Behinds the scenes of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau | article


"The question is often asked how it was possible that the descendants of Heine and Goethe were able to subject other nations in the heart of Europe to such a terrible fate in the first half of the 20th century". Article by Professor Tadeusz Panecki.

Prof. Tadeusz Panecki


One of the key problems plaguing the post-war generation and hampering historical awareness of the years 1939–45 is the issue of the genocide committed by Nazi Germany. The question is often asked how it was possible that the descendants of Heine and Goethe were able to subject other nations in the heart of Europe to such a terrible fate in the first half of the 20th century. Moreover, why did the civilized world take no affirmative action to put a stop to the atrocities being committed on such an unprecedented scale? These questions are often asked of the then leaders of the western democratic world, the governmental heads of the great Anglo-Saxon powers who possessed the military means perhaps not to prevent but at least to minimalize the tragic consequences of the extermination of the nations of occupied Europe: Jews, Romas, Poles, Russians and others. The genocide committed by the Germans was implemented mainly in extermination camps, that is factories of death established on occupied Polish land, and was carried out almost without hindrance right up until the final days of the Second World War. The largest Nazi German extermination camp was established in April 1940: KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 1.5 million human lives were claimed.

The leaders of the United States of America and Great Britain were well aware that the Germans were exterminating Jews, Poles, Russians and citizens of other nations en masse at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. News of the atrocities being committed there was delivered by representatives of the Polish government-in-exile in London which received up-to-date intelligence from both the Government Delegation for Poland and the Home Army command. In spite of this knowledge, however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill did nothing to halt the mass atrocities being committed by the Germans in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau. The western Allies had the technical capabilities to bombard the gas chambers in the camp and their destruction would certainly have thwarted the Germans’ criminal plans at least for a certain time. The Americans in particular had this capability: it was their Superfortresses stationed in Great Britain and southern Italy which ran bombing raids on Romania’s oil refineries before landing at airfields in Ukraine where they would refuel and rearm before making the return journey with an escort of Soviet fighter planes. One such flight was made on 18 September 1944 when 107 of the United States 8th Air Force’s B-17 heavy bombers carried out a supply drop for the insurgents fighting in Warsaw. Possibilities did indeed exist and yet the western leaders decided not to bomb the German installations in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau apparently out of concern for the loss of life among prisoners that such an operation might cause.

An open but also particularly significant question on the present issue is whether or not Joseph Stalin was as apprised of the situation as were Roosevelt and Churchill. It is difficult with the currently available documentation to prove conclusively one way or the other if the Soviet leader knew exactly what the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was. At the same time, it is also difficult to believe that Stalin, with his far-reaching network of agents operating throughout Europe, was unaware of the nature of the camp built by the Germans near the Polish town of Oświęcim annexed into the Third Reich, a camp in which citizens of his own country were being imprisoned and murdered. What is more, the Soviet leader remained in constant contact with the leaders of the USA and Great Britain regarding the issues of military strategy and the situation in areas occupied by the Third Reich via letters and face-to-face meetings (for example the conference of the ‘Big Three’ in Teheran between 28 November and 1 December 1943) prior to the liberation of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau. The issue of German crimes was one of the sticking points in the relations between the leaders of the three great powers. It is possible, then, to claim with a large amount of certainty that the leader of the Soviet Union was aware of the nature of the camp and of the scale of the atrocities being committed there. If Roosevelt and Churchill had the operational means to destroy the camp’s crematoria from the air (which, we know, did not happen), then Stalin possessed the key to the liberation of the camp since at least the summer of 1944 when the Red Army’s land forces came within range of the area in which the largest of Nazi Germany’s death factories was located.

