It takes an hour to drive from Krakow to Auschwitz. Back in January 1945, it took two days for the soldiers to march that same distance.
In stories over-shadowed by all they were to uncover, heroism and sacrifice made possible their dangerous mission – the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and the Holocaust’s most iconic hour.
The 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front were exhausted. Their push to take Krakow from the Nazis had only met success the week before, until then it had been sustained fighting all the way, inching across Poland, slowly gaining ground.
They must have thought their work was done for the time being. A respite in the settling dust of that ancient city, once the capital of Poland. But they could not ignore the stories surfacing in Krakow, of the death camp so close by.
With the roads impassable, through blizzards and bombs, the Soviet Army set out on foot. Covering sixty miles, each carrying a kit that constituted all they could count on for supplies, in the sure knowledge that this region hadn’t yet been secured. The Germans were on the run, but a wide swathe of countryside between Krakow and Auschwitz had been cleared of dissidents against Nazi Occupation. Local people had been put out of their homes; their property and possessions alike commandeered for the use of SS guards and their families.
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Over 6000 members of the SS worked in the Auschwitz Complex during its time of operation. They had to live somewhere.
So the Ukrainians trudged through snow-drifts, several feet deep in places, pushing ever onwards under the weight of their rucksacks, unknowing whether each howling heard would be the wind or a bullet. Just beyond the outskirts of Krakow, they crossed the front line. Each step closer to Auschwitz drew them further into the active battle-zone.
Retreating German soldiers – some with their own families present to protect – fought hard against companies dispatched from Krakow with orders to forge a safe passage. 230 Soviet soldiers died in the desperate push to liberate Auschwitz. Their graves lie in the municipal cemetery of the nearby town of Oświęcim.
One bears the name of Col. Siemen Lvovich Besprozvanny, the commander of the Russian 472nd Regiment, just one of the troops which went on ahead to try and clear the way.
Few record these facts, tiny statistics lost in the terrible horrors their comrades would uncover.
The Mozes Twins and the Evacuation of Auschwitz II
In her ‘lucky barrack’, ten year old Eva Mozes half-lay huddled on a bed with her twin sister Miriam. The pair had been ripped from their mother’s grasp, on the selection platform of Auschwitz-Birkenau, eight months prior. Dr. Mengele needed twins, as test subjects in his medical experiments.
Throughout their incarceration, the girls had been stripped naked and examined, every inch of their bodies prodded, poked and measured, then injected with who knew what and watched to see what happened.
Each ordeal occurred, exactly the same, three times a week, regular as clockwork and lasting for hours. It had all stopped less than a fortnight before.
No outside news was ever relayed to the prisoners of Auschwitz. But as their Nazi guards reacted to news that the Soviets had taken Krakow, it was obvious that something significant had gone on. Ten days ago, the call came to muster for evacuation to another camp. The Mozes twins hid.
Over 58,000 people – unhealthy, under-nourished, thousands without shoes, and all poorly dressed for winter – were set a punishing pace for that Death March; running its frozen route for miles, while gunfire lined the column’s length and echoed in its wake. Instant execution awaited those who slowed or fell down in the snow. In such chaos, no-one missed two small girls.
They’d dodged bullets too, when the Nazis briefly came back to machine gun the Birkenau barracks, seeking to slaughter those tens of thousands left behind as too ill – or wily – to march. During a third and final sweep, the twins hadn’t been so lucky. Rounded up for one last forced march through the night, but this time only from Birkenau to Auschwitz I. Pushing to the center of their pitiful column, the twins had avoided the frenzy of gunfire which murdered so many from its front, rear and sides.
Remarkably the German soldiers then simply melted away. Harassed beyond the ability to carry out their orders to kill the remaining prisoners, the SS guards had fled west and south. The 472nd Regiment were dying in their droves, but so were the Germans, and the Red Army was winning.
In the utter confusion of one regime fleeing, while another approached, those inside Auschwitz I ducked low beneath the crossfire of artillery. They were at the epicenter of a war raging outside the gates. There was nowhere to go, and no safe passage to get there, even if they’d wanted to liberate themselves.
Eva had turned around and, in the press of adults, darkness and terrible weather, she lost sight of her twin. They’d lived through it all, only to get separated this close to the end.
Eva had been so brave, but suddenly her heart was breaking. The terror she’d held at bay, since that last sight of her mother, overcame her now in waves. For twenty-four hours, she rushed from barrack to barrack, outhouse to cellar and streets, sobbing for her sister and careless of the fighting all around.
Then, in the doorway of a building she’d already searched a dozen times, she collided with her equally distraught twin. Hence it became their ‘lucky barrack.’
