by Julian Thornton 

On the 4th April 1945 members of the U.S. Army discovered a camp near the town of Ohrdruf Germany. When the Soldiers neared the camp, they smelled an unusual odour, next as they broke through the camp gate they discovered hundreds of bodies, stacked in piles and covered in lime. Upon further inspection they discovered more bodies that had been incinerated and left to rot. Not everyone in the camp was dead, several hundred camp inmates began walking towards the soldiers. They had been starved and could only move slowly, their bones showing through their skin, their heads shaved, wearing what can only be described as striped pyjamas. Upon entrance to the camp barracks even more bodies were discovered lying on hard wooden beds, some alive, some dead and many about to die. No food, no water, no sanitation.

The discovery of the camp led to General Dwight Eisenhower (Supreme Allied Commander) visiting the camp some days later. Eisenhower described his encounter:

“The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp, I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda”

Eisenhower insisted that representatives from British and American governments along with media visit the camp to see for themselves exactly what had happened. It turned out that Ohrdruf had been home to thousands of inmates, many of whom had been tortured and transferred to even larger camps. One of which wasn’t overly far away and was named Buchenwald. It was discovered by U.S. soldiers on 11th April. 21,000 inmates at Buchenwald were liberated on that day. Again, conditions were horrific, so bad in fact that the army ordered the local Mayor to send food and water to the camp with as many medical supplies as soon as possible. On 15th April General George Patton ordered the Mayor of Weimar to bring 1,000 citizens to Buchenwald, these were predominantly men of military age from the middle and upper classes. The Germans had to walk a 16 miles round trip under armed guard and were shown the crematorium and other evidence of Nazi atrocities. The Americans wanted to ensure that the local people would take responsibility for Nazi crimes.

Extremely ghastly discoveries at the camp showed how prisoners were used in experiments, including severely burning the skin to see the results. Some were given poison to see how long it took to take effect. Those who refused to do something, or even looked at guards the wrong way would find themselves hanging from trees by their wrists and left to die. The SS guards showed absolutely no mercy and carried out their barbaric orders with ruthless efficiency and complete disregard for human life. Tom Driberg, a British politician and journalist who visited the camp wrote that "such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended. The memory of what we saw at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years."

To the horror of many even larger camps were discovered. On 15th April Bergen Belsen was discovered by British Soldiers in northern Germany whilst Dachau was discovered on the 28th April in the south.

When the British entered Bergen Belsen they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and around 60,000 inmates. The BBCs Richard Dimbleby (father of BBC journalist David Dimbleby) reported the following:

“Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.

This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life”

On 20th April, four German fighter planes attacked the camp, damaging the water supply and killing three British medical orderlies, even at this late stage of the war the German military still fought on and still tried desperately to cover up their crimes before the inevitable surrender.

The British ordered that captured SS guards be forced to bury the dead in mass graves. Local people were also brought in to assist and to see for themselves the crimes that had been committed in their name.

The majority of Bergen Belsen was burned to the ground due to a massive typhus outbreak in the camp. Enormous efforts were made to help those who had survived the camp however many survivors were so ill that they died in the days after liberation. Anne Frank and her sister Margot are known to have died at Belsen, the exact dates of their deaths are unknown but it is believed that they died from a mixture of typhus and starvation sometime in February or March 1945. Even today it is said the birds don’t fly over Belsen, something I noticed upon a visit there in 2017, it was almost as if even the animals and birds pay respect to this place by simply staying away.

It became known the Russians too had liberated camps in Poland including the largest camp of all Auschwitz. It is believed that 1.3 million people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, at least 1.1 million were Jews. The vast majority died in gas chambers. Auschwitz was liberated on the 27th January 1945. This is the reason Holocaust Memorial Day is held each year on 27th January each year.

I have visited Auschwitz and it is a trip I would encourage anyone to make. You will be brought down and shown exactly what it was like in the most cruel, killing ground on earth. You will be shocked, you will cry, you will see things and even personal possessions that maybe you would rather not see, you may feel physically sick, however it is worth seeing, because it will give you an appreciation for life that you may not have had before you went there. It is so important that people learn exactly what happened, that we never repeat the mistakes of the past.

In total it is believed the Nazis murdered around 11 million people during the period now known as the Holocaust. An estimated 6 million of them Jews, these people had committed no crime other than the fact the Nazis saw them as undesirable and wished to exterminate them all.

The Nuremberg Trials saw the leaders of the Nazi Third Reich finally brought to Justice. Unfortunately top Nazis like Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels evaded justice by committing suicide, however other leaders were tried and hanged for war crimes. The Nuremberg trials had a great influence on global criminal law and paved the way to various human rights laws that we use today, including the introduction of an International Criminal Court.

This Sunday pause to remember Holocaust Memorial Day.