Cohen on Stone, 'The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath'

Author: 
Dan Stone
Reviewer: 
G. Daniel Cohen

Dan Stone. The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Illustrations. 277 pp. $32.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-20457-5.

Reviewed by G. Daniel Cohen (Rice University)
Published on H-Nationalism (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel

“I have survived and the general assumption is that for the survivor normal life resumes at the end of the ordeal. How far indeed this is from the truth in the majority of cases and in my own in particular” (p. 19). In this personal testimony, part of a rich tapestry of memoirs and diaries used as primary sources in Dan Stone’s study, the Hungarian-born Trude Levi described what many “liberated” Jews experienced at the end of the war: a long and difficult adjustment to freedom more than joy and gratefulness. But this quote also reveals a lesser-known yet central aspect of what is generally understood by “liberation.” To be sure, the book under review amply documents the arrival of Allied and Soviet troops, from the West and from the East, to the gates of the main concentration and extermination camps in Germany and Poland (or Czechoslovakia in the case of Theresienstadt). However, Stone also demonstrates that besides the military liberation of the camps many inmates obtained freedom in a more uneventful way. Levi, for instance, miraculously survived a death march from Auschwitz before being found in a barn by a French prisoner of war who took her with him to safety. Hundreds of thousands of forced laborers, the bulk of the future displaced persons (DP) population in occupied Germany, also experienced liberation without necessarily welcoming American, British, or Soviet liberators. In addition, Stone also reminds us that the discovery of the camps did not guarantee survival. In Bergen-Belsen, liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945, thousands of released inmates continued to die from sickness and starvation. An estimated 90,000 Jews were found in Nazi concentration camps, but many similarly died in the weeks following the arrival of Allied troops (p. 19). This high level of post-liberation Jewish lethality reduced the proportion of katzetniks within the Surviving Remnant, the Jewish displaced population in occupied Germany being predominantly composed of Polish Jews who had survived the war in the Soviet Union. The bulk of the approximately 250,000 Holocaust survivors who languished in DP camps after the war had escaped, in terrible conditions, the reach of the Final Solution through exile and deportation in the Soviet Union. Yet most of the Jewish DPs, the largest and most vocal group of Holocaust survivors at that time, were not liberated from concentration camps.

These insights into the complexities and nuances of both Anglo-American and Soviet “liberation” as well as a fascinating discussion of the visual evidence documenting these events set Stone’s book apart from earlier studies. So does its longer chronological span broadening the temporal boundaries of liberation, from the last phase of the war to the early Cold War era. Stone’s narrative starts in July 1944 with the first “death marches” ordered by the Nazi leadership to erase evidence of mass murder in the context of German retreat from the East. This grim story of “evacuation” helps explain why most Jewish survivors were found not in the death factories of Poland but in the German concentration and “sub” camps to which they were transferred. The invisibility of the “Holocaust” in the eyes of American and British troops who entered Natzweiler-Struthof, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, or Bergen-Belsen stems in part from the regrouping of Jews with other nationalities in the camps discovered in the spring of 1945. The Soviets, for their part, were fully aware of the fate of the Jews but expediently blurred their experiences within that of all “victims of fascism.”

The first two chapters describe the initial encounters between Allied armies and camp inmates from the diverging perspective of the liberator and the liberated. In the third chapter, the book shows how Western Allied armies cared for the released prisoners, organized their repatriation, and planned for the long-term rehabilitation of DPs in Germany. A traditional account of “liberation” could have plausibly ended here. But two subsequent chapters extend the study much beyond the purview of the year 1945. In them, Stone tells the story of Jewish DPs in occupied Germany who became “pawns” in the chain of events leading to the creation of the State of Israel but also, alongside non-Jewish East European DPs, in Cold War geopolitics. “The cynical exploitation of Holocaust survivors for Cold War gains,” writes Stone, was both a Western and a Soviet strategy. Opposed to their immigration to Palestine, British diplomats warned against the infiltration of Jewish Communist agents and the risk of “great disturbances in the Middle East” (p. 213). And a Soviet general could still claim in 1981 that the main reason to remember the liberation of Auschwitz was to prevent nuclear war between the USSR and the West.

One wonders, however, if Stone did not write two books in one. The already well-known history of Jewish DPs, discussed in the last two chapters, is not entirely related to the “liberation of the camps.” Although Jewish camp survivors who did not repatriate to their countries of origin alongside political deportees, forced laborers, and prisoners of war rapidly became “displaced persons,” the Jewish refugee crisis in postwar Germany intensified in 1946 with the “infiltration” of Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian Jews into the American zone of occupation. Most of these transient survivors have in fact never been officially “liberated.” Polish Jews, for instance, were repatriated “home” from the Soviet Union only to discover the ruins of their prewar world and the resurgence of postwar antisemitism. One can also challenge the author’s suggestion that the displaced persons were also “betrayed persons” (chapter 4). This was certainly the point of view of many Jewish refugees desperately awaiting departure to Israel or the New World, but after the famous Harrison Report of August 1945, Holocaust survivors in Germany received extensive international protection and humanitarian care until their final emigration. Overall, however, Stone has written a learned and lively history of the liberation of the camps followed by an engaging overview of post-Holocaust Jewish life in Germany. This book should become standard reading in undergraduate and graduate courses, but its ambitious scope and rich documentary base will also serve the specialized researcher. 

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48568

Citation: G. Daniel Cohen. Review of Stone, Dan, The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48568

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