ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets. 

I am once again joined this week by Professor David Cesarani OBE. Professor Cesarani is Research Chair in History at Royal Holloway University of London and author of numerous books on the Holocaust and Jewish history, including Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals and Eichmann: His Life and Crimes. David, welcome back to the podcast.  

DAVID CESARANI: It’s good to be with you, Alex. 

AM: This week’s content on 70 Voices addressed the last months of the Holocaust and the challenges which faced its survivors. We began the week with the death marches. Could you explain a little bit more about what they were and why they happened. 

DC:  I’m actually a bit reluctant to use the term ‘death marches’ because I think that assumes what we need to explain. By the second half of 1944, when the Third Reich had its back to the wall, it was using every resource available to keep the war economy going: slave labour, forced labour of the inmates of concentration camps, and even Jews. Jews were seen in a new light during the second half of 1944. The murder machine kept going but it targeted Jews who were considered unable to work, unfit to work. Jews who were able to work were either rounded up if they were still at liberty in places like Hungary or they were taken from the remaining ghettos like the Łódź Ghetto, sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau – which was a kind of huge, bizarre, grotesque labour exchange – and then redeployed to projects which required labour.

Particularly, the massive labour-intensive and brutal industrial operations to excavate tunnels and caverns in mountain ranges in central and southern Germany which could be used as underground bomb-proof factories to assemble the new jet fighters, the ME262, and the rocket weapons, the V1 and V2 rockets and possibly, the Germans had fantasies of building oil refineries underground in these vast caverns. These huge operations – on the scale of the Pharaohs in Egypt – chewed up human lives at the most ghastly rate. Human resources were being fed into them by the thousand every week and Jews were a very important part of that effort. Which turns inside-out previous German policy towards the Jews: until 1944, the policy was to get Jews out of the Third Reich, Hitler didn’t want Jews in Germany at all. But industrialists – men like Albert Speer – persuade him to allow Jews to come back into the Reich, if only to be worked to death.  

So we see a reversal of the flow of Jewish lives; from going out of the Third Reich to coming back into the Third Reich. And Jews begin to appear – not only in these vast industrial enterprises, the excavation of the underground factories – but in labour camps all over Germany. In those last months of the war – in a most bizarre fashion – Jews come back into Germany in very large numbers. Now, because Jews are seen as a valuable labour resource, when the Red Army begins its rapid advance westwards in the summer of 1944, the remaining labour camps, concentration camps and ghettos where Jewish populations still exist – and there are tens of thousands of Jews in camps, in the Baltic, in parts of Poland, the General Government – these Jews are evacuated, they are evacuated from labour camps in the Balkans. What is quite extraordinary is the extent to which the German authorities go to evacuate Jews from far flung areas such as Estonia and from what is now Bosnia into the Reich securely to preserve them. There is transport, there is provisioning – it’s not very good – but the Jews are fed, they are taken care of sufficiently well to keep them alive so that they can go on working at the point of which they arrive.  

Now this raises really awkward questions about what happens during 1945. There is no doubt that when the evacuation of concentration camps takes place on an even wider scale at the turn of the year 1944-45, these evacuations are catastrophic; about a quarter of a million people die, the vast majority of whom are Jews, that is a third of all the concentration camp population, the labour camp population that existed at the end of 1944. Why did it happen? Why was it that camps could be evacuated in the second half of 1944 with minimal loss of life, without massacres, without catastrophes occurring along the way? But between December 1944, January 1945, and the very end of the war in May these evacuations turn into bloodbaths, massacres, Jews and others starved to death along the way. And I think the answer lies in the complete collapse of the command control structures in the Third Reich.  

And this, certainly, is the conclusion of the Israeli historian Daniel Blatman who has done profound research on what we call, what we understand as, the death marches. Blatman shows how the orders issued by Himmler for the evacuation of concentration and labour camps in the summer of 1944 were terribly vague; there was no detail, the orders issued from Berlin did not say where you get the transport to move people, where you put them up en route, how you feed them, where they’re to go to, how they’re to be fed and accommodated, where they arrive, wherever that is.  

