The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is mandated by Congress to educate Americans about the history of the Holocaust and to annually commemorate its victims in the national Days of Remembrance observance. The Museum has designated “From Liberation to the Pursuit of Justice” as the theme for the 2005 Days of Remembrance in memory of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps and the subsequent prosecution under international law of major Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, Germany. Reflection on the liberation of thousands of Jews and other prisoners from Nazi camps and the prosecution of Nazi perpetrators reminds us that we must take action to prevent atrocities and vigorously pursue justice for the victims of such acts of hatred and inhumanity.
Sixty years ago, as American, British, and Soviet soldiers moved across Europe in a series of offensives on Germany, they encountered and liberated concentration camp prisoners. Advancing from the west, U.S. divisions freed the major concentration camps of Dora-Mittelbau, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, and Dachau in Germany, and Mauthausen in Austria. In northern Germany, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen and Neuengamme. In the east, Soviet divisions liberated Auschwitz in Poland in January 1945. Just a few weeks before the German surrender in early May 1945, they liberated the Stutthof, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück concentration camps inside Germany. In liberating the Nazi camps, the Anglo-American and Soviet soldiers exposed to the world the full visual horror of Nazi atrocities, lending urgency to the demands for justice.
Combat-hardened soldiers were unprepared for what they found in the camps: stacks of dead bodies lying around, and barracks filled with dead and dying prisoners. The stench of death was everywhere. Although the Germans had attempted to evacuate them, the camps still housed thousands of emaciated and diseased prisoners, a sight that shocked the liberating soldiers. Those prisoners who survived resembled skeletons because of forced labor and lack of food. Many were so weak that they could hardly move. Disease remained an ever present danger and the liberators had to burn down many of the camps to prevent the spread of epidemics. General Dwight D. Eisenhower made a deliberate visit to the Ohrdruf camp in order to witness personally the evidence of atrocities that "beggar description." Publicly expressing shock and revulsion, he urged others to see the camps first-hand, lest “the stories of Nazi brutality” be forgotten or dismissed as merely “propaganda.”
Like all survivors of the camps, Jews were plagued by illness and exhaustion. But, unlike those from other victim groups, Jewish survivors emerged from concentration camps and hiding places into a Europe in which they felt they no longer had a place. They had not only lost their families, but also their homes and in most cases, their entire communities, during the Holocaust. Many Jews were reluctant to return to their home countries because of continuing antisemitism and fear of Communist rule. They faced a long and difficult road to recovery.
After the war, military tribunals in Poland, the Soviet Union, occupied Germany, and elsewhere prosecuted captured Nazi officials under a variety of charges, many of which paralleled what were later defined as "crimes against humanity." While several Nazi leaders, including Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, committed suicide in the final days of the Nazi regime, representatives of the victorious Allies prosecuted other major offenders in the best-known war crimes trial, the Nuremberg Trial, held at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, between November 1945 and August 1946. Under the auspices of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), prosecutors and judges from the four occupying powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States), tried some of the leading officials of the Nazi regime on four counts, including a newly defined count of "crimes against humanity," in which significant evidence relating to the Nazi effort to murder the European Jews was introduced. Several prominent Nazis were sentenced to death, others received prison sentences, and a few were acquitted.
In the three years following this major trial, the IMT conducted 12 subsequent trials before U.S. Military Tribunals and presided over by U.S. judges. The proceedings were directed at second- and third-ranking officials of the Nazi regime. They included concentration camp administrators, commanders of the mobile killing units of the Security Police (Einsatzgruppen), Nazi physicians, and public health officials. Ultimately, only a minority of the perpetrators were indicted. And, in the end, many Nazis escaped judgment or were treated with leniency.
Nonetheless, the Nuremberg trials have had a major impact on international law over the last 60 years. The International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and the recently created International Criminal Court are all part of the legacy of Nuremberg and of ongoing efforts of the world community to prevent and punish the crime of genocide.
September 1, 1939
Germany invades Poland, beginning World War II.
