The Lib­er­a­tors: Amer­i­ca’s Wit­nessers to the Holocaust

Michael Hirsh
  • Review
By – October 3, 2011

Those of us who recall view­ing Band of Broth­ers, the clas­sic HBO film that recre­at­ed the final days of World War II, will remem­ber the har­row­ing depic­tion in the final episode, when Amer­i­can sol­diers dis­cov­ered the con­cen­tra­tion camps and lib­er­at­ed” the remain­ing vic­tims of the Nazi geno­ci­dal ide­ol­o­gy. This film comes to mind because of The Lib­er­a­tors by Michael Hirsh who, through his inter­views with vet­er­an G.I.s of World War II, now in their eight­ies and nineties, along with the British and Cana­di­ans, entered the Ger­man and Aus­tri­an con­cen­tra­tion camps and lib­er­at­ed the pris­on­ers who had been con­signed to death. 

As Amer­i­can sol­diers entered camps such as Dachau, Buchen­wald, and Mau­thausen (the Sovi­ets lib­er­at­ed Auschwitz), they were shocked by what they encoun­tered: mass­es of dead bod­ies stacked like cord­wood, skele­ton­like sur­vivors, dis­eased inmates, and oth­er hor­ri­ble exam­ples of Nazi cru­el­ty. As Hirsh, a Viet­nam com­bat vet­er­an and the author of the best­seller Ter­ri: The Truth, informs us, the G.I.s received no warn­ing as to what they might find, but that might not have mat­tered for, as one of the vet­er­ans told the author, what if we had? How do you pre­pare to see that?” Hirsh dis­clos­es that many of the lib­er­a­tors suf­fered from what we now call post­trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der and some still expe­ri­ence Holo­caust-relat­ed nightmares. 

What is often over­looked in the ongo­ing con­fronta­tion with Holo­caust deniers is that among the wit­ness­es to the Holo­caust are not only the sur­vivors, but also the Allied lib­er­a­tors who res­cued Jews and oth­er vic­tims from cer­tain death. When I wrote my own his­to­ry of the Holo­caust, I was asked by the pub­lish­er to sup­ply pho­tographs to include in the book. In my own com­mu­ni­ty in Lan­cast­er, PA, I was sur­prised to find a num­ber of vet­er­ans who had been among the troops who lib­er­at­ed the camps and who were will­ing to pro­vide pho­tos of what they had wit­nessed, snap­shots of the hor­ror that they encoun­tered. Hirsh’s book is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to this often ignored aspect of the Holo­caust, the role of Amer­i­can sol­diers as wit­ness­es to the Shoah.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

Discussion Questions