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Liberation Of The Concentration Camps

As the Allies advanced across Europe at the end of the Second World War, they came across concentration camps filled with sick and starving prisoners.

The first major camp to be liberated was Majdanek near Lublin, Poland in July 1944. Surprised by the rapid Soviet advance from the east, the Germans attempted to hide the evidence of mass murder by demolishing much of the camp, but parts - including the gas chambers - were left standing.

As the Soviet Army advanced from the east, the Nazis transported prisoners away from the front and deep into Germany. Some prisoners were taken from the camps by train, but most were force-marched hundreds of miles, often in freezing weather and without proper clothing or shoes. Over the course of these death marches, which sometimes lasted weeks, tens of thousands of people died from cold or hunger, or were shot because they could not keep up.

In January 1945, Auschwitz was overrun by Russian soldiers. It was the largest extermination and concentration camp, to which over a million people had been deported from all over Europe. Upon liberation, only a few thousand prisoners remained. Most of the surviving prisoners had been taken away on death marches.

Survivors who were moved from camps close to the front were sent to Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Terezín (Theresienstadt) and Ravensbrück, or one of their many sub-camps. The resulting overcrowding in these camps hastened the spread of disease and caused many more deaths.

In every camp, Allied soldiers encountered appalling scenes. Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British forces on 15 April 1945. It had become exceptionally overcrowded after the arrival of survivors of the death marches. Thousands of unburied bodies lay strewn around the camp, while in the barracks some 60,000 starving and mortally ill people were packed together without food or water. The mortality rate amongst those suffering from typhus was over 60 per cent.

The first intake of food proved fatal for many prisoners, too weak from starvation to digest it. For the survivors of the Nazi camps, the road to recovery would be long and painful.