate. Some found were alive, others long since dead. One man greeted the first American soldiers, as he gave them a tour, a Polish prisoner came up to him, and in full sight of the Americans, hit him with a piece of lumber and stabbed him to death. The dead man had been a guard parading as a prisoner. Ohrdruf was significant as the first camp that contained both the starved, frail bodies of hundreds and the prisoners who had managed to survive. The revelation of the horror, the mutually exclusive desires to remember and to forget, would serve to mark the loss of innocence of the entire world.

Jewish Buchenwald prisoners would be liberated and eventually sent to Palestine, from Patch-NA

April 11, 1945 - North of Ohrdruf, near the town of Nordhausen, the American Timberwolf Division came upon 3,000 corpses and more than seven hundred barely surviving inmates. Both living and dead lay in two double-decker barracks, piled three to a bunk. The rooms reeked of death and excrement. Victims of starvation and tuberculosis, the prisoners had also suffered from American bombing of the V-2 factories just one week before. Fred Bohm, an Austrian-born American soldier who helped liberate Nordhausen described that his fellow American G.I.'s "had no particular feeling for fighting the Germans. They also thought that any stories they had read in the paper, or that I had told them out of first- hand experience, were either not true or at least exaggerated. And it did not sink in, what this was all about, until we got into Nordhausen." The disbelief of Americans in general, and American soldiers specifically, exemplifies the "double vision" of the human psyche, when one man is forced to face the evidence of torture inflicted on another, only to realize his own helplessness, consequently he represses all emotion, all senses, he becomes numb. American Combat Team 9 of the 9th Armored Infantry Battalion, Sixth Armored Division, captured the town of Hottelstedt. 50 Russian prisoners emerged from the woods and said they were from Buchenwald just to the southeast. Buchenwald had 30,000 prisoners in a pyramid of power, with German Communists at the top and living in the main barracks, and Jews and Gypsies at the bottom, living on the outskirts, in Little Camp, as assortment of barns. Buchenwald barrack prisoners were reasonably healthy-looking and ready to assist in administering food. Little Camp was a nightmare with 1,000 to 1,200 prisoners in a space meant for 450. In Germany in Defeat, Percy Knauth described Little Camp's prisoners as, "emaciated beyond all imagination or description. Their legs and arms were sticks with huge bulging joints, and their loins were fouled by their own excrement. Their eyes were sunk so deep that they looked blind. If they moved at all, it was with a crawling slowness that made them look like huge, lethargic spiders. Many just lay in their bunks as if dead." The smell of Little Camp, the smell emanating from discarded, decaying flesh, burning bodies, and an open concrete ditch that serviced as the latrine, was indescribable. Even after liberation, twenty prisoners in each Little Camp block died a day. They were gnomes, sticklike figures with sunken eyes who would hobble forward to cry and yell at the sight of their liberators.

Eisenhower from Patch-NA

April 12, 1945 - Generals George Patton, Omar Bradley,and Dwight Eisenhower arrived in Ohrdruf. They saw more than 3,200 naked, emaciated bodies that had been flung into shallow graves. Eisenhower insisted on seeing the entire camp: a shed piled to the ceiling with bodies, various torture devices, and a butcher's block used for smashing gold fillings from the mouths of the dead. Patton became physically ill behind the barracks. Eisenhower felt that it was necessary for his troops to see for themselves, and the world to know about the conditions at Ohrdruf. The day ended with news that Roosevelt had died. Many American soldiers did not know what they were fighting for. Eisenhower realized that it was imperative for the soldiers to at least understand what they were fighting against. He wanted the world to know of the conditions at Ohrdruf. His message to Washington read: "We are constantly finding German camps in which they have placed political prisoners where unspeakable conditions exist. From my own personal observation, I can state unequivocally that all written statements up to now do not paint the full horrors."

April 29, 1945 - American forces liberated Dachau, the first concentration camp built in 1933,


WWII Timeline start | Links | Topics | Pictures | Maps | written 5/4/99 by Kristen Campbell and revised 12/11/04