Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces on May 8, 1945. With that surrender came the liberation of prisoners in concentration camps cross Europe. The long nightmare of the Holocaust officially ended. At the same time, a new and often harrowing post-war era began not only for those liberated, but also for the world around them.

However, the United Nations marks January 27, 1945 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Why this date differs from the final date of the Nazi regime provides a deeper understanding of how liberation came about and what liberation meant.

The Nazis’ unconditional surrender meant the heart of the killing machine finally ceased to beat, thus stopping any protection or support flowing to any camps still operating. Allied advances systematically shrank the Nazi empire.

The Nazis themselves closed three of the six most diabolically successful killing centers closed in Fall 1943: Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. These killing centers fulfilled their purpose, the destruction of  two million people, and the Nazis razed the camps in an effort to eliminate any record of the murders. Other camps, such as Majdanek, closed in 1944 as the Soviet Army advanced southward and westward, recapturing German-controlled territory.

Yet during this period, Auschwitz not only remained operational. It achieved the height of its capacity, killing 600,000 people between May and October, 1944, including more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews deported over approximately 6 weeks beginning in late March.

Thus, the Soviets’ encroachment towards that camp in early 1945 and the camp’s final liberation on January 27 ended, both practically and symbolically, a significant part of the Nazi’s power to kill. The Soviets continued to advance, liquidating camps in the Baltic states and in Poland as well as in northern Germany up until the declaration of final surrender.

American forces, advancing northward and eastward, liberated multiple camps in Germany proper, including Dachau, Dora-Mittelbau, and Buchenwald. Soldiers discovering the atrocities at these camps found themselves unprepared for and shocked by what they found.

For the prisoners in the camps, each day without liberation made it harder to survive. The Nazis themselves retreated from the shrinking fronts, death-marching their human prey closer to the heart of their territory. Untold thousands died during these marches from exposure, starvation, disease, exhaustion, or at the hands of their captors, who drove the marchers literally at gun point.

Within the camps, prisoners found themselves starving and sick, often with Typhus or dysentery. Many of those alive the day their liberators arrived died a short time after. Others required intense hospital care. Returning to normal diets alone could prove disastrous, even fatal. Numerous survivors talk about those who, finally receiving a full meal, gorged themselves, paradoxically sickening their emaciated digestive systems.

Several months after the end of the war, those who found themselves alive had become, officially, refugees. They had been stripped of everything that made up their lives: homes, possessions; clothing; and, most tragically, their friends, families and communities.

Liberation, whenever it came to the people whom today we call Holocaust survivors, ended the darkest chapter in human history. Yet the struggle for these refugees to satisfy not only their basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, but to restart lives, shaped not only a new chapter for these victims. It opened an entirely new and often difficult one in world history.