History of the Liberation of Auschwitz
January 27, 1945
January 27, 1945, was the liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, one of the most notorious camps of World War II, by the Soviet Red Army. This date is now known by the United Nations and the European Union as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
- In America, Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed on April 8.
- In Israel, it’s called Yom HaShoah, or “Holocaust Remembrance Day,” and begins at sundown on April 27. The Hebrew word Shoah, or “catastrophe,” is often used for Holocaust. Almost 200,000 Holocaust survivors are still alive.
The USC Shoah Foundation, founded by Stephen Spielberg in 1994 after completing his Academy Award-winning film Schindler’s List, has recorded over 55,000 stories of survivors. My previous employer EMC Corporation, now Dell EMC, donated the data storage equipment to hold the 115,000 hours of recording information.
Auschwitz, unlike the slave labor camp Dachau, had become a death camp or an extermination center. More than a million people had been murdered here. For context, that’s about the size of San Jose, CA. It became the most known among the six extermination camps as the symbol of the Holocaust.
By comparison, my visit to Auschwitz was an entirely different experience than my visit to the concentration camp at Dachau, as I’ll recount below.
History of Auschwitz
The invasion of the Republic of Poland on September 1, 1939, by Nazi Germany, triggered the beginning of World War II.
Incidentally, this attack that the Allies called the “Invasion of Poland” was named by Germany The 1939 Defensive War since Adolf Hitler had claimed that Poland had attacked Germany and that:
“Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes. The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier.”
Auschwitz had initially been a camp for transient workers in World War I and, subsequently, a Polish army barracks, renamed from the town of Oswiecim, a Polish city annexed to the Third Reich by the Nazis.
The Polish lands were to be wholly Germanized, through German settlement in the depopulated area, through the liquidation of the Polish state and its institution, and the removal of the local Polish population and ethnic minorities.
After a meeting between Polish General Governor Hans Frank and Hitler on March 17, 1941, Frank wrote:
“The Führer is determined to make this country a purely German country within 15-20 years. From now on, the term “seat of the Polish people” will no longer be used to refer to the General Government and adjacent areas… The General Government is to become the German zone in the future. In the place inhabited today by over 12 million Poles, 4-5 million will live in the future. The General Government is to be a country as German as the Rhineland.”
The first transport of Poles reached Auschwitz from Tarnów Prison on June 14, 1940. Initially, Auschwitz was intended to be one more concentration camp of the type that the Nazis had been setting up since 1933 with the opening of Dachau. At first, Auschwitz was utilized as a quarantine camp for Polish political prisoners.
Auschwitz functioned in this role throughout its existence, even when, beginning in 1942, it also became the largest of the extermination centers where the Nazis carried out their plan to eliminate European Jews — the Endlösung der Judenfrage — the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
The first use of Zyklon B gas chambers at Auschwitz on a group of Soviet Prisoners Of War took place around August 1941. By the end of that year, during what most historians regard as the first phase of the Holocaust, 500,000–800,000 Soviet Jews had been murdered in mass shootings by a combination of ordinary German soldiers, local collaborators, and the German Einsatzgruppen, or S.S. paramilitary death squads.
The Death Wall
At the end of a street in Auschwitz is the dreaded Death Wall. Situated in the courtyard between blocks 10 and 11, it operated as an execution area, including those Poles who had served in the General Government and were sentenced to death by a criminal court.
About 4,500 Polish political prisoners were executed at the Death Wall, including members of the camp resistance. But this was only the beginning; 10,000 Poles were brought to the camp without being registered for the purpose of execution. An estimated 1,000 Soviet POWs were also killed.
Though weak from confinement in their cells, some prisoners would cry out before their execution, with their dying breath, “Long live Poland” or “Long live freedom.”
From the sign there:
“From 1941 to 1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the wall in this courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11. Most of those executed here were Polish political prisoners, above all, the leaders and members of clandestine organizations and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world.
“Poles who had been sentenced to death in nearby towns were also brought here to be shot, including men, women, and even children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the Polish resistance against the German occupation. Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also sometimes shot at this wall.”
The camp was expanded in October 1941 to another site three kilometers away in Brzezinka called Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The blueprints for Birkenau called it a “Prisoner Of War” camp designed to hold 97,000 prisoners. However, it held 125,000 inmates, each with one square meter of space to sleep.
