The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath by Dan Stone (review)
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The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, Dan Stone (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 288 pp., hardcover, $32.50, electronic version available.

The liberation of Nazi concentration camps elicits many powerful images in popular memory of World War II, perhaps the most poignant of which are the indelible scenes of joyful survivors mingling happily with the liberating soldiers who delivered them from almost certain extinction. The image of victims and saviors commingling in ecstatic fellowship seems to embody the very meaning of World War II in Europe, at least for Britons, Americans, and others in the West. It speaks to the destruction of a monstrous tyranny, the end of the Holocaust, and the triumph of representative, tolerant governments sensitive to the dignity of humanity over brutal, might-makes-right dictatorship. But, just as the geopolitics of the war itself were far more complicated than these notions might suggest, so, too, was liberation a complex, often messy process—one that led to serious challenges for Holocaust [End Page 128] survivors. As such, survivors' post-Nazi experience was significantly more problematic than those not directly involved had previously supposed.

Dan Stone, professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London and a noted scholar of the Holocaust, argues forcefully and convincingly for a reexamination of our popular notions about the liberation. He argues—rightly in my opinion—that it is in fact a relatively overlooked aspect of Holocaust historiography. Perhaps this omission has led to popular misunderstanding of what freedom really meant for camp inmates. In Stone's view, the liberation of the camps was characterized not necessarily by the joyous rapture of popular memory, but more commonly by confusion, shock, arduous recovery, and eventual disillusionment for the survivors. Many had lost their families, their homes, their possessions, their sense of identity, and, all too often, their very will to live. Liberation was often a long and drawn-out process, sometimes involving years of limbo-like existence in displaced persons (DP) camps, or in the transitory, migratory search for surviving family members and places to settle in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, or British-Mandate Palestine. Naturally, many had to overcome significant barriers just to make it to these places, much less put down any roots. This was, of course, especially true for Jews in Palestine, where British authorities hoped to avoid the internecine bloodbath they believed would ensue from the establishment of a Jewish nation-state in an Arabdominated region. Camp survivors often found themselves to be little more than pawns in postwar European ethnic border struggles and Cold-War superpower politics.

Though Stone never says this explicitly, he seems to be arguing that for Hitler's surviving victims, there were really two ordeals: deadly persecution during the Holocaust followed by the less deadly, but confusing and difficult postwar struggle to establish new lives. The irony is that nearly everyone who survived the Holocaust, particularly former camp inmates, had dreamed, often for many years, of liberation. Indeed, as one reads Stone's troubling book, the phrase "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it," often comes to mind. Unfortunately, as he shows all too clearly, the dream of liberation as a joyful gateway to a happier life did not always match the reality of DP camps, bureaucratic snags, international politics, continued discrimination and, perhaps most significantly, the aching emptiness of survivor's guilt.

The book's five expansive chapters provide a narrative progression from Soviet and Western Allied liberations to freedom's chaotic aftermath and the DP camp experience, and finally the survivors' transition from DP camps to more permanent postwar settlement by the late 1940s or early 1950s. Bookending these chapters is an explanatory introduction that outlines Stone's new definition of liberation and a conclusion titled "The Sorrows of Liberation." In the conclusion, the author explores the meaning and memory of the Holocaust as a catastrophe that, he believes, lasted beyond the elimination of Nazi concentration camps. [End Page 129]

Stone's monograph is based on a nice blend of primary and secondary source material, both printed and digital. He...