Stories of Liberation

Liberation from genocide takes many forms. Our newest PastFORWARD series in partnership with Comcast explores the themes of liberation, ranging from the joys of freedom to the perils people faced in the aftermath, whether they were refugees in a strange land or felt like strangers in their own countries.

During World War II, for prisoners and Allied troops alike, liberation from the death camps of the Holocaust was a shock to the senses – at once a dream come true and a nightmare come to life.

Soldiers streaming through the gates often were confronted not by armed opposition but the sight and smell of abundant death, which the Nazis had left behind in retreat.

Just as disturbing were the signs of life – skeletal people clinging to life, often too far gone to notice their sudden change in fortune. In some tragic cases, well meaning infantrymen handed food to survivors, only to make them deathly ill due to the dangers of eating too much while in a starvation state.

The prisoners had been abused and brutalized for so long it could take a while to register that a large unit of uniformed men with guns could be a fortuitous sight.

For all, the memory of liberation is vivid.

Auschwitz survivor Paula Lebovics remembers her 11-year-old self being hugged by a Russian soldier with tears flowing down his face.

“You mean somebody out there cares about me?” she wondered, as he tried to offer her food.

Isaac Levy, who served with the British military, remembers how, upon entry into the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany, he was sprayed with the toxic chemical DDT to protect against lice.  

“I was entering Dante’s Inferno,” he said. “They were lying around in their huts. And you couldn’t tell whether they were alive or dead.  Until you saw a little bit of movement and you realized that person was alive.”

Gerda Klein, who was 21 when liberated during a forced march in Czechoslovakia, remembers how an American intelligence officer held a door open for her and called her a “lady.”

“He held the door open for me and let me precede him, and restored me to humanity again,” she said in her testimony to USC Shoah Foundation, speaking of the officer. “And he has been holding the door open for me for 50 years – my husband.”

You can hear some of their stories in the clips below:

Clips from the Institute's Visual History Archive

Liberation

Liberation is typically characterized by the arrival of Allied forces. Interviewees tell of liberation from concentration camps, or during death marches, or may describe liberation upon emergence from hiding.

Sol Blaufeld on liberation of Dachau

Language: English

Sol Blaufeld recalls the liberation of Dachau concentration camp by American forces on April 29, 1945.

  • Sol Blaufeld on liberation of Dachau

    Language: English

    Sol Blaufeld recalls the liberation of Dachau concentration camp by American forces on April 29, 1945.

  • Charlotte Chaney

    Language: English

    Charlotte shares her experience as a U.S. Army nurse who participated in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany in May 1945. Charlotte Chaney was born Charlotte Ellner on October 15, 1921, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Charlotte was trained as a nurse and then volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1944. That same year she married United States Navyman Bernard Chaney. In May 1945, Charlotte was sent to Europe as a part of the Red Cross, not knowing she was about to take part in the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. Charlotte, who was Jewish, was among a group of nurses who accompanied American soldiers when they entered Dachau concentration camp. There, she helped clean up the camp and nurse survivors back to health. Charlotte returned to the United States in August of 1945, where she continued her career in nursing. At the time of her interview in 1995, Charlotte was living with her husband in Miami, Florida, and had one daughter and two grandsons.

  • Alan Brown on Life After Liberation

    Language: English

    After liberation from a forced labor camp in Austria, Alan Brown returned to his home in Budapest, Hungary. Alan speaks about recuperating from typhus and learning about Auschwitz and the gas chambers from other survivors.

  • Felix Flicker on the liberation of Majdanek

    Language: English

    Jewish survivor Felix Flicker joined the Soviet Armed Forces in 1943. Flicker recalls arriving at Majdanek concentration camp after it was liberated in July 1944. He describes the prisoners looking like skeletons and the arrests and executions of the camp guards.

