January 27, 1945: Soviet troops liberate Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Auschwitz concentration camp network, which included Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, and dozens of smaller satellite camps, collectively made up the largest concentration camp run by the Third Reich over the course of the war. The first prisoners arrived at Auschwitz in May of 1940; by 1945 millions of people had passed through - and died - in Auschwitz, with Rudolf Höss estimating a total death toll at 3,000,000 Jews, plus hundreds of thousands of Poles, Roma, prisoners of war, and any other social and political “undesirables”. Because the Nazis destroyed records and many of the camp facilities in an attempt to mask the extent of their crimes as Red Army forces approached, exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, but the generally accepted death toll is around 1.3 million people, who died from gassing, sickness, and starvation.
The original camp, Auschwitz, served a variety of purposes: a prison to hold enemies of the Third Reich/General Government; a steady source of enslaved laborers; a relatively small-scale extermination camp. Medical (in the loosest sense of the word) experimentation was also performed on prisoners at Auschwitz I, including those conducted by the notorious “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele. Construction began on Auschwitz-Birkenau in late 1941 in preparation for the implementation of the “Final Solution”. Although it was referred to as a prisoner-of-war camp, there was no hiding what purpose this second camp would serve, thanks to the gas chambers and crematoria that made up the tools of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s murder machine. There was even a separate “Gypsy camp” where thousands of Roma and Sinti prisoners were sent to be exterminated.
When liberation by oncoming Soviet forces became imminent (which it seemed by late 1944), orders were sent out to blow up the camp’s facilities, along with orders to exterminate the remainder of its prisoners. The latter orders were never carried out, but evacuations (i.e. death marches) to other camps did take place. Sadly, the only prisoners the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army managed to free by the time they arrived on January 27, 1945, were those too sick to walk with the rest. They numbered around 7,500, compared to the 50,000 plus who had been forced on the march. One Russian officer describes the scene of the liberation:
They [the prisoners] began rushing towards us, in a big crowd. They were weeping, embracing us and kissing us. I felt a grievance on behalf of mankind that these fascists had made such a mockery of us. It roused me and all the soldiers to go and quickly destroy them and send them to hell.
A child survivor, only ten years old at the time, describes his own experience:
We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies, and chocolate. Being so alone a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human worth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that.
In 1947, Rudolf Höss was hanged near Crematorium I of the original Auschwitz camp.