Many words have been devoted to describing the hell that was created in Auschwitz. These words are meant as a warning for future generations, a hint about the blind alleys of our civilization. We must learn the anatomy of evil to avoid its symptoms in the future. We must also know how such evil ends, trace its last gasps, for there may be many instructive details hidden in their image. Let us, therefore, take a look at the process of evacuation and liberation of Auschwitz. Let us see what the camp authorities did in the face of the imminent arrival of the Red Army. Let us learn about the fate of prisoners after liberation. In the first part of this article, we will look at the reactions of the Nazi executioners to the news of the approaching front, their plans and behaviour in the last days of the camp’s operation. In the second part, we will talk about the liberation itself and the fate of prisoners who survived.
The Red Army is coming!
In the second half of 1944, in connection with the advance of the Red Army and the approach of the front line to Auschwitz, the camp administration ordered the transfer of about 65 thousand prisoners to camps in the depths of the Reich. At the same time, the Auschwitz management began to cover up evidence of the crimes they had committed. Documents were burned, mainly prisoner files and lists. Pits containing human ashes were liquidated, and the destruction of the crematorium chambers began. However, the Russians’ haste and ever more daring advances meant that the traces were not completely erased. Soon the world was to learn of the nazi crimes…
Soviets at the gates
On January 12, 1945, the Red Army launched an offensive over the middle Vistula River. The German defense lines were breached and the Soviets reached Cracow six days later, some 70 kilometers from Oświęcim. That was when the camp authorities decided to evacuate Auschwitz. From January 17-21, the SS led about 56 thousand prisoners out of the camp and sub-camps, forcing them to walk several dozen kilometers in the harsh winter conditions. Later, these marches were called “death marches.” The main routes led through Upper Silesia, from where the prisoners were taken by train to other concentration camps. However, some had to cover the entire distance on foot. More than 3 thousand prisoners from the Neu-Dachs sub-camp in Jaworzno were forced to walk 250 kilometers to Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp (in Lower Silesia). Only about 2,200 prisoners from the Laurahütte and Eintrachthütte sub-camps were taken directly to Mauthausen by train on January 23 and 24.
During the evacuation, SS men killed prisoners who lost their strength and were unable to continue. They also shot at those who tried to escape. About 3 thousand people died in Upper Silesia, and it is estimated that between 9,000 and 15,000 Auschwitz prisoners died during the entire evacuation. Approximately 9,000 prisoners were left behind in the camp, with most of their health conditions preventing a longer march.
Before noon on January 27, soldiers of the 100th Division of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front entered the Monowitz camp, abandoned by the Germans and located about five kilometers east of Oświęcim. Around noon, without much fighting, they captured the city center. However, they encountered stronger resistance near the railroad station and the Birkenau camp, located three kilometers west of the town Oświęcim. The Soviet soldiers, however, broke through the enemy’s defenses, and around 15.30 they took control of Birkenau itself. After a brief stay at the camp, they launched an attack in the western direction.
On the same day soldiers from the 322nd Division, operating on the left flank of the 100th Division, crossed the Soła River. After defeating the Germans, they occupied the northern part of the base camp at about 3 p.m., and two hours later the southern part. On the same day, they launched an attack in the southwestern direction. A total of 231 Red Army soldiers died in the fighting in the camp complex, Oświęcim, and the neighboring towns.
Ghosts and Freedom
One of the prisoners, Jakub Wolman, recalled the appearance of Soviet scouts as follows:
It was in the afternoon. Three Russians came in. Let me put it another way. Three Soviet scouts came in wearing white, protective coats because it was winter. They looked like some kind of ghosts. It is difficult to describe their faces. At the sight of them, the sick, wrapped in blankets, began to come out of the blocks. I asked one of these soldiers, a little one, what his name was and where he came from. He answered that his name was Woroblewski and he came from Moscow. I will never forget that moment. The scouts were soon followed by the whole army.
In total, about 7 thousand prisoners were liberated in the three parts of Auschwitz, and about 500 more in several sub-camps.
Instead of an end
You can read about the fate of the prisoners liberated from Auschwitz and the documentation of Nazi crimes in the second part of this article.