Liberation from genocide takes many forms
This online exhibit 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.”