  • Belinna Aronovich on the Soviet liberation of her town

    Language: English

    Belinna Aronovich remembers the liberation of her hometown, Husi, when the Soviet armed forces invaded Romania in 1944. She describes her reaction to the retreat of the German army as well as her own feelings upon seeing Soviet soldiers occupy her town.

  • Marthe Cohn-Hoffnung on the liberation of Paris

    Language: English

    Marthe Cohn-Hoffnung remembers the liberation of Paris, France, in 1944, where she was living under false identity. She especially recalls the emotional response on the part of the French people upon seeing the French 2nd armored division, led by General Charles de Gaulle, march into Paris first. The United States armed forces followed shortly thereafter.

  • Leon Greenman on Returning Home

    Language: English

    Leon Greenman talks about returning to his home in Holland after being liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp.

  • Henry Kress on returning home

    Language: English

    Henry Kress reflects on returning to his home in Poland after liberation and found a stranger living in his family home. Henry also describes how he reunited with a friend and former prisoner from Auschwitz, who helped him find work.

  • Lili Meier on Obtaining the Auschwitz Album

    Language: English

    Lili Meier describes how she found a photo album, which has become known as the Auschwitz Album, in a deserted SS barracks on the day she was liberated from the Dora concentration camp. The Auschwitz Album is the only known collection of photographs taken by the Nazi SS at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This testimony clip is featured in the IWitness activity Arrival at Auschwitz – Images and Individual Experiences.

  • Eva Krause remembers liberation

    Language: English

    Eva Krause reflects on being liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and how the experience strengthened her faith.  

  • Gertrude Englander - 70th Anniversary of the Liberation of Mauthausen

    Language: English

    Gertrude Englander describes the liberation of Mauthausen concentration camp in May 1945.

  • Irene Weiss

    Language: English

    Jewish Survivor

    Irene recounts her experience of being liberated by the British Army from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany in April 1945. She describes that by the time of her liberation she was too sick and too desensitized by her experiences to feel any emotions even though she realized the war was over.

    Gender: Female
    DOB: August 2, 1919
    City of Birth: Halmeu (Romania)
    Country of Birth: Romania
    Ghettos: Satu Mare (Romania : Ghetto)
    Went into hiding: No
    Other experiences: N/A

     

  • James Hayes

    Language: English

    Liberator

    James recalls 10 days of fighting Germans until they surrendered. While searching for a place for the American soldiers to stay for the night, he encountered a barrack with prisoners. He describes the horrors of those images as well as his efforts to get medical attention to the survivors.

    Gender: Male
    DOB: Sep 14, 1916
    City of birth: Istanbul
    Country of birth: Turkey
    Country of military service: United States
    Camp(s) liberated or visited post-liberation: Kassel (Germany), Ohrdruf (Germany), Buchenwald (Germany)

     

  • Esther Bem

    Language: English

    Jewish Survivor

    Esther talks about her lack of awareness of wartime political events while hiding in Italy. She describes her liberation by members of the Jewish Brigade. Esther speaks of her struggle with identity which ensued after liberation from living in both hiding and under a false name.

    Gender: Female
    DOB: Jun 23, 1930
    City of birth: Osijek
    Country of birth: Yugoslavia
    Went into hiding: Yes
    Other experiences: concealment of Jewish identity

     

World War II Veterans and Liberators

A collection of testimony clips from WWII liberators who served in the United States Armed Forces.

Veteran's Day - Kenneth Colvin

Language: English

In 1971, Kenneth Colvin, United States Army Veteran was chosen to attend the Liberators Conference in Washington. Colvin describes reuniting with his fellow liberators and how they were still affected by their experiences in World War II.

  • Veteran's Day - Kenneth Colvin

    Language: English

    In 1971, Kenneth Colvin, United States Army Veteran was chosen to attend the Liberators Conference in Washington. Colvin describes reuniting with his fellow liberators and how they were still affected by their experiences in World War II.

