Eighty-eight pounds of eyeglasses. Hundreds of prosthetic limbs. Twelve thousand pots and pans. Forty-four thousand pairs of shoes. When Soviet soldiers poured into Auschwitz in January 1945, they encountered warehouses filled with massive quantities of other people’s belongings. Most of the people who owned them were already dead, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust’s largest extermination and concentration camp.
But though the camps that made up Auschwitz seemed silent and abandoned at first, soldiers soon realized they were filled with people—thousands of them, left to die by SS guards who evacuated the camps after trying to cover up their crimes. As they saw the soldiers, the emaciated prisoners hugged, kissed and cried.
“They rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs,” remembered Georgii Elisavetskii, one of the first Red Army soldiers to step into Auschwitz. After five years of hell, Auschwitz was liberated at last.
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The Germans had long known they might have to abandon Auschwitz, but they planned to use it as long as possible, further exploiting the workers whose slave labor they rented to companies that produced chemicals, armaments and other materials. By late 1944, they were still unsure if the Allies would make it to Oświęcim. As they waited, they moved forward with a preliminary evacuation, even founding a new sub-camp at a steel mill.
Even as they waited to determine if a mass evacuation was needed, the Germans began to destroy evidence of their crimes. They murdered most of the Jews who had worked in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and crematoria, then destroyed most of the killing sites. The destruction didn’t end there: The Germans ordered prisoners to tear down many buildings and systematically destroyed many of their meticulous records of camp life. They also took steps to move much of the material they had looted from the Jews they murdered elsewhere.
Nazis Evacuate Camp, Force Prisoners on Death Marches
Then, the Soviets broke through German defenses and began to approach Krakow. As the Red Army marched closer and closer, the SS decided it was time to evacuate.
They planned what prisoners thought of as death marches—lengthy, forced journeys from Auschwitz toward other concentration and death camps. Starting on January 17, prisoners were forced into long columns and told to walk westward toward territory still held by Germany. Only those in good health (a relative term in camps racked with malnutrition and disease) could participate, and those who fell were shot and left behind. The death marches, which occurred in extremely cold conditions, killed up to 15,000 prisoners. Those who remained were forced into open freight cars and shipped further into the Reich, where they were relocated to various camps still under German control.
The guards who remained continued to cover up evidence, including burning warehouses full of plundered possessions. By January 21, most SS officers had left for good.
Most of the 9,000 prisoners who remained at Auschwitz were in dire health. Others had hidden in the hopes they could escape. Conditions were appalling—there was no food, no fuel, no water. Some prisoners scavenged among the possessions the SS had not managed to destroy. A small group of healthier prisoners attended to the sick.
Soviet Soldier: 'We Knew Nothing'
Meanwhile, the Soviets were progressing toward Oświęcim—but they had no idea the camp existed. Liberating Auschwitz was not in their orders, but when a group of scouts stumbled into Birkenau on January 27, 1945, they knew they had found something terrible.
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“We knew nothing,” Soviet soldier Ivan Martynushkin recalled to the Times of Israel. Then, he saw it: inmates behind barbed wire. "I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal,” he told the Times.
The scouts were followed by troops who entered the camp. They were shocked by what they saw there: piles of ash that had once been human bodies. People living in barracks that were encrusted with excrement. Emaciated patients who became ill when they ate the food they offered.
Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she spotted the soldiers. She was one of a group of hundreds of children who had been left behind, and she had endured medical experiments during her imprisonment. She remembered how the soldiers gave her “hugs, cookies and chocolate….We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness.”
That human kindness characterized the liberation. The shocked soldiers helped set up hospitals on site, and townspeople volunteered to help. For months, Polish Red Cross workers labored to save the dying and treat the living, working without adequate food or supplies and helping prisoners get in touch with their loved ones. About 7,500 survived.
Though some journalists visited Auschwitz at liberation, the camp did not receive the same kind of international attention that had greeted the liberation of Majdanek, the first major Nazi extermination camp to be captured during the war. But after Soviet investigators learned the true extent of the killing at Auschwitz, it soon became known as a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust. With the help of the Polish government, a group of former prisoners turned the site into a memorial and museum.
Auschwitz Mastermind Is Hanged
Auschwitz had been the site of 1.1 million murders, and in 1947 it became the site of its mastermind’s hanging. After testifying at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Rudolf Höss, the SS officer who served as Auschwitz’s commandant for more than four years, was put on trial by Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal.
Most of the other perpetrators of the Holocaust denied their involvement. Höss did not. While he awaited his execution, he wrote his memoirs and expressed remorse for his crimes. He was hanged near the Gestapo quarters at Auschwitz—Poland’s last public execution.
Despite the best efforts of Höss and his fellow Nazis, approximately 15 percent of the people sent to Auschwitz are thought to have survived. Though their numbers dwindle each year, many are still speaking out about their ordeal in an attempt to commemorate those who were murdered and warn the world about the dangers of bigotry and anti-Semitism.
“We have not won,” survivor Szmul Icek told The Times of Israel, “but we have taught our grandchildren in a way that they understand what happened.”
READ MORE: The Holocaust: Facts, Victims, Survivors