So when the Red Army begins its rapid advance westwards and camp commanders and SS police chiefs and high SS police chiefs who are running security apparatus, whose responsibility it is to evacuate the camps so that this valuable labour resource doesn’t fall into the hands of the Red Army, when they press the evacuation button it’s in the state of panic; they don’t know where they’re going to get the transport from, no transport has been laid on, they haven’t got stores of food, they haven’t got clothing to give the people who are going to begin these evacuations, these marches, many of them on foot to railheads, through snow and ice because these evacuations are happening in the depth of winter. They haven’t got clothing to give them, they haven’t got food to give them, there’s no transport, there is chaos. And the final ingredient that contributes to this catastrophe is that the guards by this stage are either overaged men who are too old to serve in front line units, they are militia, Hitler Youth, firemen, anyone who can be rounded up to hold a gun is being used to escort these columns of concentration camp inmates – many of them Jews – from one place to another, to guard them overnight. They can hear the sound of artillery in the distance, they know the Russian tanks could be on them in hours or minutes, they don’t want to be held up guarding these columns of hobbling, staggering, emaciated, hungry and sick concentration camp prisoners.  

So at one moment after another, in one place after another, the guards simply turn on the columns of prisoners and they massacre them, and they’re very often helped by the populations of towns and villages through which they are passing, or where they have been quartered overnight on one of the overnight stops. Because these prisoners were riddled with disease, they looked and they smelled disgusting, local people were afraid of them, they were afraid that they might break free of the guards and run rampant. So local populations, very often, went to the commanders who were escorting the columns of concentration camp prisoners, and urged them to get rid of them: “We don’t want them camped on the outskirts of our town overnight. Why don’t you just get rid of them? We will help.” So in one place after another SS Guards would be assisted by local firemen, policemen, Volkssturm – that’s a home guard: schoolteachers, Hitler Youth, anyone would be rounded up and they would go out to the fields, the barns, the places where these poor prisoners were being held and they would simply massacre them hundreds at a time.  

And I think that that is why – and that is certainly Daniel Blatman’s argument – these evacuations become death marches. That was not the intention, the intention was the opposite; the intention was to preserve a valuable labour resource to get it from A to B where it could be exploited again. But that possibility fell apart in the chaos of the last months and weeks of the Third Reich.  

Now it has to be said that there were also elements of the regime that did want to destroy the concentration camp prisoners, that wanted to murder the surviving Jews. We know that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were not destroyed in the prisoner uprising, the Sonderkommando revolt, they were dismantled and partially reassembled at Gross-Rosen, at Ravensbrück. There were plans to recreate the Auschwitz murder machine inside the Third Reich and in some places populations were simply murdered en masse rather than evacuated. It appears that from camp to camp, region to region, depending on the mind-set of a particular senior SS officer, a decision might be taken to evacuate or to murder. And it’s partly because of the breakdown of command that we see a very patchy picture emerging.  

A paradox, a tragedy, is that at the very apex of the Third Reich, Himmler is trying to keep Jews alive. Himmler is now using Jews as a bargaining tool; he’s going to Count Bernadotte – a Swedish diplomat, a representative of the Red Cross – saying “You know, I’ve always been interested in helping Jews to emigrate. If you’ll be nice to me, I’ll maybe release a few thousand Jews.” Similar negotiations are taking place with Jewish representatives on the Swiss-Austrian border. So Himmler is actually trying to stop Jews being murdered, but his underlings – including Adolf Eichmann – are still in the same old groove: they see Jews as the enemy, they want to murder them. And in the chaotic situation that I’ve just described, individual SS Sergeants, NCOs, captains, lieutenants are making their own decisions about what’s going to happen to the Jews in the knowledge that no one’s going to care that much, there’s not going to be any retribution, at least from the SS leadership because the chain of command has broken down – it's every man for himself. Amidst this chaos and disorder, this catastrophe, evacuations – very often – turn into death marches and tens of thousands of Jews who’d survived, in some cases, five years of ghettos, in some cases, twelve years of camps, perish in those last months. 