In the early morning of January 27th 1945, the blizzard swirled thick and loud about those walls and grimy windows. Eva heard the shouting and clutched her sister tight. Yet there was something about the tenor of those yells that seemed different. Only for those girls ‘different’ tended to mean a deeper, darker danger. Gathering her courage, Eva volunteered to go and look.
“We’re free! We’re free!” A shrunken woman was screaming from the barrack’s main entrance. She was pointing out into the fierce snow, the flakes so dense that nothing much could be seen out there. Eva wondered if the woman had gone mad. Many did lose their minds in here, even now, when freedom seemed tangible, tinging the air with an electric hope.
“There! There!” The woman kept on jabbing her finger into the freezing invisibility.
Then Eva saw them. The 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front were all wearing snow camouflage gear. It made them very difficult to see. Thus they’d made it through and they were here. Their liberators come at last.
The Liberation of Auschwitz I
By mid-morning, the snowstorm passed. Those half-glimpsed horrors did not get better with the light. Practically stranded on the shifting front line of a retreating war, the Ukrainians now found themselves confronted with 7,000 skeletal human beings – each one pushed to the limits of endurance – in their care. The majority of those liberated in Auschwitz needed urgent medical assistance. Many were scantily clad, insufficient to withstand the weather. They were all crawling with lice. Disease was rampant, and they were starving.
Nothing in the smuggled reports, reconnaissance missions and speculative rumors came close to matching the reality. Bodies were piled high – 15,000 of them along the route from Birkenau to Auschwitz I – and evidence of torture was etched in the living flesh of survivors. Stories poured out now, overwhelming minds and sensibilities with the sheer scale of depredation. Rats infested the camp, swarming openly underfoot, and the stench was palpable. These thousands had been worked every day in heavy slave labor. They’d not been afforded much opportunity to wash.
There was not enough food. Vast catering stores – amassed to supply meals for legions of Third Reich staff – had been left behind. Still there was not enough to feed 7,000 dangerously weakened people.
Nor were these soldiers trained in the skills needed to even make a start. They were fighting men – many of them hardly out of their teens – not experts in crisis management. Yet they were at ground zero in a catastrophe, and their helplessness was soon apparent.
Even had the best physicians in the world been present, they wouldn’t have known not to overfeed the starving. It was the Holocaust, and its terrible aftermath, which taught such lessons to medical science. The break-through solution that would save hundreds of thousands of lives was still months away from being discovered, in a field hospital set up to cope with the liberated of Bergen-Belsen.
Stranded too soon in time, and too far in place, the Soviets made the mistakes that would become a hallmark of all liberation armies. Stunned soldiers would hunt in their own rucksacks, donating personal rations to save someone starving to death before their eyes. But the food was too rich. It killed its victim instantly.
Six hundred denizens of Auschwitz died in the two months after liberation. They never made it out of the gates, but expired in the knowledge of their freedom. For those bearing witness, it seemed too cruel. But all things considered, it was a surprisingly low figure.
Miriam and Eva Mozes: A Handful of Flour
Eva Mozes and her sister Miriam were starving. While exploring, they had found a pile of flour on the floor of a cellar. The twins scooped it up into Eva’s scarf. In the safety of their ‘lucky barrack’, they’d rationed their haul out raw, eating the flour in tiny handfuls, while waiting for the Red Army to come.
But the Soviets were here and the flour had run out. It didn’t look like anyone was going to be feeding them any time soon.
The ten year old twins crept back down into the cellar, in the hope that they’d overlooked more on the floor. They had! There was a massive sack of flour there now! Miriam quickly dug her hands inside it, while Eva stretched wide the fabric of her scarf.
There was a rat-a-tat scream of gunfire, blasting through the close confines of the brickwork. Eva reported later that she thought her heart had stopped. She expected to be dead now, or in the next second surely, and was startled when the shouting Ukrainian merely shooed them away. His bullets had been warning shots. The young soldier was only trying to protect those meager food supplies against looting. Every grain of it had to be rationed, if there was going to be any hope of feeding the thousands.
Their tiny forms tingling with terror and shock, the twins nonetheless grasped a strange notion. Nobody was trying to kill them. They could still die – corpses lined every wayside and people still dropped dead before them with alarming regularity – but it wouldn’t be deliberate. For the first time (and only when they’d regained the sanctuary of their ‘lucky’ barrack), the Mozes twins understand that there was a strong chance they would get out of here alive.
“We’re going home.” Eva whispered wistfully, and tasted belief in it. But they never would. There was no-one left to make their home for them.
Truth and Illusion During the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
Elsewhere, the shooting had stopped. The sudden silence was the second remarkable thing about January 27th 1945 for those in Auschwitz. It lent yet another edge of surreality to the already strange day. There was a sense of the unreal about it all. Like they were walking in a dream, or perhaps unknowingly dead.
