By Sara J. Bloomfield
As our country wages war against a dangerous aspect of Mother Nature, it is worth recalling the war in Europe our nation was bringing to a successful conclusion 75 years ago this spring against the deadly potential of human nature.
The liberation of Europe and Asia from Axis domination was the largest global undertaking in history. World War II touched six continents, with more than 30 combatant nations. Nazi Germany waged two wars: a military one over territory and a genocidal war against the Jews. These two wars claimed the lives of some 60 million men, women, and children, at an average of some 28,900 lives every day.
When the war broke out in 1939, the American Army was unprepared, ranking 19th among world armies, with a mere 190,000 troops. By the spring of 1945 when our soldiers were confronting the horror of the Nazi camps, our army numbered 8.3 million. Over 400,000 servicemen and women paid the ultimate price.
The road to the liberation of Europe began on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the single largest amphibious invasion in world history.
After following reports of the invasion, on the evening of June 6, in a fireside chat, President Franklin Roosevelt led the nation in a prayer he had written: “Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic…and to set free a suffering humanity….They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people.”
Many thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed in the last 11 months of the war. On the same day of FDR’s prayer, in a hidden attic some 400 miles from the beaches of Normandy, Anne Frank, a week before her 15th birthday, wrote in her diary, “‘This is D-Day,’ the English radio said …This is the day — the invasion has begun! … Great commotion in the Annex! Is this really the beginning of the long-awaited liberation? The liberation about which so much has been said, but which seems too wonderful, too much like a fairy tale, ever to come true? Will this year, 1944, bring us victory? We don’t know yet, but where there’s hope, there’s life, and this restores our courage and makes us strong again. Margot says that maybe I can even go back to school in October or September.” The Frank family was arrested two months later.
On July 9, 1944, as American troops were moving across France, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest to try to save the last large intact Jewish community in Europe. In the prior two months, Hungarian authorities had deported 440,000 Jews, mainly to Auschwitz, which was operating at the heights of its murderous capacity.
Later that summer, on July 25, the huge offensive at St. Lo began, eventually leading to the race towards Paris. Yet, days before, on July 23, Soviet troops captured Majdanek, in occupied Poland, virtually intact — the first major camp to be liberated by the Allies. One hundred and thirty thousand had been killed at Majdanek and its subcamps, most of them Jews. Soviet soldiers found gas chambers, instruments of torture, and storehouses filled with clothing, suitcases, razors, shoes, even children’s toys—all readied for shipment to Germany.
Later that month, the Soviets overran the area where the Treblinka killing center once stood. The end station of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews, it had been razed by the Germans in the fall of 1943. There, in the space of 15 months, 925,000 Jews were murdered, along with thousands of Poles and Roma.
The Soviet-Jewish writer Vasily Grossman accompanied the first Soviet troops to enter Majdanek and interviewed survivors of Treblinka. He summarized his findings in a piece titled The Hell Called Treblinka, which was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. “Now we know the whole story,” he wrote. “We know about death from starvation, about the swollen people who were taken outside the barbed wire on wheelbarrows and shot.” He described the men assigned to sweep the camp square after the “heaps of letters, photographs of new-born babies, brothers, fiancées, yellowed wedding announcements” as well as violin parts, children’s toys, and hair curlers, had been gathered, sorted, and trashed. Grossman observed, “Thrift, thoroughness and pedantic cleanliness — all these are good qualities typical of many Germans. They prove effective when applied in agriculture and industry. But Hitler has put these qualities of the German character to work committing crimes against humanity.”
Eleven thousand Jewish children were deported from France to Auschwitz and other Nazi camps in convoys that continued rolling until August 1944, even as Allied troops raced towards Paris. These children were among more than 75,000 French Jews sent to the camps. Nearly all of the young victims — some less than two years old — were arrested by the French police and turned over to the Germans for deportation. Only a handful survived.
We often think that the camps were liberated, the war ended, and life went on. But the war’s ending marked the beginning of other great challenges.
Army medical units struggled to care for camp inmates, many of whom continued to die. At Bergen-Belsen alone, nearly 14,000 died after liberation. Military chaplains tried to bring comfort and restore spiritual health to the survivors. The Allied armies had to cope with 11 million displaced persons scattered across a destroyed continent. Repatriating them and caring for the Jews who had no homes to return to would be a logistically complex and immense undertaking. Our military also began the vital task of eliminating all remnants of Nazism from German society. This included requiring local Germans to enter the liberated camps and bury the dead; attempting to assess all adults for their degree of complicity; assuming control of the media, theaters, and publications; repealing Nazi laws; and launching a massive public information campaign designed to help the population understand what was called “the moral responsibility of all Germans for Nazi crimes.”
The American military also played a leading role in the pursuit of justice. True justice is not possible in the face of such unparalleled crimes, but the effort to achieve some sense of accountability was important for Germany’s and Europe’s future. Various military tribunals established new legal precedents and assembled a body of documentation that would be the primary source of evidence, and early scholarship, about the event we now call the Holocaust.
So, on the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, as we remember the victims of the Holocaust, we should also pay tribute to the American soldiers who played many roles. They were fighters and liberators; they were care-givers and re-settlers; they were reverends and rabbis; they were prosecutors and jurists; they were educators and governors. And, they played one more role of enormous and lasting significance. They were witnesses.
Delbert Cooper, with the 71st Infantry Division, was involved in the liberation of Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen. After this shattering experience, he wrote a long letter to his wife, in which he said “I never want to see a sight again as we saw when we pulled in there. 1400 starving, diseased, stinking people. Some had been in camps for as long as 8 years. So help me, I cannot see how they stood it. No longer were most of them people. They were nothing but things that were once human beings.”
Perhaps the most significant part of Cooper’s letter was his conclusion when he wrote, “Please do me a favor and type up this complete letter for me. Want to show it to people when I come home.”
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs more than 16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. As of September 2019, the National WWII Museum estimated that 389,292 veterans were still living.
As the first eyewitnesses to the Holocaust, the liberating soldiers were given a huge responsibility.
Winning the war was not enough. Having seen firsthand the true potential of human depravity, having learned that the unthinkable was indeed thinkable, they now had the burden of sharing this knowledge with the world. They shared this responsibility with Holocaust survivors, with whom they forged an unshakeable bond. We owe so much to the liberators — our freedom, our way of life, our peace and prosperity. We also owe them profound gratitude for promoting understanding and protecting truth. Their courage and then their witness was where the cause of Holocaust remembrance began. A cause that reminds us of our shared humanity and the vigilance required to protect it.
Sara J. Bloomfield is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.