AM: What you’ve described really reveals that the term ‘death march’ is clearly an oversimplification of a far more complex history and I suppose another oversimplification that we may be prone to using is the term ‘liberation’. The Holocaust ended with the liberation of the camps in 1945. We often think of this as a joyful moment but – as some of the other readings on ’70 Voices’ showed this week – that may not have always been the case for survivors or liberators.  

DC:  Alex, I think you’re absolutely right: the liberation is a monolithic and a simplified way of understanding what actually occurs. In some camps, a few camps, concentration camps in Germany like Buchenwald that had large numbers of political prisoners, that had been well organised for many years, there was a camp resistance that more or less took over the camp in those last final days and actually fought to stop people being evacuated, Jews included, being removed to other places being possibly murdered. And in those rare instances I think one can talk about liberation, self-liberation and that ecstatic moment when camp prisoners run to the gates, run to the fences to welcome tanks of the American army, the British army, the Russian army. But those instances were actually very rare. In the majority of cases, the advancing Allied forces overran camps that had already been mainly evacuated. Auschwitz-Birkenau is a perfect example: the only people who the Russians find there – or actually Ukrainians because it was the Ukrainian Army Corps who liberated Kraków and Auschwitz-Birkenau – the people who they found there were about 7,000 Jews and other inmates who were simply too sick to join the evacuation by foot.  

At the other extreme, the British on the 15th April 1945, are given Bergen-Belsen. It's handed over to them by the German Army and the SS who realise that Bergen-Belsen has become a vast humanitarian disaster, a breeding ground of typhus, typhoid, catastrophic diseases, that, unless they are contained, would leak into the German population and wreak havoc on a massive scale, so the German Army decides to, instead of fighting over and around Bergen-Belsen, “We’re going to hand it over to the Brits and let them deal with this appalling situation.” So British troops arrive under the terms of a truce with the Germans and they take over the camp, and, in fact, for several hours the guards, many of whom are Hungarian, remain in place under British authority. And in Belsen they find 60,000 people, the vast majority of whom are starving, sick, on the verge of dying. Not only that, but there are at least 10,000 unburied bodies in the precincts of Bergen-Belsen camp, but in the days and weeks after it is taken over by the British, another 14,000 people perish. Now, liberation, I don’t think is a term that can encompass that kind of experience: the formal handover of a camp in which people continue to die for days and weeks after the administration has changed. And indeed, some of the survivors in these camps, the only difference they noticed was that the colour of the uniforms had changed, they had gone from grey to khaki, the people were speaking a different language. The Americans, in the camps that they liberated, forced the Jews, particularly, back into the camps, they wouldn’t let them roam around in the surrounding area for fear that they would contaminate people with diseases, that they would loot and rape, cause disorder. So Jews were forced back behind the barbed wire.  

And, here, I think, it’s important to make the point that for Jews in the camps, liberation doesn’t mean freedom in the sense in which we understand it, because for months, and, for some of them, years afterwards, they continued to live behind barbed wire in camps. Now of course, the regime is very, very different but the fact is they don’t have real freedom. The so called ‘displaced persons camps’, the camps for foreign workers, slave labourers, people who’d been imprisoned in Germany for resistance activity, were held in camps before they were allowed to go home repatriated. These camps were guarded and in some places it was not a very pleasant environment for Jews. Jews found themselves in camps alongside people who’d gone voluntarily to work in Germany, alongside people who collaborated with the Germans, alongside people who in some cases had fought with the Germans, in German Army uniforms that had got rid of their uniforms, burnt their pay books and were now pretending to be refugees, pretending to be slave labourers.  

AM: What you’re describing is just incredible. Was this not perceived as a crisis? Was the continent just in too much chaos for anyone to take notice of this situation? 

