This Tuesday, January 27th, will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Soviet forces. The date of the liberation of the infamous death camp was recognized in an official capacity when January 27 became known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. World War II was the deadliest war in history, claiming more victims than any war before or since. The war years had no shortage of unbelievable suffering, yet this particular death camp from that era stands out even today as truly unique in human history. It was the largest of the Nazi death camps, where an estimated 1.5 million people were bureaucratically processed and then sent to die. Those who survived endured indescribable suffering, and the news of the existence of such a place shook the world when it was discovered.
Ivan Martynushkin, a member of the Soviet unit that arrived to liberate Auschwitz, recalled the experiences of the first troops arriving at the now notorious death camp. He said that nobody really knew much about Auschwitz, except for top military leaders. They were looking for German troops springing an ambush, when they noticed the prisoners behind barbed wire fences. There were nearly 7,000 prisoners left behind by the Nazis at the infamous death camp. Just days before, the Nazis had taken nearly 60,000 prisoners out on what has since become known as the “Death March” in sub-freezing temperatures towards Loslau in Germany, which is now a town in Poland known as Wodzislaw Slaski. Thousands died during this forced march.
The Soviets found evidence of Nazi atrocities very quickly. Although the Nazis had blow up parts of the camp, there was plenty of evidence left of the horrifying practices, including tons of shoes, suitcases, clothes, human hair, and other personal belongings from prisoners. It was not long before the Soviet troops learned the truth about what went on at the death camp, with the showers and the chimneys, the experiments, and the starving survivors.
Still, despite the Soviets having powered their way into Poland and liberated the camp to thankful Auschwitz inmates, not everyone feels that they should actually be viewed as liberators. There has long been some controversy from citizens of eastern European countries about whether the Soviet forces could be seen as liberators at all in the east, since many feel that the Soviets simply removed Nazi oppression and replaced it with their own oppression. On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, former European Parliament president Jerzy Buzek compared Soviet forces to occupation troops. Just last week, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna made the provocative claim that the death camp had been liberated by Ukrainians, which sparked considerable outrage by many Russians, including Martynushkin.
Oświęcim, better known to the outside world as Auschwitz, the name given to it by the occupying Germans, is a city that still is wrestling with the demons of the past. For most people, it will forever be associated with the death camp that easily serves as the most infamous local landmark. The crimes committed there seven decades ago remain a source of division among local residents still. Bogumila was a young girl during the time of the Holocaust, but she remembers. She remembers the glow from the infamous crematorium of Auschwitz, and she recalls how everyone would shut their windows against the smell emanating from the camp.
Bogumila says that everyone understood what was going on inside, it was no secret. But the focus on survival prevented most from trying to do anything to intervene. The Nazis maintained very strict policies against aiding Jews, although many Poles nonetheless risked their own lives to help Jews. Yet, many other Poles also helped the occupying Germans to locate missing Jews for a monetary reward. Some Poles also went to the death camp after 1945 to dig for valuables. As the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approaches on Tuesday, these are the issues local residents are trying to come to terms with, which are crimes committed at Auschwitz that are not as well-known, but still have polarized the local community.
Yet, the legacy of death camp lives on as the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz arrives. The occasion has become a universal day of remembrance, and there are events commemorating survivors all over the world. There will be ceremonies at the camp itself that world leaders will be attending, all on this anniversary of the liberation of thousands from perhaps the darkest chapter in history. It proves that the shock waves from a world discovering what people can do to one another continues even seven decades later, as the diminishing number of survivors over the years continues to speak out in hopes that their suffering, and the sacrifice of those that perished, was not for nothing, and that the world will not forget.
By Charles Bordeau
Reuters – Book of Horrors: Nazi camp survivors in U.S. recall Auschwitz
Reuters – Decades after Auschwitz, past horrors haunt a Polish town
Photo by Tulio Bertorini – Flickr