Background: Liberation

Liberation is often imagined as a time of celebration and freedom. However, survivors in Topic 5 describe a rather different picture. In this Topic, Edith Birkin explains how she was forced to walk in a death march. In 1945, as the end of the war seemed likely, the Nazis began to force surviving camp inmates to travel from Poland to Germany on what became known as death marches. Thousands froze, starved or were shot on the way. As they left the camps, the Nazis attempted to hide evidence of their appalling crimes. For example, they blew up the crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945.


In March and April 1945, Soviet, US and British troops began to liberate the camps. Survivors in Topic 5 describe their reactions and the long process of rehabilitation. Many prisoners died from malnutrition or from the spread of epidemics. Those that survived faced the traumatic decision of returning home. Edith Birkin describes her return home only to find that all her possessions had been taken and that none of her family survived.


After the war, only a small percentage of perpetrators were put on trial. Some committed suicide before they were tried, others assumed false identities and escaped abroad. Many were not prosecuted. War trial investigations continue to this day.


The Nazis and their collaborators murdered six million Jews in the Holocaust and thousands of Jewish communities were destroyed. In addition to Jewish victims, three million non-Jewish Poles, three million Soviet prisoners-of-war and thousands of homosexuals, black people, priests and people with disabilities were killed. Estimates of Roma and Sinti (gypsies) murdered in mass shootings and death camps range from 200,000 to over 1,000,000. After the war, the survivors faced an uncertain future and many still live today with the long-lasting effects of the loss of family, friends and communities.