DC: In the summer of 1945 the situation in the American zone of occupation in Germany was so serious, there were so many protests from Jews, including Jewish chaplains of the American army, particularly the American Third Army in Bavaria, so many protests about what was happening to the Jews that Roosevelt ordered an inquiry, he sent an academic by the name of Earl Harrison. Harrison toured the American camps for displaced persons and he wrote a scathing report in which he said “The only difference between the experience of the Jews in the camps now and the experience of the Jews in the camps under the Germans, is that we are not killing them.” In other respects, they were in overcrowded and unsanitary accommodation, they were not being fed properly, they were being mishandled and treated brutally and neglected by people in charge. Earl Harrison’s report had an electrifying effect on opinion in Washington and the Jews were thereafter removed from the camps and placed in special camps, Jewish-only camps, where they could receive aid and assistance from Jewish relief organisations. 

AM: But you’re saying that that only related to those camps which were overseen by the Americans? 

DC: It’s interesting and it’s disturbing to note that the same did not happen in the British sector, the British zone of occupation. The reason for that is the British refusal to recognise that the Jews were a distinct group. As long as possible they insisted on treating Jewish Hungarians as Hungarians, Polish Jews as Poles. It took endless protests and lobbying – both by the survivors in the British zone and by Jews in London – to persuade the British to create a camp which was near to Bergen-Belsen, sometimes called Celle camp, to create a camp that was for the Jews and eventually some 15,000 Jews congregate in this camp where they organise an extraordinary life for themselves and begin to demand the right to emigrate from Europe to Palestine which was the British nightmare.

So, to put it in a nutshell, although the war ended in Europe on 8th May and the shooting stopped and, to a very great extent, the dying ended, it did not end in the same way for Jews. Jews continued to die in phenomenal numbers, particularly at Belsen, Jews remain behind barbed wire, they were still misunderstood and mistreated. They were still a problem. The Jewish question, so to speak, continued. 

AM: This links back to last week’s topic which we discussed. We talked about the reactions of the rest of the world to the events that led to the Holocaust, the events of the Holocaust, and now this brings us up to the post-war events as well. The question that keeps coming up is, which government is going to come forward and offer a home to the Jews of Europe in their time of crisis? 

DC: Hundreds and then thousands of Jews who had survived camps, ghettos and occupation, who dreamed of getting out of Europe to Palestine, made their way to ports on the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, got on illegal boats organised by the Zionist movement in an attempt to reach Palestine. The British government which was responsible for the mandate in Palestine, the British rule in in Palestine were determined to keep Jews out, to maintain immigration controls. For this reason, the Royal Navy maintained a strict and very effective blockade of Palestine. The Royal Navy intercepted one illegal refugee boat after another. Those who were on the boats were held at internment camps, mainly in Cyprus, with the result that by 1947, the British had more Jews behind barbed wire than the Germans did in 1937. Jews remain behind barbed wire in Europe, on Cyprus, until three or four years until after the Second World War has ended. So I think if you bear that in mind, the notion of 'liberation' as a moment of joy and euphoria, the end of one life and the beginning of another, needs to questioned very seriously. It is too neat a term for something that was actually messy, prolonged, frustrating, agonising and, in some cases, lethal.

AM: It’s such a chaotic environment that you are describing and of course this is only one strand of the history. There were those Jews who found themselves in camps at the end of the war and those who sought to emigrate to British Mandate Palestine but of course people may have found themselves in a broad range of different circumstances at the end of the war. Can you talk a little bit more about the other challenges people would have faced?

DC: The Jews of Europe who survived, survived in different countries and in different circumstances. And when they emerged from hiding, or when they were released from imprisonment, or when they emerged from camps, they faced a multitude of different situations. Let’s start in the East and move westwards. Jews who emerged from hiding in Poland, who had survived with false identities, very often went back to the towns or cities, to the places where they had lived to find other people living in their properties, they were not welcome. Poland very rapidly descended into a civil war between the occupying Russians, the communists, and the Polish nationalists. The Polish nationalists perceived the Jews as communists, as allies of the Soviets, with the result that there were massacres of Jewish survivors. Jews were routinely pulled of trains by extreme right-wing antisemitic elements of the Polish national underground militia and murdered. There was an infamous pogrom in the town of Kielce in the spring of 1947, which triggered a massive flight of Jews from Poland who decided there was no chance of re-establishing a Jewish life in Poland, game over, it was time to go somewhere else.

