Since 2018, Roxy Moore has worked in the education team at The Wiener Holocaust Library and is the author of the Library’s educational website, The Holocaust Explained. Alongside her work at the Library, Roxy is also a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London where her research explores the Jewish Relief Unit, Displaced Persons and Anglo-Jewish Humanitarianism in Post-war Europe.
On 8 May 1945, Germany surrendered and the Second World War in Europe officially came to an end. In the preceding months, the Allies had liberated hundreds of Nazi camps, revealing their full horror. Further east, the Soviet Army uncovered mass graves – a result of the murders carried out at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen. In total, six million Jews, around three million Soviet prisoners of war, up to 500,000 Roma, and approximately 70,000 disabled people were killed. Many others, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, homosexuals and lesbians were also persecuted.
Although reports of the Nazis’ atrocities against Jews reached Allied countries shortly after they began in 1942, the realities of the Holocaust came as a profound shock to the Western public as they received the media reports of the liberation of camps such as Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. Indeed, the very fact that genocide had taken place in Europe, an area thought of by the West to be the height of educated human civilisation, deepened this shock. Questions emerged: How did this happen? How did this happen here? Could we have done more to prevent it? How much did we know about this?
But the Holocaust was not just shocking to the Western world, it was also challenging. It fundamentally challenged how the West understood the world and challenged our previously unshakeable belief in the concept of human progress, which from the Enlightenment onwards, had been one of the cornerstones of Western liberal beliefs. As Tony Kushner explains in his book The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination, the Anglo-American response to this challenge was not to question liberalism, but instead to emphasise ‘the huge gap that divided free countries and those responsible for such atrocities’.
Part of this emphasis came in the form of the proliferation of Allied humanitarian organisations which emerged in the lead-up to and aftermath of liberation. When the Second World War concluded in the spring of 1945, approximately eight million people had been displaced. By autumn, seven million or so of these people had been repatriated by Allied organisations, and out of the remaining one million, approximately 250,000 were Jewish.
To help care for these Jewish survivors and those displaced by war, humanitarian organisations descended on Europe to offer immediate relief and, for the million or so people who remained at the end of 1945, longer-term rehabilitation. This relief and rehabilitation included an extensive range of activities such as medical, educational, religious, and cultural services, family tracing, legal advice and emigration.
These organisations were both large and international, such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNNRA), and small, private, national charities, such as the American Jewish Joint Committee (JDC), each bringing their own expertise, interests and objectives. The diversity of aid offered by this plethora of organisations, and their subsequent impact, is remarkable, especially when compared to the aftermath of the First World War.
Yet, despite this help, the complexity of the situation meant that for many liberation was not a moment but a long, frustrating and painful process. The Nazis had stripped survivors of their jobs, their homes, and in many cases, murdered their families. Most had nowhere to go, and many ended up being placed in Displaced Person (DP) camps for several years until they could eventually emigrate or settle elsewhere. As Marianne Heitlerova, a nurse working for the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) in the DP camps, wrote in a letter to her employers at the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad (JCRA) on 11 April 1947:
All the displaced persons…thought after victory had been won, that they too had been liberated. Now, nearly two years after V day, most of them are not nearer to the fulfilment of their hopes than before, they are getting more and more disappointed and, I am afraid, many of them are losing heart. How can it be otherwise? They can see the goal but have no means to reach it, most of them have failed in finding surviving relatives or friends, they want to make up for the lost years of the war, yet time goes on and they are still being kept in idleness and suspense.Marianne Heitlerova to Lilian Neuberger, 11 April 1947, Jewish Relief Unit Personnel Files, 1407/10/2/24, The Wiener Holocaust Library.
This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is One Day: ‘the hope that there may be One Day in the future with no genocide’. It is jarring that some of the worst moments in humanity are followed by episodes of compassion and collaboration as evidenced by the humanitarian response to the Holocaust above. This, of course, corresponds to longer trends in how we as humans respond to such chasmic events, as Michael Barnett has observed: ‘violence has been a causeway for benevolence. Massacres, international and civil wars, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and war-induced famines have been a principal “call to alms’. And yet, it is not such a revolutionary idea to suggest, as this HMD theme underlines, that instead of reacting with humanity, we begin with it.
In the face of continuing genocide, rising antisemitism and an increasingly polarised world, it can be hard to know how to proactively contribute towards this year’s HMD goal. At the Library, we attempt this through accessible and free educational resources. Our The Holocaust Explained website, used by millions across the globe, contains hundreds of informative articles and unique items from the Library’s historic archive. Our school workshops engage students across Britain, and our events programme gives the public an opportunity to connect and learn from academics across the world. Our exhibitions, at the Library itself in Russell Square and online via our website, conduct expert thematic explorations of relevant topics, shedding light on less-explored areas.
In her book, Women in the Holocaust, historian and trustee of the Library Zoë Waxman wrote: ‘Only when we are willing to understand and to challenge the profoundly poisonous and unequal society in which we live – and in which most people live – will something like freedom and peace be possible’. This Holocaust Memorial Day and every day, we commit to learning and understanding more.
Suggested further reading
- Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism by Michael Barnett
- The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History by Tony Kushner
- The Palgrave Handbook of Britain and the Holocaust by Andy Pearce and Tom Lawson
- The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath by Dan Stone
- In the Name of Others: A History of Humanitariansim, 1755-1989 by Silvia Salvatici
- Women in the Holocaust : a feminist history by Zoë Waxman
For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Liberation; Displaced Persons; Displaced Persons camps; concentration camps; Holocaust.