The liberation of Auschwitz
On 27 January 1945, Soviet soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front entered the German concentration and extermination camp in Auschwitz. Mere 7,000 prisoners lived to see the liberation of the old camp Auschwitz I, as well as Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and Auschwitz III (Monowitz). The majority of the survivours were driven away by the Germans in the westward bound Death Marches.
The gradual liquidation of the camp commenced already in August 1944 when the Red Army reached the Wisła River. Until the beginning of 1945, the Germans transported 65,000 prisoners to the territory of the Third Reich and murdered almost all members of the so-called Sonderkommandos which attended to the gas chambers and crematories.
The last act of the tragedy was triggered by the launch of the Vistula-Oder Soviet offensive. It was then that the Germans decided to hurriedly liquidate the camp. 67,000 prisoners attended the last assembly on 17 January 1945. Despite the bitter cold, they were forced to march on foot towards Gliwice and Wodzisław Śląski, from where they were deported by trains to concentration camps in Germany. The prisoners who were too weak to walk were killed on the spot. The historians estimate that out of 58,000 prisoners driven out of Auschwitz over 10,000 were murdered during the Death Marches.
Simultaneously, the Germans were extremely busy erasing all traces of the crimes they had committed. They burnt all the documents, especially prisoners’ files and registries, they liquidated the pits with victims’ ashes, they set fire to the so-called Canada barracks where victims’ possessions had been stored. Ultimately, they blew up the crematoria and gas chambers. The last one, crematorium V, was destroyed one day before the liberation.
The liberated prisoners of the Auschwitz camp, the majority of them Jews from over 20 European countries, were extremely exhausted, emaciated, starved and ill. They required immediate help.
The help was provided in the first place by the Soviet army doctors and paramedics, as well as residents of the nearby towns and villages. Soon, the Polish Red Cross organized a makeshift hospital which accommodated over 4,500 ill, including 400 children. The Red Army Soldiers who liberated the camp came across 600 corpses of prisoners murdered by the Germans moments before they had fled. Their solemn funeral took place on 28 February 1945. Approximately 100 prisoners who had died in the hospital after the liberation were also buried on that day.
In the spring of 1945, the Soviet Commission to Investigate Nazi Crimes was in operation at the site of the camp. Upon interrogation of former prisoners the Commission came to the conclusion that 4 million people perished in the Auschwitz camp. Today we know that the number of victims did not exceed 1,1 million.
In the following months, both Soviet and Polish communist authorities organized a camp for German Prisoners of War and for the Volksdeutsche at the site of the former concentration camp.
The efforts to create a museum at the Auschwitz camp began in 1946; the museum was opened on 14 June 1947.