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January 27th. 1945


On this day in 1945, the 60th. Army of the First Ukranian Front arrived at a vast complex of of factories, camps, barracks and other buildings in Poland which became known to the world as Auschwitz. Later, we learned that the most deadly of these camps was known as Birkenau. This had been constructed with the specific purpose of murdering men, women and children. Prisoners had been transported to Birkenau from all corners of Nazi occupied Europe. On arrival, those fit to work were separated from the remainder who were immediately gassed. The survivors were then worked until they were not fit to continue. Then, they too were killed.


On arrival on that January day in 1945, the Red Army found about seven and a half thousand survivors, many of them close to death. A much  larger number had already been evacuated westwards by the SS on death marches during which many lives were lost due to exhaustion, disease, starvation and further killings. A vast majority of those who died were Jewish. The Nazis made a number of mostly unsuccessful attempts to destroy evidence of their crimes before they abandoned the site.

Auschwitz was one of many concentration camps to be unearthed by the allies in the closing months of the war. Not all claimed thousands of innocent lives through industrial means (as in the extermination camps) but through other forms of execution, hunger and sickness. Auschwitz is the most notorious of the death camps but it wasn’t the first to be liberated. Majdanek, near the Polish city of Lublin was the first and Treblinka, also on Poland, was closed and dismantled in 1943 so too other extermination camps at Belzec and Sobibor, both in Poland. The camps had been built following Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to murder all of the European Jews. A fraction under six million Jews died in the Second World War, almost all of them murdered by the Nazis.

The death camps were primarily located in Eastern Europe, mostly Poland but there were dozens of other concentration camps throughout occupied Europe. When they were discovered, primarily by British and Commonwealth troops and those of the United States, they became the first to be fully exposed to the unforgiving gaze of the western world. When cinema audiences viewed newsreel footage from Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, they re-acted with horror and became finally convinced of the righteousness of going to war with Germany which had been fought to prevent the spread of the evil of Nazism throughout Europe. Rumours about the existence of the camps had been circulating since 1943 but, in April 1945, the first concrete evidence of mass murder was found.


To the British public, the earliest warning they had about Nazi atrocities came when Richard Dimbleby broadcast live from Belsen on BBC radio. This was followed by graphic footage in newspapers and in the cinemas. I have been privileged to read the (unpublished) letters Gunner of Jack Fairweather to his future wife. One of these , April 23rd. 1945, was written in Belsen where Jack was serving with the 113th. Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Durham Light Infantry. His first-hand account of the conditions in which the soldiers had to work is graphic, tragic and dreadfully sad. It is a brilliant and invaluable piece of primary historical evidence.I intend to return to writing about Belsen in April next, seventy five years after the camp was liberated.

That the Jews of Europe suffered appallingly at the hands of the Nazi killers is beyond doubt. Some were brought to justice at the Nuremberg trials but it wasn’t until the kidnapping, trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in 1962 that the world began to take notice and fully remember the Holocaust. Since 2001 Holocaust Memorial Day had been an official day of remembrance and the day embraces mass ethnic cleansing elsewhere in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and other countries. Memorials to the murdered Jews of Europe have been built in locations throughout the world including Berlin.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

Holocaust Memorial (also known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), Berlin, Germany. Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold. Built 2003-4

Cinema has produced many fine examples of Holocaust movies. The most famous of these is, undoubtedly Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a multi-Oscar winning classic. But it’s not alone and, amongst a long list of superb Holocaust movies, I would name three that have left me numb with emotion. Polanski’s Oscar winning The Pianist, Louis Malle’s tragic tale of his wartime schooldays in France Au Revoir Les Enfants and the deeply disturbing Hungarian masterpiece Son of Saul. These three, and many others, have helped to bring the Holocaust alive for succeeding generations.

My three novels have each had tenuous links with the Holocaust. In the first two, The Blue Pencil and Two Families at War, characters in the narrative are witnesses in Berlin to Kristallnacht in November 1938. In the third, the Summer of ’39, a young Jewish girl escapes to Britain and finds her parents threatened back in Germany while she is blackmailed by the Gestapo on the eve of the outbreak of war.  About my non-fiction title, more in the spring.

The Blue Pencil
Belsen cover

We should never forget the Holocaust, nor indeed be allowed to forget.


My books are published by Sacristy Press of Durham.

I am very grateful to Stephen Fairweather for sending me copies of his father’s letters  and giving me his permission to mention the ‘Belsen’ letter in this blog

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