VE Day 70: The camps of hell

Auschwitz concentration camp today
Auschwitz concentration camp today
Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson. Pictute: LPhot Ioan Roberts

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The numbers make the brutality of the Holocaust clear.

An estimated 11 million people died in 11 years of ritual murder: six million were Jews, the other five million were Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russians, priests and pastors, resisters and even non-Jewish spouses who refused to divorce. About 1.1 million were children.

This incomprehensible list of figures could go on forever: at Auschwitz ­Birkenau, the largest extermination and concentration camp of the Nazi regime, SS guards gassed 6,000 people a day.

When the Russians liberated the camp on January 27, 1945, they discovered seven tonnes of women’s hair, human teeth and children’s clothes.

During the ‘death marches’, when panicked and retreating German leaders evacuated 715,000 prisoners from any concentration camp about to be found by the oncoming Allies, some 250,000 died from cold and exhaustion.

It’s hard enough trying to take in these unfathomable facts now, 70 years on. But for the Allied soldiers who blindly stumbled into the camps – from the first, Majdanek in Poland on July 23, 1944, to the last, Stutthof, in Germany on May 10, 1945 – it was like entering hell on earth.

The Allies found piles of rotting bodies, infested by typhus. Some prisoners had starved to death where they lay. The troops reported that even those still breathing were ‘shaven­ headed skeletons who lay or sat in their own filth, too weak even to respond, and stared into the distance with bulging, glazed eyes’.

For many, freedom came too late. Around 13,000 died after the northern German concentration camp Bergen­ Belsen was liberated in April 1945.

But with every story of horror, there was also a story of hope and human resilience. Those who survived somehow found the strength to rebuild their lives ­ and also to make sure the world would never forget what they went through.