December 7-11, 1941
The United States enters World War II.
June 6, 1944
D-Day. Allied soldiers land in Normandy, France.
June 22, 1944
The Soviets open a major offensive, crushing German forces and sweeping into central Poland by early August.
January 12, 1945
The Soviets begin a winter offensive, which liberates western Poland.
January 27, 1945
The Soviets liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex.
February 4–12, 1945
Yalta Conference: Allied leaders discuss the trial of German war criminals among other matters.
February 13, 1945
The Soviets liberate Gross-Rosen concentration camp.
March 7, 1945
American forces cross the Rhine River in western Germany.
April 4-5, 1945
April 11, 1945
April 12, 1945
Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, and Omar Bradley visit the Ohrdruf concentration camp.
April 15, 1945
British troops liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
April 22, 1945
Soviet and Polish troops liberate Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
April 22 - May 7, 1945
A bipartisan congressional delegation tours the liberated concentration camps of Buchenwald, Nordhausen, and Dachau.
April 23, 1945
The U.S. 90th Infantry Division liberates Flossenbürg concentration camp.
April 23 - May 8, 1945
18 American editors and publishers inspect several liberated German concentration camps.
April 29, 1945
April 29-30, 1945
Soviet troops liberate Ravensbrück concentration camp.
May 4, 1945
British troops liberate Neuengamme concentration camp.
May 4-5, 1945
The U.S. 80th Infantry Division liberates Ebensee, a subcamp of Mauthausen.
May 5-6, 1945
The U.S. 71st Infantry Division liberates Gunskirchen, a subcamp of Mauthausen.
May 6, 1945
The U.S. 11th Armored Division liberates Mauthausen concentration camp.
May 7, 1945
German General Alfred Jodl signs Germany’s unconditional surrender at Reims, France.
May 8, 1945
May 10, 1945
Soviet troops liberate Stutthof concentration camp.
June 7, 1945
Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Council for the United States in the Prosecution of Axis War Criminals, submits his report to President Truman.
August 8, 1945
The London Agreement, establishing the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg and the Tribunal's charter, is signed by the four Allied powers (United States, France, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union).
October 19, 1945
The IMT formally indicts the Nuremberg defendants on four counts: crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit these crimes.
November 20, 1945
First public session of the trial of the major war criminals opens before the IMT at Nuremberg.
October 1, 1946
The IMT convicts 19 of the 22 defendants (Bormann is tried in absentia) and acquits 3. Seven of the defendants are sentenced to prison terms and 12 are sentenced to hang.
October 1946 - April 1949
Subsequent U.S. trials of government ministers, industrialists, lawyers, physicians, and jurists, administrators of concentration camps, and commanders of the Einsatzgruppen are held in Nuremberg.
Abzug, Robert H. GIs Remember: Liberating the Concentration Camps. Washington: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1994.
Ball, Howard. Prosecuting War Crimes and Genocide: The Twentieth-Century Experience. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.
Bridgman, Jon. End of the Holocaust: The Liberation of the Camps. Portland: Areopagitica Press, 1990.
Bosch, William J. Judgment on Nuremberg: American Attitude Toward the Major German War-Crime Trials. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.
Conot, Robert E. Justice at Nuremberg. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
Marrus, Michael R. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, 1945-46: A Documentary History. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Taylor, Telford. The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1992.
USHMC. In Pursuit of Justice: Examining the Evidence of the Holocaust. Washington, D.C. USHMM, 1997.
Nazis...Lest We Forget! [videorecording]. Sandy Hook, Conn.: Video Yesteryear, 1991.
Liberation [videorecording]. New York: First Run/Icarus Films, 1995.
Liberation 1945: Testimony [videorecording]. Washington: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1995.
The Last Days of World War II [videorecording]. [New York]: A&E Home Video, 1995.
Murderers Among us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story [videorecording] HBO Pictures, 1988.
Follow the links below for some examples of past and upcoming remembrance activities worldwide (note that some countries observe Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz).
Yad Vashem »
schedule of events