Frequent nighttime “roll calls” and harsh work killed most prisoners by hypothermia, starvation, or exhaustion within a few weeks. Of the 10,000 Soviet prisoners who initially arrived at the main Auschwitz I camp in October, only 945 survived to be transferred to Birkenau. There, most of those remaining died by May 1942.
Of the 1.3 million prisoners who arrived by train during the camp’s operation before liberation, 1.1 million were killed, mostly Jews. Around one-sixth of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust of WWII died in Auschwitz. Most of them were from Hungary, then Poland, France, Netherlands, Greece, and other countries.
Altogether, Auschwitz was a sprawling complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps with dozens of sub-camps.
Liberation of Auschwitz
When the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz, only about 7,000 prisoners remained, with another 500 in the other two main camps. Before the Soviet arrival, almost 60,000 prisoners had been forced to leave on a death march westward, where they would board trains to German concentration camps closer to Nazi command. Prisoners too ill to depart on the death marches remained at the camp.
Along with those who remained, they found 837,000 women’s garments, 370,000 men’s suits, 44,000 pairs of shoes, and 7,000 kg of human hair, estimated by the Soviet war crimes commission to have come from 140,000 people. The hair contained hydrogen cyanide, the principal ingredient of Zyklon B crystals, showing that the hair had been removed after gassing. You can see examples of these items at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
In Dan Stone’s 2015 book, The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, he relates the following story:
Georgii Elisavetskii, a Soviet soldier who entered one of the barracks, said in 1980 that he could hear other soldiers telling the inmates: “You are free, comrades!” But they did not respond, so he tried in Russian, Polish, German, Ukrainian. Then he used some Yiddish: “They think that I am provoking them. They begin to hide. And only when I said to them:
“Do not be afraid, I am a colonel of Soviet Army and a Jew. We have come to liberate you” …
Finally, as if the barrier collapsed … they rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs.”
Trials of Auschwitz War Criminals
After the War, the camp commandant Rudolf Höss testified at the Nuremberg Trials that he had followed the orders of Heinrich Himmler. After extradition to Poland, he stood before the Supreme National Tribunal in Warsaw. He was sentenced to be hung from the same gallows where he had condemned so many others — near Crematorium I on April 16, 1947, at the gallows I photographed below at Auschwitz.
My Visit to Auschwitz
I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 2006 while teaching in nearby Krakow, Poland. The bus ride 50km southwest of Krakow brought me to the twin camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I played a more significant role in the persecution of Polish people, while Birkenau was more notorious for the persecution of Jews, including Polish Jews.
If they were registered and not sent directly to the gas chamber, a prisoner’s first encounter with Auschwitz was at the prisoner reception center near the gate with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign. There they were tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and given a striped prison uniform.
From the sign there:
“Immediately after getting off the train, the Jews were ordered to line up into two columns, one of women and children and the other of men. Each column was subjected to ‘selections’ by SS doctors and medical orderlies, there and then on the ramp: the strong and the healthy were separated from the old, the sick, and children. People selected as fit for work were sent to the camp. The others, usually 70 to 75 percent of a transport, were sent to be murdered in the gas chambers.”
My Visit to Birkenau
Nearby to Auschwitz I, is Birkenau, the second major camp. The wooden barracks were overcrowded, and the latrines were inadequate for the population.
I arrived at the main building of Birkenau, where the train rail ends.
The rails led directly to the area around the gas chambers. As I stood atop the train tracks, I realized that this was the end of the line.
As I walked along the streets of the death camp, now turned museum, I felt a palpable sense of darkness, a spiritual evil. This modernized industrial killing machine — that the fleeing S.S. officers had tried to disguise by attempting to destroy the crematoria, the gas chambers, the furnaces — I shuddered to consider: how could man do this to man?
Auschwitz Compared to Dachau
I’ve written a series of articles about the history of Dachau and how my father liberated that camp in 1945.
- Dachau was the first concentration camp, Auschwitz was the largest.
- Dachau was established in 1933, Auschwitz was established in 1940.
- Dachau prisoners mainly died of starvation and disease, while Auschwitz prisoners were killed primarily by extermination.
- Dachau deaths number around 32,000, while Auschwitz deaths are over 1,000,000.
- Dachau was the longest-operating camp, but Auschwitz was the deadliest.
A visit to either is sobering; my visit to each was impactful. A 2018 survey organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum found that 41 percent of American adults surveyed, and 66 percent of Millennials, did not know what Auschwitz was. And 22 percent said they had never heard of the Holocaust.
Lest we forget.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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