Auschwitz Liberation: The Final Selection
Prisoners who remained at the camp after the previous evacuations and until Auschwitz's liberation continued to live with the feeling of complete uncertainty about their life, but with the hope of regaining their freedom. On January 27, 1945, this hope became reality.
Liberation at Auschwitz Camps Complex
A few thousand's (around 7,000) of the sick and hungry left at the Auschwitz I and Birkenau camps in order to feel the long-dreamed moment of liberation.
Nazi had previously made the final selection and evacuated around 60,000 prisoners in the course of a final liquidation.
Camp staff at Auschwitz was also evacuated in a hurry, along with goods still stored at the camp.
Finally, a number of last-minute efforts were also made to destroy evidence of the crimes committed at the Auschwitz camp before the liberation.
Let's see what happened before, during, and after Auschwitz Liberation.
Source: Auschwitz Book «Auschwitz Nazi Death Camp»
A scene from Auschwitz Liberation
Before the Liberation of Auschwitz
In July-August 1994, the Red Army was around 200km away from Auschwitz and the Nazi officials began considering liquidating the camp, but they continued to exterminate in the gas chambers most of the Jews immediately on arrival until November 1944.
During September and November of 1944, most of the prisoners employed at the crematoria were liquidated as direct witnesses to the exterminations. Also, the destruction of documents and liquidation of pits containing human remains began more likely in September 1944.
The growing pressure of the Allied forces was increasing and the Nazi officials developed a plan for evacuating prisoners on foot if a Soviet advance into Upper Silesia proved unavoidable.
At the end of 1944, while the expansion of Auschwitz I and II was halted, the sub-camps established next to industrial facilities continued to expand until the beginning of January 1945.
Following order on December 21, the Nazis started evacuating prisoners from all the concentration camps in order to move them into the Third Reich and keep them as slave labor at their disposal, but at the same time, they wanted to prevent the Allies from using them militarily.
From January 17-21, 1945, around 56,000 prisoners were led out of KL Auschwitz and its sub-camps on foot, in evacuation columns headed westward. The evacuation routes for Auschwitz prisoners were predetermined. Anyone trying to escape should be killed on the spot.
It worth mentioning that a significant number of prisoners were ready to support the Allies with weapons in hand and although they were not trained militarily, they used to have a significant degree of commitment in the struggle against Nazism.
Not without reason all those evacuation transports and marches were called: «death transports» and «death marches». However, the efforts of the Third Reich to keep the prisoners at their disposal did not save them from defeat.
The Death Block 11 - Main Camp
We can say that this was the last «Selection» of prisoners who were able to work, in order to be transferred into the Third Reich. In this selection, the selected for work, unfortunately, had fewer chances to survive, but they did not know about it.
Many of the prisoners who survived the evacuation and the death march perished at concentration camps inside the Third Reich during the final months of its existence.
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The residents of the towns and villages through which, or next to which, the evacuation route ran not only followed the drama that was playing out in the streets, but also offered assistance to the prisoners being evacuated.
They helped despite threats of brutal retaliation by the Nazi authorities. It was mainly Poles in Silesia and Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia who rushed to assist the prisoners; Germans from these areas helped less often.
Behind the backs of the SS guards or in front of their very eyes, they gave the prisoners water, bread, and other food. They also helped escaped prisoners in various ways.
Thanks to the assistance of the local population in several parts of Upper Silesia, a number of escaped prisoners were able to make it to freedom.
Corpses of prisoners after the evacuation
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Last Days of Auschwitz
From mid-October to the end of 1944, Crematorium IV, damaged by the prisoners of the Sonderkommando during their rebellion, was leveled to the ground. During November-December 1944, in accordance with an order from Himmler, three crematorium buildings were made ready for demolition.
Holes were drilled in the walls for charges of dynamite; the technical facilities inside the gas chambers were dismantled, along with the ovens in Crematoria II and Ill, and shipped inside the Third Reich. Crematorium V and its gas chambers remained untouched, however, until the second half of January 1945.
Also at the end of 1944, several dozen wooden barracks from Birkenau dismantled and shipped into pieces to the Third Reich. The small Crematorium I at the main camp was already demolished in 1943, and it's internal facilities were removed in the first half of 1944.
The last general roll-call took place at KL Auschwitz on January 17, 1945. According to a surviving report, a total of 67,012 male and female prisoners reported with 31,894 from the main camp and Birkenau, and 35,118 from the sub-camps of KL Monowitz.
During the last days (18 until 27 of January), around 58,000 prisoners have been evacuated from KL Auschwitz together with the camp staff and along with stolen goods like food and clothing.
Evacuation Route - Auschwitz
Also, a number of last-minute efforts were made to destroy the evidence of the crimes, like burning piles of camp documents. Fortunately, the prisoners assigned to burn documents managed to save some of them.