In reality, the cessation of artillery fire was down to the Red Army pushing the front line ever further away. Covering the backs of comrades charged with freeing so many camps in the sprawling Auschwitz Complex. By morning, the battle sites were simply too distant to hear.
This also allowed the Ukrainians to receive reinforcements. The 322nd rifle division – gunners in the Russian army – arrived in Auschwitz I fresh from liberating Auschwitz-Birkenau.
They’d seen the exploded gas chambers and inspected the crematoria. They’d surveyed the vast size of the Birkenau camp; at first just trailing around its perimeter fence, wondering if it was ever going to end, and how far away the entrance could possibly be. All the time tasting the weird ‘ash and smoke air’.
The whole scene was eerily lit by the smoldering furnace of the torched ‘Canada’ – gigantic warehouses stuffed full of the possessions of murdered inmates. Not all of them were destroyed. Opening those great doors, the Russian gunners finally grasped the enormity of the killing factories, in recent operation at Auschwitz II.
They’d already discovered a mode of mass murder; now a glimpse into its scale lay exposed. Wholesale genocides had been perpetuated with chilling efficiency on that site. The gunners saw it in the endless piles of glasses, shoes and gold fillings; the tonnes of shorn hair; the suitcases stacked like mountains in the flame flickered pre-dawn.
Then they’d marched past 15,000 corpses en route to Auschwitz I.
Their leader was Ivan Martynushkin, a hardened soldier of three years service, who thought himself desensitized to the horrors of war. He’d turned twenty-one, just a few days before liberating Auschwitz II. At eighty-six years old, in 2010, he confessed to a newspaper that he’s still having nightmares about what he saw on Auschwitz Liberation Day 1945.
Hopelessly out of their depth, those Soviet liberators – Ukrainian and Russian alike – nevertheless did the best that they could. Before anyone could even assess the size of the more immediate carnage, details were organized to separate the dead from the living, turning Block 11 into a morgue. A hasty triage of the wounded and dying was swiftly overwhelmed, but they kept on going. There were no other choices.
Yet they prioritized one element above other more seemingly pressing concerns. Captain Alexander Vorontsov – a Russian photographer and film-maker – had been dispatched by his superiors in Krakow with explicit orders to photograph and film all that he found. He’d entered Auschwitz that morning with the First Ukrainian Front.
Each liberation tableau was recreated – nothing like the reality, but staged the same day and the following afternoon – with those able to walk acting as cameos of themselves, smiling and waving in jubilant welcome at the supposed troops approaching off-screen.
The Red Army was later criticized for pausing to create propaganda movies to impress the folks back home. But there was more to it than that.
Footage captured during those two days still does contribute greatly to the historical record. It was evidence to show disbelieving audiences across the world. Knowledge of Auschwitz had long since been out, but who wouldn’t have assumed that such stories were exaggerated? It seemed too inhumane, too incredible, to be true. Genocides and massacres had happened throughout history, but never like this. Never on such an industrial scale with purpose-built buildings designed for the task of mass slaughter.
Soviet officers, issuing directives to photograph and film, understood only too well the need to record what was found. It had to be recorded immediately, too. Because if they left it too long, then the Red Army opened itself up to accusations of having done this itself – built and exploded, tortured and starved – in order to frame atrocity on the departing Nazi regime. By filming on day one, the Soviets could answer those claims with the undeniable refute that there hadn’t yet been time.
Nor could scenes be carefully planned over storyboards, nor hammered into perfection by a team of professionals. There was just one man and his assistant, with a single small hand-held movie camera and another for the still shots. It was point and click, doing their best, against the chaos of a crisis unfolding with ever more monstrous revelations, wherever they happened to look.
Scenes were staged. Children were also shoved into adult male uniforms, which they hadn’t actually worn, even in their own sizes, whilst incarcerated in Auschwitz. It added to the overall effect, creating a sense of what had happened here. The alternative would have been getting in the way of the mammoth rescue effort, and intruding upon the dignity of the dying with a camera.
Eva and Miriam Mozes at Auschwitz
Lined up at the head of a crowd of children, Eva and Miriam Mozes held each other’s hand and waited for Captain Vorontsov to wave at them to come on. Their painfully thin frames were disguised under several layers of clothing, overlaid with a grown-up’s striped PoW shirt apiece. They look chubby, seeming to waddle towards the camera. They felt like film stars.
It was all illusion. But as Eva passes the camera – right in the center of the front row, leading the column like a conquering heroine – she bobs her tongue out at it, and us, and Auschwitz, and all that the Nazis had done to her. She had survived, she was free and she was going home. And that, on Liberation Day, was the truth.