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Freeing the death camps: sixty years after the end of World War II, JS recalls the liberation of the concentration camps.

By the summer of 1944, the last phase of World War II had begun. Troops of the Allied powers started to fight their way on two fronts across Europe. As they neared Nazi Germany, they encountered evidence of a mind-boggling crime against humanity. But few could have been prepared for the full horror of the concentration and extermination (systematic killing) camps of the Nazi regime.

World War II (1939-1945) had many causes. But it also had a prime mover: Adolf Hitler, Nazi Party leader and Chancellor of Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Germans were bitterly resentful over losing World War I (1914-1918). As their Fuhrer (leader) set out to conquer Europe, he also blamed certain groups for endangering the racial purity and superiority of the German people. Chief among those were the Jews of Europe. Hitler vowed a "final solution" to the "Jewish question."

The first concentration camps were built in 1933 to imprison Hitler's political enemies. Later, the "final solution" gave birth to camps that existed solely for the slaughter of human beings. In the end, an estimated 6 million Jews and 5 million other minorities died during World War II, a majority of them in the camps. (Your teacher has a map showing the location of many of the camps.)

Freeing Auschwitz

Pushing from the east through Poland, soldiers of the Soviet Union's Red Army were the first to see and liberate (free) the camps. On January 27, 1945, they entered the most notorious camp of all--Auschwitz (OUSH-wits).

The Nazis had fled as the Soviets approached, driving nearly 60,000 prisoners with them in a forced march that killed more than 15,000. What was left behind was almost beyond comprehension. There were more than 7,000 sick and starving prisoners, and gas chambers and crematoriums (furnaces) used for mass murder and the disposal of bodies. The Soviets also found 35 storehouses full of clothes, eyeglasses, false teeth, and more than 14,000 pounds of human hair taken from the dead. Historians believe that as many as 1.5 million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 18,000 Gypsies, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war were murdered at Auschwitz and its camp system.

On April 4, 1945, soldiers from the U.S. Third Army freed a camp in the town of Ohrdruf, in central Germany. Tech. Sgt. Eugene Luciano later wrote about the experience:

"Many prisoners laid in their bunks too weak to move, but raised their arms in thanks. Bodies were piled high on the ground; others were in pits covered with lime. There were rows of ditches filled with buried bodies with an occasional leg or arm protruding [sticking up] out of the ground. The stench was intolerable."

Ohrdruf turned out to be a subcamp of Buchenwald (BOO-kuhn-vahlt), one of the Nazis' largest camps. On April 11, after most of the Germans had fled, a group of starving prisoners who had been left behind seized control of the camp. Later that day, U.S. forces liberated Buchenwald and its 20,000 inmates.

Symbols of Evil

On April 29, near the German city of Munich, soldiers of the U.S. Seventh Army liberated Dachau (DAH-kow). The first concentration camp established, Dachau was a center for cruel medical experiments that killed or crippled thousands of people.

As U.S. soldiers approached the town, they found more than 30 railroad cars filled with bodies. The camp itself held about 32,000 prisoners, barely alive, and 10,000 bodies. "[T]hey opened the compound, and I seen thousands of people crowding out that looked like skeletons with skin stretched on them," said James Rose of the 42nd Infantry. "[J]ust one look at them, some of them half dead, something happened that we realized what this war was all about."

In a few days, the war was over. Hitler killed himself on April 30 as Soviet troops closed in on his bunker in Berlin. German commanders had already been arranging for a surrender and, on May 8, it was official.

Historians debate how much the U.S. government knew about the camps before April 1945, and whether something could have been done to liberate them sooner. Today, 60 years later, their names alone convey an almost incomprehensible evil: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka, Buchenwald, Dachau, and others. They are among the most powerful symbols of the horror we call the Holocaust.

Words to Know

* Allied powers: forces of the Allies--led by the United States, Britain, Canada, and the Soviet Union--who opposed the Axis countries of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

* concentration camp: an area or group of buildings where civilians, political prisoners, and sometimes prisoners of war are confined, usually under harsh conditions.


Students should understand

* Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime built a system of prison camps to hold prisoners and systematically kill the Jews of Europe.

* April 2005 marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps; May 8 is V-E Day (Victory in Europe Day) marking the end of World War II in Europe.


notorious: widely and unfavorably known


Ask students: "What does the name Auschwitz mean to you? What happened there?"


How did Adolph Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy plan to actually solve "the Jewish question" that so enraged them? On January 20, 1942, senior Nazis met at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, to work out their "final solution." It was at the Wannsee Conference that the organization and implementation of rounding up the Jews of Europe and their "evacuation to the east" was worked out. Everyone present knew this meant shipment to concentration camps and the systematic murder we call the Holocaust.


NOTING DETAILS: What grisly items were found in storehouses at Auschwitz? (clothes, false teeth, and more than 14,000 pounds of hair)

COMPREHENSION: What attitude of the German people helped lead to World War II? (Germans resented losing World War I. In Hitler's hands, the manner of appeasing this resentment grew to include the attempt to conquer Europe and even the final solution.)


LEARN MORE: There are many first-person stories of Holocaust survivors in books and on the Web. Have students (or small groups of students) find one such person's story and present it to the class.



* Individuals, groups, and institutions: How the rise of the Nazi Party led to the creation of concentration and death camps, with devastating results for millions of Jews and other minorities.

* Global connections: How political changes in Germany affected the lives of millions of people throughout Europe and beyond.



* Rubin, Susan Goldman, Fireflies in the Dark: The Story of Freidl Dicker-Brandeis and the Children of Terezin (Holiday House, 2001). Grades 5-8.

* Warren, Andrea, Surviving Hitler: A Boyin the Nazi Death Camps (HarperCollins, 2002). Grades 5-7


* Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State (for companion DVD:; enter Auschwitz in search panel)

* Use a word or phrase from this list to correctly complete each sentence.

Allied powers, Auschwitz, Axis powers, the Battle of the Bulge, camps plan, final solution, Fuhrer, Nazi Party, Ohrdruf, perfect answer, Soviet Union's Red Army, U.S. Third Army, World War I, World War II

21. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Germans were resentful over losing--.

22. 'Germany, Italy, and Japan were known as the--.

23. In World War II, Britain, Canada, the Soviet Union, the U.S., and some other nations were known as the--.

24. Adolf Hitler's policy for dealing with the "Jewish question" is known as the--.

25. The first soldiers to see and liberate Nazi concentration camps belonged to the--.

21. World War I

22. Axis powers

23. Allied powers

24. final solution

25. Soviet Union's Red Army
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Title Annotation:WORLD HISTORY
Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Apr 25, 2005
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