Fact of the day: 17th January

On this day 1945, Himmler ordered the evacuation of all camps. He charged camp commanders with “making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.” 58,000 Auschwitz detainees were evacuated under guard, with thousands dying in the subsequent death march west towards Wodzislaw Slaski. Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they would be liberated three months later, in April by the British.

Those too weak or sick to walk (around 7,500 prisoners) were left behind. Six hundred of them died or were murdered before the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army liberated the camp on January 27. Among the items found by the Russians were 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tonnes (8.5 short tons) of human hair.

The camp’s liberation received little press attention at the time. Rees attributes this to three factors: the previous discovery of similar crimes at Majdanek concentration camp, competing news from the Allied summit at Yalta, and the Soviet Union’s interest, for propaganda purposes, in minimizing attention to Jewish suffering. 

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