How did the liberation proceed? In what condition were the surviving prisoners found? An interview with Prof. Witold Stankowski on the day of liberation and the preceding months.

On 27 January this year, we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the former Nazi German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Can you explain in a few sentences what Auschwitz was?

To this day, historians are still pondering over what exactly to call that place. Various terms are used: extermination camp, concentration camp, labor camp. Given the scale of the atrocity committed there, I favor the use of large words which simultaneously describe the terror of that place. I would call KL Auschwitz-Birkenau a ruthless machine, a factory of death in the Second World War. We know, based on available information, that the murder of around 1.1 million individuals was planned and committed with premeditation. The victims were primarily Jews, but there were also citizens of the majority of Europe’s countries—nearly 30 nations—including, of course, Poles. The scale of the atrocity committed at Auschwitz is terrifying, but it must be stressed that 1.1 million is the number recorded in the official statistics kept by the camp authorities. We know, however, that the actual number of victims was higher as some were sent directly from the transports to the gas chambers without first being entered into the camp records.

Did the fact of the approach of the Eastern front and the prisoners’ consequent chances for liberation from Auschwitz have any influence on how the camp functioned?

Auschwitz’s criminal intentions were carried out until the very end and the SS diligently fulfilled its obligations. There was no chaos or panic caused by the approach of the Red Army. Information came that the front was drawing ever closer and there were signs of cracks appearing in the German armor but the mass murder of people did not stop. Of course, an evacuation plan was implemented but the genocidal politics were continued nonetheless. The organized murder of 400,000 Hungarian Jews was carried out between May and August 1944. This was the final chapter in the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews. The gas chambers continued to function until 28 November, but no longer on such a mass scale. Crematorium V, which served to burn the corpses of the victims murdered in Birkenau, continued to function the longest. It was blown up by an SS division on 26 January 1945, one day before the liberation of the camp. Attempts to liquidate and evacuate the camp had also taken place earlier, however. These were also according to the plan.

What did this plan depend on?

The Germans realized that the Eastern front would eventually reach Auschwitz and that is why they wanted to erase the traces of their crime. Action was undertaken in as early as mid-1944. Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematory buildings to be dismantled and blown up. The furnaces and technical equipment were removed from them before the buildings were destroyed. Documents, camp evidence, statistics were transported out of the camp. Wilhelm Koppe, the commander of the police and security service in the General Government, issued a decree on 20 July 1944 concerning the evacuation and liquidation of prisons and camps. The orders for the extermination of prisoners included in that document can be applied to the entirety of the occupier’s politics on Polish lands. In it, we read: […] should the situation develop unexpectedly and thereby render the transport of prisoners impossible, they are to be liquidated and the shot bodies removed (burned, blown up along with the buildings) as far as possible. At all costs must we avoid a situation in which the prisoners or Jews are liberated or fall into the hands of the enemy regardless of whether that be the resistance movement or the Red Army […]. According to this decree, no prisoner was to end up in the hands of the enemy. The Germans used scorched earth tactics. The aim was to leave no traces behind.

To what extent was this a realistic idea?

The liquidation and evacuation plan applied to a vast complex (KL Auschwitz, KL II Auschwitz-Birkenau, KL III Auschwitz-Monowitz). People were gassed and burned and their ashes were scattered across an area of 191 ha. It is difficult to imagine how to erase the traces of such a great atrocity. At the same time, it must be remembered that the transport of prisoners to other camps had begun in as early as August 1944. Around 65,000 people had been transported out of Auschwitz by the beginning of January 1945. It was only when the offensive began on 12 January that a more intensive evacuation became necessary. Around 56,000 prisoners were evacuated from KL Auschwitz and its sub-camps between 17 and 21 January 1945.

It is difficult to call it an “evacuation”, given how it proceeded.

There were marches organized in columns, per the orders of the SS command. Each one of them comprised several hundred people. The prisoners walked westward through Upper and Lower Silesia and were driven to Wodzisław and Gliwice where they were transported further to the west on trains. The longest march for a column of evacuated prisoners was 250km and went from the sub-camp in Jaworzno to KL Gross-Rosen. These columns included sick prisoners and children. It is estimated that between 9,000 and 15,000 people died during the evacuation. Today, those marches are called death marches. What is appalling is the fact that those marches were cruelly enforced. Whoever could not keep step was to be shot. Of course, it is possible that the evacuation would have been less severe had it been implemented earlier because beginning them in January meant that the people were leaving Auschwitz in terrible conditions. They were sick, exhausted, forced to march dozens of kilometers in the snow and freezing cold.