The Soviet battlefront reached the central section of the Vistula river in the summer of 1944. Operation “Bagration” resulted in Soviet forces covering nearly 1,000 km between 23 June and 31 August, advancing more than 600 km west of modern-day Belarus to reach the Vistula river, thus creating conditions concomitant to the preparation and implementation of a new offensive towards Berlin and Wrocław. When the fighting finished at the end of August, the troops dug in and suspended operations for several months. In August 1944, the front line stopped around 200 km from the town of Oświęcim. It was only at the end of November 1944 that Moscow took the decision to commence a large-scale winter operation aimed at the central section of the German lines between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. Military operations were resumed on 12 January 1945. The Vistula-Oder Offensive involved a plan to break the German troops at their center, take Berlin and finish the war victoriously. According to orders from GHQ, the main strike from the central Vistula region was to be made by two separate fronts: the 1st Belorussian Front under the command of Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov (towards Berlin) and the 1st Ukrainian Front under Marshal Ivan S. Konev (towards Wrocław). Oświęcim was within the operational range of the 1st Ukrainian Front and so further analysis will be focused on the actions taken by Konev’s forces.

The Red Army was ready to begin its next offensive on Polish lands in as early as December 1944[1]. The start date for this operation was initially set for 19 December but was delayed for political reasons. What was the reason for this change? One event which might have influenced this decision was the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes which began on 16 December. This conjuncture may have been seen by Stalin and his advisors as greatly advantageous for the planned offensive as the German operation required ever more Wehrmacht forces to be withdrawn from the eastern front and redirected to face the Anglo-American forces in the west. There was also political motivation in addition to the military aspect of the offensive: any success of the German operation in the west might force the Allies to delay pushing deeper into Germany with the American General George Patton’s 3rd Army on 19 December 1944. With the growing rivalry between Stalin and his western Allies, such an eventuality would be a greatly significant factor in determining the winner of the race to Berlin.

The currently available work of Soviet historians and memoirs of Soviet commanders from the Second World War give 20 January 1945 as the planned start of the Vistula-Oder Offensive. This date also appears in western publications which generally rely on the memoirs of the Soviet marshals. It is poignant that 20 January is noted in all these publications alongside another date—12 January—under the auspices of an alleged acceleration of the offensive. This acceleration supposedly came at the behest of the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a letter addressed to Stalin on 6 January 1945. Concerned about the course of the military operations on the western front and fully aware of the complications the Allies would face as a result of the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes ever since its commencement on 16 December 1944, the British Prime Minister wrote: “[…] I shall be grateful if you can tell me whether we can count on a major Russian offensive on the Vistula front, or elsewhere, during January […] I regard the matter as urgent.” Stalin responded the following day, writing: “[…] in view of our Allies’ position on the western front, GHQ of the Supreme Command have decided to complete preparations at a rapid rate and, regardless of weather, to launch large-scale offensive operations along the entire central front not later than the second half of January”[2].

But what does the documentation of the 1st Ukrainian Front have to say on the matter? According to the latest research of Prof. Henryk Stańczyk, who made enquiries in the Archives of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation in Podolsk, an order sent from Marshal Konev to the commanders of his subordinate armies on 6 January read: “assault battalions are to begin simultaneous armed operations along the entire length of the front at 5:00AM on 09.01.45"[3].

In light of the above, there can be no doubt that the January deadline for the winter offensive was initially indicated as 9 January 1945 and that not only was this deadline not accelerated following Churchill’s letter to Stalin but was, in fact, delayed by three days. Moreover, one might be given to speculation that the German offensive in the Ardennes caused —albeit unintentionally—the Vistula-Oder Offensive on the eastern front to be delayed twice.

The shifting start date of the offensive had a negative impact on how they proceeded from an operational standpoint. The air force was hoped to play an important role in the campaign. Meteorological dispatches reported that the atmospheric conditions in the first half of January would be conducive to airborne operations. The weather changed dramatically on 11 January, however. The temperature suddenly spiked, the ground began to defrost and the airfields turned into bogs. Visibility was limited by a low cloud ceiling and the weather became unsuitable for flying. Conditions were further exacerbated by the onset of fog and heavy snowfall and using the air force to carry out mass bombing raids became practically impossible as a consequence. 

