Liberating Humanity, Preserving Freedom—75 Years Ago

Survivors look on as a group of American soldiers and members of the press inspect a barracks in Dachau. — Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

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.”

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.”

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.

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US Holocaust Museum

US Holocaust Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org