Instead of an introduction
The previous text dealt with the last weeks of the Auschwitz concentration camp and its liberation. This part will talk about the fate of the prisoners after the arrival of the Red Army soldiers and the process of uncovering the Nazi crimes that were committed in Auschwitz.
First came the journalists
Soon after the liberation of Auschwitz, Soviet war correspondents and Polish journalists arrived at the camp and prepared the first press materials. They generally received information about the camp and the crimes committed by the Germans from liberated prisoners. In addition, in the first days and weeks after liberation, Soviet and Polish filmmakers and photojournalists worked at the site of the camp, collecting unique photographic and film material.
Polish photographer and cameraman Adolf Forbert recalled his visit to the liberated camp as follows:
I’m wandering around Birkenau; we’re joined by the prisoners who are still here. From their frantic talk and information, I put together a picture of this enormous complex of torment and death. Between the barracks, large and smaller piles of corpses lay under the snow, completely frozen. Here a few, there a few dozen, and then again corpses. The horror. I had a lot of „training” in dealing with war, misfortune, disability and death. I became immune and I can hold a camera without shaking hands (…).
First Aid, or Death
The first aid to the liberated prisoners remaining in the camp was given by the soldiers of the second-line units. Acting in good faith, they distributed their food rations to the recent prisoners and also prepared meals in the field kitchen. However, it soon became apparent that the portions provided were too generous and indigestible for some of the emaciated former prisoners. Overeating led to numerous cases of diarrhea, vomiting, and consequently to death. It was not until the arrival of military doctors that the situation improved somewhat.
The first days of February saw the opening of the Polish Red Cross hospital, established by more than 30 volunteer doctors and nurses who had come from Cracow. The provisional government of Cracow decided to set up a hospital in Auschwitz since the Cracow medical facilities were unable to accommodate several thousand patients. After arriving, they collaborated with the staff of the Soviet military hospitals and treated the surviving prisoners together.
About 90 former prisoners, most of them senior and middle medical staff and administrative personnel also joined the hospital staff. They were allowed to leave the camp after liberation, but they remained to care for the sick. Their help was particularly important in the first period of the hospitals’ operation when the number of doctors and nurses was insufficient.
Initially, sick former prisoners were treated in the former Auschwitz I camp, as well as in Birkenau and Monowitz. Because of the difficult conditions, they were gradually transferred to the blocks in the main camp.
Hospital workers transported children who were unaccompanied by parents or relatives to care centers in Cracow. Later, the children were also sent to nursing homes in other localities. Some of the children were taken by Polish families and cared for by them. In time, some of them were adopted.
Polish and Soviet Commissions Investigating Nazi Crimes
In February and March, the crimes committed in the camp were investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office of the First Ukrainian Front under the supervision of the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union to Investigate Crimes of German-Fascist Aggressors. Its representatives inspected the site of the camp and familiarized themselves with its buildings, examining the area of the crematoria and burn pits, where they found ashes and unburned human bone fragments under a layer of earth. As material evidence of the crime, they also secured items that had been seized from the murdered Jews and that the SS had not managed to deport. Over 200 former prisoners were also interrogated.
On May 7, 1945, the daily Pravda published a communiqué entitled „On the Monstrous Crimes Committed by the German Government in Oświęcim”, which presented the results of the investigations. The communiqué included a description of the camp and its facilities, the course of the extermination in the gas chambers, and descriptions of experiments on prisoners. It also included the names of the countries from which the deportees came, without taking into account their nationalities. As a result, there was no mention at all of the Jews or the fact that they constituted the largest group of victims. One of the most important findings was that 4 million people were murdered and died in Auschwitz.
Similar conclusions were reached by members of the Polish investigation group. Judge Jan Sehn, who headed it, placed great emphasis on conducting the work in such a way that the collected documentation could later be used as evidence in court proceedings. As a result, the collected materials were used in the trials of, among others, former commandant Rudolf Höss and 40 members of the camp garrison.
The work of the Polish Commission was halted by the Soviet military authorities, who in the spring of 1945 established two transit camps for German POWs on the site of the former Main Camp and Birkenau. The first camp functioned until the autumn of that year, and the second until the first months of 1946. After the liquidation of the POW camps, the Soviet military authorities transferred the sites of Auschwitz I and Birkenau to the Polish administration. The authorities in Warsaw, at the initiative of former prisoners, took steps to protect the campgrounds and create the Museum. The official opening took place on June 14, 1947, on the seventh anniversary of the first transport of Polish political prisoners to Auschwitz.