Why were only some of the prisoners evacuated in August following Wilhelm Koppe’s decree?

German totalitarianism was characterized by precision. The killing machine, and at the same time production, had to be maintained as long as possible. Production, for example in the chemical plants where synthetic rubber and fuel were being produced for the war effort, continued in the sub-camps. The prisoners were used for specific work and they were expected to work and fulfill their obligations until the very end.

What had a direct influence on the decision to evacuate as quickly as possible?

The Red Army was a few dozen kilometers from Oświęcim where KL Auschwitz was located. The sounds of the approaching front could be heard. We know from prisoner accounts that it was a terrible moment of great uncertainty for them. On the one hand, they were waiting for evacuation not knowing if it would be possible to survive. On the other hand, they suspected that the Germans would murder all those left behind at the last moment. Moreover, there was still a glimmer of hope that the Germans would simply leave them alone.

Was the evacuation and liquidation plan ultimately successful?

On the one hand, the Germans managed to extract more than 90% of the prisoners from the camp, many of whom died and some of whom were forced to wait for months for liberation in other camps. On the other hand, the occupier was not able to erase all the traces of the crime. When the Soviet soldiers arrived at Auschwitz, they found more than a million items of various children’s, men’s and women’s clothing, 43,500 pairs of shoes, 14,000 carpets. In the main camp and Birkenau were around 600 corpses of prisoners who had died of exhaustion or had been shot by the SS as they were withdrawing from the camp. Except for that were the 7,000 people who survived and who really were liberated.

How did the liberation proceed?

The main camp and the Birkenau camp were liberated by the soldiers of the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front at around 3 pm on 27 January 1945. The first units arrived at the Monowitz camp in the eastern part of Oświęcim in the morning, however they were met by resistance from the withdrawing German units at the main camp. The camp was liberated after reconnaissance had been conducted.

Witness accounts say that there was total silence when the soldiers passed through the gates into Auschwitz. Why?

First and foremost, it must be remembered that only the aforementioned 7,000 people, representatives of 20 different nationalities including Jews, remained to witness the liberation of the main camp, Birkenau and Monowitz. Among the liberated prisoners were several hundred children, most of them Jewish, who had survived the pseudo-medical experiments of Doctor Josef Mengele. These were the weakest of the prisoners, children and the sick who were unable to leave the camp under their own strength and march for several dozen kilometers. A second reason for that silence might have been fear. The people treated the soldiers as their liberators, but at the same time, they feared what might come next. We have only to recall the fact that the newly liberated prisoners did not want to wash in the bathroom because it aroused in them a fear that they were undergoing selection for death in the gas chambers. The nurses could not administer injections. The sick people refused intramuscular and intravenous shots, remembering the murder of exhausted prisoners with phenol injections. The sick people did not believe that they were now in a different reality.

In what condition were the surviving prisoners found?

The Soviet soldiers were horrified by what they found. They saw human skeletons. Adults who weighed 30-35kg. One of the prisoners, a twenty-year-old woman, was 160cm tall and weighed only 25kg. Around 4,500 people required immediate medical attention. Attempts were made to lend aid at two military hospitals that were set up in the camp. Residents from the town of Oświęcim and the surrounding area came to help the prisoners. Volunteers from other parts of Poland, members of the Polish Red Cross, also came. Small hospitals were spontaneously set up in Oświęcim and Brzeszcze in which the sick prisoners were treated. The nuns of the Seraphic Sisters looked after the sick. Seriously ill patients were transported to a hospital in Kraków. The hospitalized prisoners suffered from diarrhea, which caused various complications. Tuberculosis was also rife. Patients were gradually re-accustomed to eating normally. They were given a soup made with mashed potatoes: one spoon three times a day, and then, after a while, a few spoons. Prisoners accustomed to having to fight for survival hid bread under their pallets and beds.

What was the significance of the liberation of Auschwitz?

This can be looked at from various perspectives. For the Germans, the SS officers withdrew from Auschwitz and continued to perform their duty following the liberation and therefore they did not treat the loss of the camp as a defeat. The Holocaust had ultimately come to fruition much earlier but the murdering and exploitation of the evacuated prisoners continued in other camps. The Red Army pushed westward and imposed Soviet power. Strategically, Oświęcim and the camps were not marked as a Festung, that is a fortress, a significant military conquest such as Wrocław or Gdańsk, for example. But for the prisoners, those 7,000 people, liberation meant freedom.

Professor Witold Stankowski – employed at the Pilecki Institute’s Center for Totalitarian Studies; he researches modern history, particularly the Second World War, and is the author of the biography of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal

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