When on 27 January 1945, Soviet soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front entered through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, they saw image of despair. They were greeted by the emaciated faces of the hundreds of physically and mentally exhausted victims of Nazi terror, in whose eyes for the first time from a long time hope was born.
Liquidation of the camp
Several thousand prisoners left in Auschwitz survived only thanks to a coincidence. The Nazis intended to remove the traces of their crimes by razing camps to the ground, they destroying documents, blowing up crematoria, and burning warehouses. The plan for the evacuation of prisoners had already started a few weeks earlier. Those who were able to walk were sent on foot deep into the Reich to continue working as slaves for the occupant, the processions are now called death marches due to the number of bodies found along their route. The rest of the prisoners were planned to be killed by the Nazis. However, the Germans underestimated the speed of the Soviets and did not manage to cover up all traces of the genocide. Before their withdrawal, they shot "only" about 700 prisoners. The rest, against Heinrich Himmler's orders, were simply left in the camp
From "evacuation" to liberation
Chaos reigned in the camp during the evacuation of the Nazis. Around 20 January, the soldiers on permanent duty at the watchtowers left Auschwitz. The rest of them dealt with destroying documentation, blowing up buildings, executing prisoners, and plundering warehouses. The prisoners used these situations to try to organize themselves in order to obtain food and protect the most ill.
It is known that there were prisoners who left the camp themselves before the Red Army entered. However, most of them were too weak or too scared to try, moreover, there were still Germans in the area who posed a mortal danger, and you could hear the fighting of the advancing front.
It is also known that even before the Soviets, more courageous inhabitants of Oświęcim appeared in the camp, who tried to help temporarily, avoiding the German soldiers. Some of citizens have also taken children, the ones left without their parents, too young to even remember who they are.
Only with the advent of the Red Army was it possible to create an organized aid system.
Liberation of the camp
Over 230 Soviet soldiers died in the fighting for liberation, including the commander of the 472nd infantry regiment, Lt. Col. Semen Lwowicz Biezprozwannyj. 66 killed in combat in the vicinity of the camp.
The scout soldiers in white Soviet coats entered the camp around 3 p.m. The Red Army soldiers were horrified at what they found on the spot. About 7,000 people (mostly Jews) remained in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Soviets also found about 600 bodies of prisoners, which the retreating SS men did not manage to get rid of (Crematorium V blew up the day before the Red Army entered), executed or died of starvation, cold and disease.
Some of the prisoners, who were in relatively good condition, left for their hometowns almost immediately after the liberation. Two field hospitals were organized for the remaining prisoners of the camp. Soon a third hospital was opened, funded by the Polish Red Cross.
Over 4.5 thousand people, mostly bedridden, were taken care of by hospitals. The inmates were so emaciated that at first nurses had to dosed them food, for example potato soup three times a day, ONE tablespoon each, then a few tablespoons, everything to get them used to normal meals. Otherwise, the sudden increase in food abundance posed a lethal danger. The prisoners also showed a strong fear of medical procedures, they were even afraid of taking a bath for fear that they might not come back from the shower alive.
Patients of post-camp hospitals stayed there for three or four months, then set off on their way to their hometowns.
Unfortunately, many people could not be saved, the mortality rate among former prisoners was initially high, they died as a result of diseases from which they suffered as a result of their stay in Auschwitz.
The paradox of history meant that soldiers who were formally representatives of Stalinist totalitarianism, also using forced labor camps (Gulag camp), brought freedom to the prisoners of Nazi totalitarianism.
Documentation of the crime
The Soviet soldiers were accompanied by a film crew producing propaganda materials for the army. It was they who preserved the tragic image of the liberated camp. A document known as the "Chronicle of the Liberation of the Camp", is still on display for visitors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim.
“(...)I believe that not even the commanders of our army had any idea of the dimensions of the crime committed in this largest of camps. The memory has stayed with me my whole life long. All of this was the most moving and most terrible thing that I saw and filmed during the war. Time has no sway over these recollections. It has not squeezed all the horrible things I saw and filmed out of my mind…" - Statement by Alexander Vorontsov of Moscow, camera operator in the Soviet military film crew that recorded the liberation of Auschwitz.
Another filmmaker who came to Auschwitz was also a Pole, Adolf Forbert. Although he had already recorded materials at the Majdanek camp, the scale of the atrocities he found in Auschwitz shocked him. Unfortunately, the materials recorded by Forbert are lost.
A Soviet Jewish soldier-artist, Zinowy Tolkachev, made his own record of the atrocity. He made meny many sketches in the liberated camp were published in albums in Poland, Israel, and the USSR after the war.
Commemoration of Auschwitz-Birkenau
Every year, at the site of the former German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, ceremonies commemorating the crimes that took place there are held. The events are mainly attended by former prisoners of the camp who testimony of their lives.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a small group of guests, mainly survivors, will take part in the 77 celebrations at the Memorial. The event will be fully broadcast on the Internet: on the websites www.auschwitz.org, 77.auschwitz.org, as well as on the YouTube channel of the Memorial Site, Facebook and Twitter.
During the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, you will be able to listen to the testimonies of the survivors: Halina Birenbaum, Bogdan Bartnikowski. We will also hear the voice of Elisabeth Silberstein Bence, Judith Spielberg Mittelman and Edith Friedman Grosman, who will remember the first transport of Jews to Auschwitz.
More information on the 77th anniversary on the website 77.auschwitz.org