The troops received orders about the new start date for the Vistula-Oder Offensive on 8 January 1945. The 1st Ukrainian Front was the first to begin the advance on 12 January and its actions will be recorded in history as the Sandomierz-Silesian Offensive. Its goal was to take control of the Upper Silesian Industrial Region and then break through to Wrocław. According to the account of the Front’s commander, Stalin saw the Upper Silesian region as a particular point of concern. “Even on the map, the area of Silesia and its power seem imposing. As I understand it, Stalin underscored this fact when he pointed at the chart, drew out the regional boundaries and said: Gold. It was pronounced in such a way that it needed no further comment. Even without this pronouncement, it was clear to me as commander of the Front that the issue of the liberation of the Silesia-Dąbrowa Basin must be handled in a particular manner. It was crucial to use any means necessary to maintain its industrial potential as much as possible, all the more so as those native Polish lands were to return to Poland after its liberation"[4]. Only, there was an extermination camp on Konev’s way towards that gold, a camp where hundreds of prisoners were being murdered every single day, a camp about which Stalin had not mentioned a single word. Ignorance, or cold calculation in the choice of missions to be accomplished on the strategic march to Berlin?

In order to fulfill the mission of the Sandomierz–Silesian Offensive, Marshal Konev led a force that was analogously larger than the Polish army which defended the country on 1 September 1939. The 1st Ukrainian Front comprised more than one million soldiers equipped with 9,000 cannons and 3,000 tanks. The German forces, spread all along the planned route of the Soviet advance, included 250,000 soldiers armed with 1,500 cannons and 540 tanks. The Russian forces outmanned and outgunned the German forces by several times and on the front lines this advantage increased to several dozen.

The advance along the route in question (towards Oświęcim) was made by Gen. Pavel Kurochkin’s 60th Army located on the Front’s left flank, one of the eight field armies bolstered by support from two armored armies and one airborne army. Moreover, Gen. Kurochkin’s advancing forces also included a mechanized corps, a cavalry corps, three armored corps, two artillery corps and a rocket artillery division. The 60th Army formed three corps consisting of three infantry divisions each: the 15th Army Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Pyotr Tertyshnyy with the 246th ID (Col. Dmitriy Kazarinov), the 322nd ID (Maj. Gen. Pyotr Zubov) and the 336th ID (Col. Lazar Grinvald-Mukho); the 28th Army Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Mikhail Ozimin with the 9th ID (Maj. Gen. Pyotr Metalnikov), the 107th ID (Col. Vasiliy Petrenko) and the 302nd ID (Col. Nikolay Kucherenko); and the 106th Army Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Pavel Ilinykh with the 100th ID (Maj. Gen. Fyodor Krasavin), the 148th ID (Col. Mikhail Goltsov) and the 304th ID (Col. Aleksandr Galtsev)[5]. More than 40,000 individuals were drafted into the 60th Army between September 1944 and January 1945[6], thereby enabling the average strength of each division to be increased from 3,000–4,000 to more than 6,000 soldiers[7]. The general condition of the army on 10 January 1945 amounted to 70,649 soldiers and their operational width covered around 100 km. Furthermore, the operation was to be carried out on both sides of the Vistula river which divided the army into two latitudinal parts.

The 60th Army completed its initial mission earlier than planned during the first stage of the Sandomierz-Silesia Operation. Over the course of six days between 12 and 17 January, the army broke through the echeloned German defenses on the north bank of the Vistula and advanced in a southwesterly direction until the front units arrived before the external circle of defenses at Kraków.

