Warning: Graphic content

How the world discovered the Nazi death camps

When the Allies liberated the first camps, the ghastly images of what they found were not widely shared. The discovery of Ohrdruf marked a turning point

In this photograph taken in April 1945, survivors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp sit on a latrine, after the liberation of the camp by Allied troops. (Eric Schwab/AFP)
In this photograph taken in April 1945, survivors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp sit on a latrine, after the liberation of the camp by Allied troops. (Eric Schwab/AFP)

PARIS — Images of what the Allies found when they liberated the first Nazi death camps towards the end of World War II brought the horror of the Holocaust to world attention.

Many of the ghastly pictures were at first held back from the broader public, partly out of concern for those with missing relatives.

The concentration and extermination camps were liberated one by one as the Allied armies advanced on Berlin in the final days of the 1939-1945 war.

The first was Majdanek in eastern Poland, which was freed on July 24, 1944, by the advancing Soviet Red Army.

But it was only the following year that media coverage was encouraged by the provisional government led by general Charles De Gaulle set up after the liberation of France.

‘Death Marches’

In June 1944, as it became clear that Germany was losing the war, Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler ordered that camps be evacuated before they were reached by Allied troops, and that their prisoners be transferred to other camps.

In this photo taken on April 29, 1945, a US soldier looks at a sign in front of the door of a gas chamber at the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, upon the liberation of the camp by Allied troops. (ERIC SCHWAB / AFP)

This mainly concerned camps in the Baltic States that were most exposed to advancing Soviet troops. Officers of the SS paramilitary in charge were ordered to cover up all traces of crimes before fleeing.

The sprawling Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in southern Poland, liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, was gradually dismantled from mid-1944 and its more than 60,000 prisoners evacuated.

When the Soviets arrived, only 7,000 prisoners remained, unable to walk and to follow their comrades on what became known as “Death Marches” to other camps.

Images not widely shared

The discovery of the first camps had little impact on the public at large because the images were not widely shared.

Russian and Polish investigators photographed the camps at Majdanek and Auschwitz, and US army photographers made a documentary on Struthof, the only Nazi concentration camp based in what is now France.

In this photograph taken on April 29, 1945, French prisoners observe a moment of silence, upon the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, near Munich, by Allied troops. (Eric Schwab / AFP)

But France in particular did not want them broadcast to avoid alarming people with relatives who were missing after being deported, captured or conscripted.

A turning point came on April 6, 1945, with the discovery of Ohrdruf, an annex of the Buchenwald camp in Germany.

‘Indescribable horror’

When American forces — accompanied by US war correspondent Meyer Levin and AFP photographer Eric Schwab — entered Ohrdruf, they came across a still-blazing inferno and skeletal prisoners executed with a bullet to the head.

The Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, Dwight Eisenhower, visited the camp on April 12, describing afterwards “conditions of indescribable horror.”

Graphic content: In this photograph taken on May 1, 1945, US soldiers look at a pile of prisoner’s bodies in a train near Dachau Concentration Camp, after the camp was liberated by the US army on April 29, 1945. (Eric Schwab / AFP)

The Allied leadership decided immediately that all censorship should be lifted so the world could see evidence of the Nazi atrocities.

That evening France’s communist daily Ce Soir published on its front page a picture of a mass grave.

This photo taken on May 1, 1945 shows an unidentified 18-year-old Russian Jew, a camp prisoner, suffering from dysentery, upon the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, near Munich. (Eric Schwab / AFP)

Days later Eisenhower said journalists should visit camps “where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans.”

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