Region: The Free Nations Region
27th January 1945 (79 years ago): Auschwitz is liberated
Auschwitz concentration camp (German: Konzentrationslager Auschwitz; also KL Auschwitz or KZ Auschwitz) was a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland (in a portion annexed into Germany in 1939) during World War II and the Holocaust. It consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp (Stammlager) in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II-Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp with gas chambers; Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a labor camp for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben; and dozens of subcamps. The camps became a major site of the Nazis' Final Solution to the Jewish Question.
Red Army soldiers from the 322nd Rifle Division arrived at Auschwitz on 27 January 1945 at 15:00. 231 Red Army soldiers died in the fighting around Monowitz concentration camp, Birkenau, and Auschwitz I, as well as the towns of Oświęcim and Brzezinka. For most of the survivors, there was no definite moment of liberation. After the death march to camps inside Germany and Austria, the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) guards had left.
About 7,000 prisoners had been left behind, most of whom were seriously ill due to the effects of their imprisonment. Most of those left behind were middle-aged adults or children younger than 15. At Monowitz camp, there were about 800 survivors and the camp was liberated also on 27 January by the Soviet 60th Army, part of the 1st Ukrainian Front.
The Red Army had been advancing deeper into Poland since mid-January. Having liberated Warsaw and Krakow, Soviet troops headed for Auschwitz. In anticipation of the Soviet arrival, SS officers began a murder spree in the camps, shooting sick prisoners and blowing up crematoria in a desperate attempt to destroy the evidence of their crimes. When the Red Army finally broke through, Soviet soldiers encountered 648 corpses and more than 7,000 starving camp survivors in the three main camps. Items found included 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 first gassings—of Soviet and Polish prisoners—took place in block 11 of Auschwitz I around August 1941. Construction of Auschwitz II began the following month, and from 1942 until late 1944 freight trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe to its gas chambers. The Nazis deceived the victims upon their arrival, telling them that they were at a temporary transit stop, and would soon continue to German Arbeitslagers (work camps) farther to the east. Prisoners wore colored triangles on their uniforms, the color denoting the reason for their incarceration. Red signified a political prisoner, Jehovah's Witnesses had purple triangles, "asocials" and criminals wore black and green, and gay men wore pink. Jews wore two yellow triangles, one over another to form a six-pointed star. Prisoners in Auschwitz were tattooed on arrival with an identification number.
Selected able-bodied prisoners delivered to the death camps were not immediately killed, but instead were pressed into labor units called Sonderkommandos to help with the extermination process by removing corpses from the gas chambers and burning them. Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("extermination through labor") was a policy; camp inmates would literally be worked to death, or to physical exhaustion, at which point they would be gassed or shot. The Germans estimated the average prisoner's lifespan in a concentration camp at three months, as a result of lack of food and clothing, constant epidemics, and frequent punishments for the most minor transgressions. The shifts were long and often involved exposure to dangerous materials. Those selected for death at all camps were told to undress and hand their valuables to camp workers. They were then herded naked into the gas chambers. To prevent panic, they were told the gas chambers were showers or delousing chambers.
At Auschwitz, after the chambers were filled, the doors were shut and pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped into the chambers through vents, releasing toxic prussic acid. Those inside were murdered within 20 minutes; the speed of death depended on how close the inmate was standing to a gas vent, according to the commandant Rudolf Höss, who estimated that about one-third of the victims were killed immediately. Johann Kremer, an SS doctor who oversaw the gassings, testified that: "Shouting and screaming of the victims could be heard through the opening and it was clear that they fought for their lives." The gas was then pumped out, and the Sonderkommandos—work groups of mostly Jewish prisoners—carried out the bodies, extracted gold fillings, cut off women's hair, and removed jewelry, artificial limbs and glasses. At Auschwitz, the bodies were at first buried in deep pits and covered with lime, but between September and November 1942, on the orders of Himmler, 100,000 bodies were dug up and burned. In early 1943, new gas chambers and crematoria were built to accommodate the numbers.
Of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died. The death toll includes 960,000 Jews (865,000 of whom were gassed on arrival), 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 other Europeans. Those not gassed died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments overseen and performed by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death."
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."
The Soviet military medical service and Polish Red Cross (PCK) set up field hospitals that looked after 4,500 prisoners suffering from the effects of starvation (mostly diarrhea) and tuberculosis. Local volunteers helped until the Red Cross team arrived from Kraków in early February. In Auschwitz II, the layers of excrement on the barracks floors had to be scraped off with shovels. Water was obtained from snow and from fire-fighting wells. Before more help arrived, 2,200 patients there were looked after by a few doctors and 12 PCK nurses. All the patients were later moved to the brick buildings in Auschwitz I, where several blocks became a hospital, with medical personnel working 18-hour shifts.
Battle-hardened soldiers who were used to death were shocked by the Nazis' treatment of prisoners. Red Army general Vasily Petrenko, commander of the 107th Infantry Division, remarked, "I who saw people dying every day was shocked by the Nazis' indescribable hatred toward the inmates who had turned into living skeletons. I read about the Nazis' treatment of Jews in various leaflets, but there was nothing about the Nazis' treatment of women, children, and old men. It was in Auschwitz that I found out about the fate of the Jews.
The liberation of Auschwitz received little press attention at the time; the Red Army was focusing on its advance toward Germany and liberating the camp had not been one of its key aims. Boris Polevoi reported on the liberation in the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Pravda on 2 February 1945 but made no mention of Jews; inmates were described collectively as "victims of Fascism". It was when the Western Allies arrived in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, and Dachau in April 1945 that the liberation of the camps received extensive coverage.
At least 802 prisoners tried to escape, 144 successfully, and on 7 October 1944, two Sonderkommando units, consisting of prisoners who operated the gas chambers, launched an unsuccessful uprising. Only 789 Schutzstaffel personnel (no more than 15 percent) ever stood trial after the Holocaust ended; several were executed, including camp commandant Rudolf Höss. The Allies' failure to act on early reports of atrocities by bombing the camp or its railways remains controversial.
Apart from Auschwitz-Birkenau the other five extermination camps were: Chełmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdanek. Auschwitz and Majdanek death camps also used extreme work under starvation conditions in order to kill their prisoners. Approximately 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators.
The European Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event during the Holocaust era (1933–1945), in which Germany and its collaborators persecuted and murdered other groups, including ethnic Poles, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, the Roma, the disabled, political and religious dissidents, and gay men. The death toll of these other groups is thought to be over 11 million.
27 January is a day commemorated since 2005 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the decades after the war, survivors such as Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, and Elie Wiesel wrote memoirs of their experiences, and the camp became a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. In 1947 Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, and in 1979 it was named a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.
Gate to Auschwitz I with its Arbeit macht frei sign ("work sets you free").
Auschwitz II-Birkenau gatehouse; the train track, in operation May–October 1944, led directly to the gas chambers.
Camps and ghettos in occupied Europe showing WW2 borders.
Romani people being deported from Asperg, Germany, 22 May 1940.
Hungarian Jews on the Judenrampe (Jewish ramp) after disembarking from the Holocaust trains. Photo from the Auschwitz Album (May 1944).
Jews from the Tét Ghetto walking toward the gas chambers located near crematoria II and III, 27 May 1944. Photograph from the Auschwitz Album.
A reconstruction of crematorium I, Auschwitz I.
Young survivors at the camp, liberated by the Red Army in January 1945.
Eyeglasses of victims, 1945.