On 17 January, Stalin ordered Konev and the 60th Army to take Kraków and continue the advance towards Upper Silesia along with the 59th Army commanded by Lt. Gen. Ivan Korovnikov. Following Stalin’s orders, Konev issued an operational directive the next day in which he instructed the commander of the 59th Army to circle around Kraków from the northeast, take the city, and then move on towards Sosnowiec and Gliwice. The 60th Army itself would strike from the northeast in tandem with the 59th, take the city, and then advance towards Oświęcim, Chrzanów, Rybnik and Racibórz. The fight for Kraków began on 18 January and lasted through the following day. Gen. Korovnikov and Kurochkin’s soldiers pacified the city on 19 January.

After liberating Kraków, the 60th Army, whose mission was to encircle the Upper Silesian Industrial Region from the south, arrived at the Tyniec-Wieliczka-Bochnia line. Pushing on, they took Wieliczka in the late hours of 22 January, Skawina the next day, and Chrzanów on 24 January. Gen. Kurochkin’s soldiers from the 15th Army Corps arrived at Przemsza on 25 January and liberated Libiąż, situated barely 10 km from Oświęcim. The remaining two Army Corps, the 28th and 106th, remained behind, stretched out along the Vistula and Skawa rivers. Konev, meanwhile, expected some forward maneuvers from the 60th Army in order for him to carry out his plan of outflanking the Germans in Silesia. After performing the necessary regrouping and reinforcement, the 15th Army Corps traversed Przemsza with tanks and anti-tank artillery and resumed their advance on 26 January. The 60th Army was met by resistance from various units of Germany’s previously-broken 344th, 371st, 359th, 78th and 544th infantry divisions with the 545th Volksgrenadier-Division centered near Oświęcim. By the evening of 26 January, the Russians managed to reach the Imielin-Bieruń Nowy-Oświęcim line.

Four of the 60th Army’s infantry divisions took direct part in the Oświęcim operation: the 100th, 107th, 148th and 322nd. The first scouts from the 454th infantry regiment of Gen. Krasavin’s 100th infantry division entered the Monowitz sub-camp in the early hours of Saturday 27 January. The center of Oświęcim was pacified in the afternoon of the same day and, after a brief exchange with the withdrawing Germans, the Russians entered Auschwitz-Birkenau at around 3:00PM. A total of 231 Red Army soldiers were killed in the fight to liberate the camp and town, including the commander of the 472nd infantry regiment Lt. Col. Semen Besprozvannyy[8], and 66 Red Army soldiers – Lt. Gildumin Bashirov among them – lost their lives on the camp premises. The majority of the fallen soldiers were buried at the municipal cemetery in Oświęcim. The paradox of history decreed that the soldiers of Soviet totalitarianism brought freedom to the prisoners of Nazi totalitarianism.

One of the former female prisoners recalls the moment of liberation: “we heard the explosion of a grenade near the camp gates. We immediately looked out of the blocks and saw several Soviet scouts coming towards us, weapons ready to fire. We quickly stuck out poles hung with bedsheets with red strips sewn on in the shape of a red cross. The scouts lowered their weapons when they saw us. There was a spontaneous welcoming. I know Russian and so I said to the scouts: ‘zdravstvuyte pobediteli i osvoboditeli!’ [‘welcome victors and liberators!’]. They answered: ‘uzhe vy svobodnyye’ [‘you are free now’]”[9].

The Germans began to liquidate the camp and erase all traces of the genocide just after the Red Army’s winter offensive had begun. The order for the final evacuation of the prisoners was issued in mid-January by the Higher SS and Police Leader in Breslau SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst Schmauser. The final general roll call of 67,012 prisoners took place on 17 January, following which more than 58,000 people were put in columns and driven on foot towards Wodzisław Śląski and Gliwice. Around 15,000 prisoners were killed by the Germans or died of exhaustion on these “death marches” and the survivors were transported deeper into the Third Reich in coal-cars. More than 9,000 prisoners including around 500 children unfit for evacuation were left behind in the camp, with some of them being murdered by the Germans at the last possible moment before the liberation of the camp. On 20 and 26 January the SS officers blew up crematoria II, III and V in an attempt to destroy the evidence of their crimes. The majority of the SS abandoned the camp on 26 January. The Germans were in such a hurry to leave that they left behind the camp archives which then came into Russian possession. Around 7,000 prisoners remained alive to bear witness to the liberation.