In Germany, most of the Jews who remained were either in mixed-marriages, so called ‘privileged Jews’ or half-Jews. Their relationship to their Judaism was actually rather attenuated. The Jewish community that is established as a community, is established partly as the result of efforts by Polish, Russian Jews, and Jews from other countries who simply ended up in Germany by accident, and these two groups do not like each other.  

German Jews are struggling for reparations, for restitution. Because, of course, one of the main things that Jews tried to do as soon as the Germans were driven out and law and order was restored was to recover their property, their wealth, and their assets. This was a long, hard, debilitating and very demoralising process because there were all sorts of obstacles. In Italy, for example, Jews who had lost their property, their assets, and their jobs under the racial laws had to go to a government agency that under fascism the very agency that had taken their property, their wealth, and their jobs in the first place. The Italian authorities had simply redesignated it as the organisation for confiscation to the organisation for restitution, so Jews were dealing with people who’d robbed them and who, of course, had an interest in making it as difficult as possible to give anything back to the Jews because that was a way to accept culpability and liability.  

Similar things happened in France, several thousand Jews returned to France from the camps, other Jews went back to the northern part of France to Paris from the south were they had been in hiding to find people in their apartments, their properties gone, their art collections stolen. New owners of the apartments formed an association: French people who had taken over Jewish businesses got together to form a union, they lobbied the post-war French government, the government of de Gaulle to keep the property. They claimed they had acquired it in good faith, they didn’t know that it had once belonged to a Jewish person, they had never intentionally wanted to rob the Jews, they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity that came up, etc., etc., etc. So there were long and horrible legal cases, and much of this conflict over property and assets contributed to antisemitism. Antisemitism actually peaks in Europe after the war is over. In the Netherlands, a few thousand Jews of the 110,000 Jews who had been deported came back from the camps. They were forced to undergo debriefing at the borders, they were held in camps with Dutch men, who had gone voluntarily to labour in Germany, even with Dutch men who had gone voluntarily to serve in the Waffen-SS. These Jewish homecomers were treated almost like criminals; the fact that many of them were ill or recovering from typhus [or] typhoid added to the disdain and the caution with which they were treated.  

It is a myth that Jewish survivors were welcomed back. We have from newsreels, images from trains pulling into the Gard de l’Est, and of people coming back to the Netherlands and being welcomed and garlanded: these were resistance fighters, these were people who had been arrested by the Germans and sent to camps as punishment, or they were prisoners of war who were coming back. By and large, when the Jews came back, whether it was France, Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, they were viewed askance, very cautiously, very suspiciously, they were not welcome. It is partly because of that very chilly atmosphere, that they do not talk much about their experiences. There are many publications, memoirs and a great deal of testimony, but the specific experience of the Jews – the experience of persecution, deportation and camps – doesn’t make much of an impact on public understandings of what happened during the war and what happened to the Jews, because Jews felt quite intimidated as a result of this atmosphere after the war had ended.

AM: This is a point that our listeners who have been following along with the content of the 70 Voices app will be familiar with. Our final reading of the week was from Josef Pearl, whose testimony extract really highlighted that for some survivors, their return home was met with a very negative reaction. This whole topic today highlights a challenge that we at the Holocaust Educational Trust face educationally, and that is the perception that the Holocaust ended in 1945 and that that is the end of the story. We encourage teachers to emphasise in their classrooms that there is a before, a during, and an after, and that all of these components ideally should be included when they teach about the Holocaust.  

I want to thank you Professor David Cesarani for once again joining us on the podcast and for offering us some historical background to this very important, but often overlooked period in history. 

DC: Thank you Alex.


Read more by David Cesarani: