Auschwitz was not the first Nazi death camp liberated by the Red Army. That dubious honour belongs to Madjanek just outside Lublin, which was liberated on 24 July 1944. However Auschwitz, liberated 70 years ago on 27 January 1945, deservedly occupies a special place in history given its size – 40 square kilometres – and the industrial scale of the slaughter that occurred there. It is here, in this place in the middle of the twentieth century, where humanity descended into an abyss that continues to invite incomprehension.
The camp began life in the late nineteenth century as a cavalry barracks. It was taken over by the SS in 1940 and put into operation as a camp for Polish prisoners. This initial camp was known as Auschwitz I. It was here, in September 1941, that Zyklon B was first tested on Soviet and Polish prisoners.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) began operation at the end of 1941. By March 1942 prisoners were being gassed there. By May the extermination of inmates was well underway, though given the primitive nature of the facilities used for the task at the outset, a new system of gas chambers and furnaces was built that winter.
The location of the camp ensured easy access by rail. This made it an attractive proposition for industrial use. The German chemical giant IG Farben established a factory there, utilising slave labour to produce synthetic rubber. Himmler was eager to capitalise on the idea, and by the summer of 1941 construction was underway to extend the camp in order to meet the needs of industrial production. Huge numbers of slave labourers were required, and the SS leader arranged for 10,000 Red Army prisoners to be handed over by the Wehrmacht with this in mind.
Forced labour on starvation rations ensured a high mortality rate. It was only the beginning.
Approx 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz, ninety percent of them Jews. The camp was liberated by troops of the 60th Army, part of Zhukov’s 1st Ukrainian Front, during the Vistula-Oder Offensive between 12 January and 2 February 1945. One week before the Red Army reached the camp, the SS sent 58,000 inmates on a forced march west, most of whom perished in the process, while an unsuccessful attempt was made to destroy and/or remove evidence of the camp’s operation. The infamous Dr Mengele packed the records of his barbaric medical experiments on hundreds of camp inmates and left for Berlin, while executives of IG Farben destroyed records in their section of the camp (Auschwitz III).
Though orders were given to kill the remaining surviving inmates who were too weak to be moved, the SS managed to kill just a couple of hundred out of the 8000 who were left before the camp was liberated.
Red Army officers, upon reaching Auschwitz and seeing the scale of the horror it contained, immediately ordered all of its medical staff in the area to the camp to treat the survivors. They set up field kitchens and a hospital, through which they successfully saved many who otherwise would have died.
Primo Levi survived Auschwitz to become one of the most profound and eloquent chroniclers of the Holocaust and a literary giant of the twentieth century. His biographical account of his experiences as an inmate – If This Is A Man – is a must-read, made more powerful by the clarity and simplicity of his prose.
As Levi writes: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere.”