On 27 January 1945, soldiers of the Soviet First Ukrainian Front fought their way to the gates of Auschwitz/Birkenau. They found just under 6,000 prisoners still alive in the camp. Nearby, at the Monowitz slave labour camp they discovered 600 more, and at Auschwitz main camp a further 1,000.
These prisoners had been thought too sick to join the 60,000 other inmates who had been forced to march out of the camp nine days before on 18 January – but they were supposed to have been murdered before the Soviets arrived. The local SS commander, Lieutenant General Schmauser, had been ordered to send units to kill them.i But whilst around 700 prisoners who had been left behind were murdered, the majority survived – the SS, it turned out, were more interested in saving themselves from the advancing Red Army than in following orders.
Ivan Martynushkin, an officer with a Red Army mortar company, remembers that the Auschwitz inmates looked at him ‘with gratitude in their eyes’ when he and his comrades arrived to liberate the camp. But he reveals that neither he nor his fellow Red Army soldiers were unduly moved by what they saw, since they had already seen so much horror in this war: ‘I had seen towns being destroyed. I had seen the destruction of villages. I had seen the suffering of our own people. I had seen small children maimed. There was not one village which had not experienced this horror, this tragedy, these sufferings.’
The Soviet press did not make much of the liberation of Auschwitz. On 2 February 1945 there was a small report in Pravda, but there was much less publicity given to this story than that of the liberation of Majdanek camp the previous year. Moreover, the Soviet press collectively referred to all those who had suffered in the camp as ‘victims of fascism’. The fact that the vast majority of those who had been murdered at Auschwitz were Jews was something that the Communists did not wish to emphasize – then or later. It was much more convenient for the Soviets to focus ideologically on Auschwitz as a murder factory where the workers were killed instead of being given – as Marxism demanded – the just fruits of their labours, rather than to focus on the reality of murderous Nazi anti-Semitism.
What this lack of publicity about the liberation of Auschwitz also demonstrated was the growing tension between the Soviets on one hand and the British and the Americans on the other. Auschwitz had been built by the Nazis on Polish soil, and there had been clashes between the Western Allies and Stalin about the post-war fate of Poland for some time; but the antagonism had recently become worse, with increased friction over issues like the lack of Soviet help to the Poles during the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944, and the arrest of Polish Home Army officers by the Soviet Secret police, the NKVD, as the Red Army entered Polish territory.
As a result, the fact that Auschwitz was the site of the largest mass murder in history did not immediately impact upon the world. Indeed, it wasn’t until relatively recently that scholars have been able to calculate – as precisely as can possibly be done – the true scale of the suffering. We now know that of the 1,300,000 people sent to Auschwitz 1,100,000 died there. And of the 1,100,000 who were killed, around 1,000,000 were Jews.
It was the deportation of 438,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz during 1944 that meant that the camp finally surpassed the number killed at Treblinka (around 900,000) the worst of the Operation Reinhard camps. But we must also remember the 300,000 Polish Jews sent to Auschwitz, the 70,000 French Jews, 60,000 Dutch Jews, 55,000 Greek Jews, 46,000 Czech and Moravian Jews, 27,000 Slovakian Jews, 25,000 Belgian Jews, 23,000 German and Austrian Jews, 10,000 Yugoslavian Jews, 7,500 Italian Jews and other Jews from as far afield as the Channel Islands. In addition 70,000 Polish political prisoners died at Auschwitz, 20,000 Gypsies, 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war; hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and others.
It’s a terrible catalogue. And the liberation of the camp in January 1945, and the fact that the Allies finally stopped these murders taking place, must not blind us to the reality that of the 6,500 SS who were employed at Auschwitz during the four and a half years of the camp’s operation, a mere 750 were ever subsequently convicted of any offence.ii All of which meant that about 85% of the SS who worked at Auschwitz never received any legal censure.
Ironically, part of the reason there were so few convictions was because the mechanized killing operation at Auschwitz – together with the use of prisoners to clean, maintain and operate the crematoria – meant that it was hard to prove that the majority of the SS working at the camp had actually directly killed anyone.
The sense of injustice which surrounds the fate of the SS who worked at the camp is compounded by the countless stories of misfortune which attach themselves to many of the Auschwitz prisoners who were liberated in January 1945. People like Linda Breder who returned to her home in Slovakia only to discover that strangers had moved into her house – and they would not leave. ‘Going back was my worst experience,’ she says. ‘It was catastrophic.’ Or the experience of Walter Fried, another Slovakian Jew, who discovered on his liberation that not only had his family home been stolen but the valuables his family had deposited with a ‘good Christian’ family had also disappeared. ‘In 1945,’ he says, ‘we were more threatened than in 1942 when we left. That’s how much hatred there was.’
Of course, there are also much happier stories of prisoners released from Auschwitz, and since there has never been a systematic study made of the post-war fate of each former prisoner it is impossible to come to an absolute judgment. But what is certain is that for many of the people imprisoned at Auschwitz, the liberation of the camp in January 1945 did not bring the immediate return to the normalcy that they had craved. For these people there was no redemption. Only suffering of a different kind.
i See Andrzej Strzelecki, ‘The Liquidation of the Camp’ in Waclaw Dlugoborski and Franciszek Piper (eds.), Auschwitz 1940-1945: Central Issues in the History of the Camp, vol. V, Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum, 2000, p. 45
ii Figures quoted in Aleksander Lasik, ‘The Apprehension and Punishment of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Staff’ in Dlugoborski and Piper (eds.), Auschwitz 1940-1945, vol. V, pp. 99-119
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