  • Sidney Shafner on his friendship with Jewish survivor Marcel Levy

    Language: English

    WWII liberator Sidney Shafner reflects on his friendship with Holocaust survivor Marcel Levy after the pair met when Dachau was liberated in 1945.

  • Leo Hymas on military combat in Düsseldorf, Germany

    Language: English

    Leo Hymas, United States Armed Forces and Buchenwald camp liberator speaks only for the second time in his life about a particular combat operation in Düsseldorf, Germany. This testimony clip was featured in the lesson, Heroes, from Teaching with Testimony in the 21st Century.

  • Ralph Leeser remembers entering Hitler’s home

    Language: English

    Ralph Leeser and his family fled to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1939. A few years later he joined the United States armed forces and helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp. After the liberation Leeser and his fellow soldiers went to Braunau, Austria and entered Hitler's home.

    Instead of serving in the Austrian military for six months, men may intern with Holocaust remembrance organizations abroad - See more at: http://sfi.usc.edu/profiles/manuel-m%C3%BCller#.dpu entered Hitler’s former home in Braunau, Austria in April 1945.
  • Liberator Leon Bass on being inspired by Martin Luther King Jr

    Language: English

    Leon Bass, US military veteran, reflects on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and how he was inspired by King’s message of non-violence. Leon was at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 for the March on Washington and he describes his experience of watching Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream,” speech. 

  • Floyd Dade remembers Jackie Robinson

    Language: English

    Before he made his major league debut in 1947 breaking the color barrier in baseball, Jackie Robinson was standing up to injustice and discrimination. Holocaust camp liberator Floyd Dade remembers when his fellow serviceman, Robinson refused to sit in the back of the bus

  • Martin Becker on Hiroshima

    Language: English

    Martin Becker fled Nazi Germany and immigrated to the United States where he later joined the Armed Forces. He speaks on his deployment to Japan including being stationed in Hiroshima only two weeks after US dropped the atomic bomb in August 1945.

  • Howard Cwick

    Language: English

    Howard Cwick was born in the Bronx, New York, on August 25, 1923, to Samuel and Sarah Cwick, both Polish immigrants. Howard had an older sister, Sylvia. The
    Cwick family spoke both English and Yiddish, kept a kosher home, and attended synagogue three times a week. Howard went to school at P.S. 100 in the Bronx before
    going on to Brooklyn Technical High School. When he was seven years old, Howard received his first camera and became interested in photography.

    Howard worked as a machinist before enlisting in the United States Air Force in October 1942. After being injured in the crash of a training flight, he was transferred to the 281st Combat Engineer Battalion at Camp Butner, North Carolina. In November 1944, Howard’s battalion left the United States and landed in England. They spent four months on a military base in Bovey Trace in Devon and then headed to Germany via France. Howard’s unit arrived outside of Weimar around April 10, 1945. Howard was ordered to headquarters for an assignment but unwittingly got into a jeep that instead went to Buchenwald. After he entered the camp, he took photographs of what he saw. By the end of the first day, a detachment of the U.S. armed forces had arrived at Buchenwald. On the second day, while the medics were busy treating survivors, the local citizens were forced to walk through the camp to view what the Nazis had done. Even as the townspeople claimed not to know about activities and conditions in Buchenwald, Howard and fellow soldiers found in the cellars of local homes Red Cross packages intended for camp prisoners. For his part, Howard immediately developed some of his pictures of Buchenwald and sent all the negatives home.

    Discharged in 1946, Howard married his wife, Claire, in 1948 and graduated New York University with a master’s degree in education. Claire and Howard had a daughter, Laurie, and a son, Steven. During his career, Howard taught industrial arts at local high schools. Many years after the war, upon hearing students remark that the
    Holocaust couldn’t have been as bad as it was being portrayed, Howard began sharing his photos and recollections of Buchenwald. At the time of his interview in 1997, Howard had one grandchild and another on the way.