The extermination camp made a shocking impression on the soldiers of Gen. Krasavin’s 100th infantry division. They aided the survivors as much as they could and the medical units organized makeshift sanitary installations until the Soviet and Polish doctors arrived. The 100th infantry division in question had gained the honorific “Lwów” after taking the city earlier in the war. It had been supplied with new recruits following the fight for Lwów and its ranks were replenished with Ukrainian nationals. The division had its own fairly long wartime history: formed in the Ural Military District, it took part in the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, fought on the Finnish front during the Winter War in 1939–40 and was subsequently scattered by the Germans during fighting between 22 June 1941 and February 1942. It was reformed in Vologda in the Arkhangelsk Military District on 18 March 1942 and later fought its way to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

But how did the commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front report the taking of the extermination camp? “I found myself relatively close to that terrible camp the following day,” Marshal Konev wrote in his diary. “I received the first news of what that camp was. I did not see it, however—not because I did not want to, but because I consciously forbade myself from doing so. The fighting was in full swing and directing it required such focus that I believed I had no right to squander my mental energy and time on a personal experience. There, in the midst of war, I was not my own man”[10]. However, in his second memoiristic work (Czterdziesty piąty, Warszawa 1968), Konev does not mention the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau at all. Based on this information, it must be assumed that the commander of the 1st Ukrainian Front only discovered the nature of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp after his soldiers took control of the Oświęcim region. This would mean that that Nazi death factory did not figure among the directives and orders of the supreme Soviet commander as a primary target for pacification during the Second World War. It can only be assumed, therefore, that both Oświęcim and its camp were liberated simply because they happened to find themselves in the path of the Soviet Vistula-Oder Offensive of January 1945.


[1] G. Patton, Wojna. Jak ją poznałem, Warszawa 1989, p. 207.

[2] Korespondencja przewodniczącego Rady Ministrów ZSRR z prezydentem Stanów Zjednoczonych i premierem Wielkiej Brytanii w okresie Wielkiej Wojny Narodowej Związku Radzieckiego 1941–1945, Vol. 1. Warszawa 1960, pp. 294–295

[3] H. Stańczyk, Operacja sandomiersko-śląska 1 Frontu Ukraińskiego. Bitwa o Górny Śląsk, Warszawa 1996, p. 159.

[4] I. Koniew, Notatki dowódcy Frontu 1943–1945, Warszawa 1986, pp. 387–388.

[5] Army composition based on: H. Stańczyk, Operacja sandomiersko-śląska, p. 284.

[6] The individuals drafted into the 60th Army were generally not native Russians. Newcomers arrived predominantly from Ukraine but many also joined the ranks from Moldova and the southern Asiatic republics of the Soviet Union. The Moldovans themselves did not speak Russian and generally had not undergone any military training. Consequently, all of the newly drafted soldiers underwent two months of training during which they were taught basic commands in Russian and warfare. The language barrier and the tough conditions on the battlefront led to conflicts and desertions. A total of 357 soldiers deserted in the period concerned, 57 of whom took their weapons and went over to the German side.

[7] For comparison: the numbers for the Polish infantry divisions in September 1939 amounted to around 16,500 soldiers; for the Wehrmacht infantry divisions during the Second World War these were around 12,500 and in the US Army – 14,000.

[8] Lt. Col. Semen Besprozvannyy was posthumously awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland by the President of Poland in 2000.

[9] A. Strzelecki, “Ewakuacja, likwidacja i wyzwolenie obozu” in: Auschwitz. Nazistowski obóz śmierci, eds F. Piper, T. Świebodzka, Oświęcim 1998, p. 270.

[10] I. Koniew, op. cit., p. 417.

See also