CBC Digital Archives

1945: 'Unspeakable' prisoner-of-war camps liberated

Day by day, the news got better as the Second World War wound down in Europe. Sixty years ago, CBC Radio brought home reports of retreating Germans, freed prisoners of war, captured spies and surrender in Italy. But with the end of hostilities came dark news of hellish concentration camps, starving civilians and a rocky future for U.S.-Soviet relations. CBC Archives counts down the days to victory in Europe.

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Seasoned war reporter Matthew Halton of the CBC is staggered by the sight of prisoners -- "bags of bones" -- in liberated Nazi prison camps. In labour camps, prisoner-of-war camps and political prisons, enemies of the Nazi regime have been starved, tortured and murdered -- atrocities that have shocked the rest of the world. Halton wonders whether Germans truly understand what has happened across their land.

A German woman blames the Nazis, but not ordinary citizens, for what happened in the camps. Three police officers say the Russians were rumoured to run death camps of their own. And when Halton describes the horrors he himself has witnessed, the officers are skeptical. Halton concludes that Germans haven't yet accepted their country's responsibility for the camps. "They don't believe Germany has committed unspeakable crimes and their only regret is they've lost the war."
• According to The Second World War: A People's History (2001), rumours of Nazi concentration camps began to surface in 1942. Allied nations knew something terrible was happening but many people thought the stories were exaggerated, as had happened in the First World War.

• The term "concentration camp" is an umbrella term for all the types of camps run by the Nazis. They include labour camps, transit camps, prisoner-of-war camps and death camps.

• Russian troops began liberating concentration camps located in Poland in July 1944. The first was Majdanek, and it was soon followed by Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor.

• Soviet reporter Roman Karman was one of the first journalists to report on Majdanek. He wrote: "I have never seen a more abominable sight than Majdanek...where more than half a million European men, women and children were massacred...This is not a concentration camp; it is a gigantic murder plant."

• The Russians liberated more camps from January 1945 through the end of the war. American, British and Canadian troops didn't begin liberating camps until April 1945.

• Canadians liberated a concentration camp near Zutphen, Holland in early April 1945. Listen to CBC correspondent Matthew Halton describe the "abominable crime" he witnessed there.

• According to Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, it would have been next to impossible for average Germans not to know about the camp system. The system was "the largest institutional creation of Germany during its Nazi period."

• Goldhagen says there were over 10,000 camps of varying sizes and purposes throughout Europe, most of them in eastern Europe.

• Some liberators made sure that local Germans knew what had happened at the camps in their midst. According to BBC Online, British soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany took nearby residents into the camp to show them what had happened there.

Also on April 23:
1851: The first Canadian postage stamp, the three-penny beaver, is issued. It is designed by Sir Sanford Fleming and is the first pictorial stamp in the world that did does not depict a monarch.
1897: Lester Pearson is born in Newtonbrook, Ont. The Nobel Peace Prize winner serves as Canada's 14th prime minister from 1963 to 1968.
1915: Lance-Corporal Fred Fisher of St. Catharines, Ont. wins a posthumous Victoria Cross during the Second Battle of Ypres during the First World War. Three other Canadians also win VCs for valour during the battle around the Belgian city.
2003: The World Health Organization slaps a travel advisory on Toronto, citing fears the SARS virus might spread. The WHO lifts the advisory a week later after intense lobbying by Canadian politicians.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC War Recordings
Broadcast Date: April 23, 1945
Reporter: Matthew Halton
Duration: 9:24
Photo: National Archives of Canada / PA-137729

Last updated: November 3, 2014

Page consulted on November 3, 2014

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