    The interview was conducted on September 16, 1997 in Lake Worth, FL, United States; interviewer: Susan Rosenblum; videographer: Steven Cohen. Howard Cwick passed away on April 25, 2006, at the age of 82.

  • Felix Flicker on the liberation of Majdanek

    Language: English

    Jewish survivor Felix Flicker joined the Soviet Armed Forces in 1943. Flicker recalls arriving at Majdanek concentration camp after it was liberated in July 1944. He describes the prisoners looking like skeletons and the arrests and executions of the camp guards.

  • Leon Adler – Memorial Day

    Language: English

    Memorial Day in the United States commemorates the men and women who died while in the military service. US army veteran Leon Adler remembers helping mortally wounded soldiers while serving in Germany.

  • Philip Drell on photographing Dachau after liberation

    Language: English

    Philip Drell, a photographer with the U.S. Army Signal Corps, served with the Special Motion Picture Coverage Unit headed by film director George Stevens. In his testimony, Philip describes what he witnessed when his unit arrived at Dachau. His testimony is featured in Testimony –The Legacy of Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foundation.

     

  • Barton Nagata on racism in the United States

    Language: English

    Dachau camp liberator Barton Nagata talks about his exposure to racism in the segregated South of the United States.

  • Don Shimazu Remembers the Attack on Pearl Harbor

    Language: English

    United States army veteran Don Shimazu remembers the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor December 7 1941. He was a part of the ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) at the University of Hawaii and remembers being put on duty right away.  A Hawaiian native, he also reflects on the tension the attack created in his family, since his parents were Japanese citizens.

  • Paul Parks on racial discrimination

    Language: English

    Dachau camp liberator Paul Parks recalls experiencing racial discrimination in the United States after returning home from fighting in WWII.    

  • Jules Barrash Remembers Christmas in France during WWII

    Language: English

    While deployed in France, US armed forces liberator Jules Barrash remembers asking a French farm couple to cook him and a group of about 15 soldiers a dinner for Christmas in exchange for sea rations and food from the army.

  • Ralph Leeser remembers entering Hitler’s home

    Language: English

    Ralph Leeser and his family fled to the United States from Nazi Germany in 1939. A few years later he joined the United States armed forces and helped liberate Buchenwald concentration camp. After the liberation Leeser and his fellow soldiers went to Braunau, Austria and entered Hitler's home.

    Instead of serving in the Austrian military for six months, men may intern with Holocaust remembrance organizations abroad - See more at: http://sfi.usc.edu/profiles/manuel-m%C3%BCller#.dpu entered Hitler’s former home in Braunau, Austria in April 1945.
  • Kurt Klein

    Language: English

    Kurt describes liberating survivors of a death march in May 1945, in Volary, Czechoslovakia, including his first encounter with his future wife, Gerda. Kurt Klein was born July 2, 1920, in Walldorf, Germany. As the Nazi persecution of German Jews intensified, Kurt’s parents decided to send him and his siblings to live with distant relatives in Buffalo, New York, where he worked in various jobs, including the printing business, trying to raise enough money to bring his parents to the United States. Kurt was drafted into the United States Army in 1943. After participating in the Normandy campaign in 1944, Kurt served as a prisoner-of-war interrogator. While in Czechoslovakia, Kurt met his future wife, survivor Gerda Weissmann. At the end of his service toward the end of 1945, Kurt proposed to Gerda before returning to the printing business in Buffalo. A year later in August 1946, Kurt and Gerda married in Paris and then settled in Buffalo. During the war, Kurt's parents were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they perished. At the time of Kurt’s interview in 1995, he and Gerda had three children and eight grandchildren, and were living in Scottsdale, Arizona. Kurt’s unique point of view is that of both a survivor and a liberator.

  • Brendon Phibbs on the end of WWII in Europe

    Language: English

    Brendon Phibbs, US Army liberator, remembers hearing the news that Germany surrendered and war in Europe ended on May 7, 1945.