On January 20, 1945, Crematorium II and III were blown up. Previously the internal mechanisms have been removed and sent to the Reich at the end of 1944. Finally, on January 26, Crematorium V, which remained open for use up to that point, was demolished as well.
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Resident testimonials / Death Marches
Teofil Balcarek, a farmer and resident of Branica, near Żory:
«We were awoken one night by individual shots coming from the highway next to our house. In the morning, not far from my house, I spotted the corpse of a man dresses in concentration-camp clothes. Farther up, I saw several similar male corpses.
The sight of them horrified me, so I didn't stop. During my journey to Kobielice, I also came across columns of men going in the opposite direction. They were walking very slowly, 'barely moving their feet', under the escort of armed guards.
At the edge of the woods, I personally became a witness to how a guard shot one of them. He had fallen behind the column. A guard quickly ran up behind him and shot him with a pistol (not with a rifle, but a sidearm). None of the other prisoners even looked back.»
Maria Śleziona, resident of Jastrzębie Zdrój:
«I observed the tragic march of the prisoners along with other residents from the window of my house. On the left side of the street, a woman at an advanced stage of pregnancy fell out of line.
She held herself up by the stomach against a transformer wall. The column went by and did not stop. An SS man came up and pushed the pregnant woman to the curb on the right side of the road. We ran to another window, from where we had a better view.
The prisoner was lying on her back in the snow. The SS man shot her in the face with his pistol and a second time in the stomach. When the street had emptied out, we went out to see the prisoner who had been murdered. She was a young woman, around twenty-five years old.»
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The liberation of the Camp
After the Marches
After the final prisoner evacuation marches out of KL Auschwitz, around 9,000 prisoners remained at the camp, most of whom were ill and emaciated, unfit for evacuation on foot.
A number of sources indicate that the SS planned to liquidate them not only as witnesses to their crimes but also as an unwanted burden, unexploitable for labor at camps inside the Third Reich.
After the necessary orders were given, the SS men murdered around 700 prisoners in the final days of KL Auschwitz's existence both from Birkenau and from the sub-camps. At the Fürstengrube sub-camp, more than 200 prisoners were burned alive inside their barracks.
Most of the prisoners left at Auschwitz, however, were not murdered at the last minute and survived to be liberated by the Red Army, mostly due to the SS decline in discipline and general disorganization, even panic within the ranks of the German troops.
After most of the SS guards had left the camp, the prisoners who could move, broke into warehouses and other camp buildings in search of food and clothing. So overwhelmed by the possibility of obtaining food that they did not even react when SS men began firing at them.
Many prisoners were killed while they were removing food from the camp warehouses. Cases also occurred in which prisoners died from consuming excessive quantities of "organized" food.
Prisoners During the Liberation
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The soldiers of the 60th Army (First Ukrainian Front), advancing from the left bank of the Vistula from Cracow were the ones to liberate Auschwitz. Also, the 100th Lvov (Lviv) Infantry Division, led by Major General Fyodor, took a direct part in the Auschwitz operation.
On Saturday morning, January 27, 1945, the first scouts from the division appeared in the eastern portion of Auschwitz, on the grounds of the Monowitz sub-camp (Monowice) and Soviet soldiers reached the city center in the middle of the same day.
Finally, in the afternoon, they entered the area of the main camp and the Birkenau (Brzezinka), where they encountered resistance from retreating German units which they quickly overcame and liberated both the main camp, Auschwitz I, and the camp at Birkenau, Auschwitz II, at around 15:00.
Funeral after Auschwitz Liberation
Upon its liberation, the atmosphere at KL Auschwitz immediately changed and has been recounted in the testimonies and memoirs of former prisoners. One of the women prisoners at the camp wrote as follows:
«We heard a grenade explode near the gate to the camp. We immediately looked out of the block and saw several Soviet scouts walking from the gates in our direction, with their guns ready to fire. We immediately hung out on poles sheets with red bands sewn on them in the form of a red cross.
When they saw us, the scouts dropped their weapons. A spontaneous greeting took place. Since I knew Russian, I turned to one scout and said, 'Zdrastvi'tye pobyedit'eli i osvoboditl'eli!' (Welcome victors and liberators).
We heard the reply: 'Yzhe vy svobodny'e!' (You are free!)
Two hundred thirty-one Soviet soldiers, including the commander of the 472nd Regiment, Lt. Col. Semon Lvovich, fell in the struggle to liberate the general area of the camp at Monowice, the main camp Auschwitz I, and Auschwitz II, Birkenau. Sixty-six, including second Lt. Col. Bashirov, perished during fightings outside the camp.
A total of around 7,000 prisoners awaited liberation at the Auschwitz main camp, Birkenau and Monowitz. Also, around 500 whom the Soviets liberated around January 27 at some Auschwitz sub-camps.
Remained prisoners belongings - Auschwitz
The Soviet soldiers found the bodies of around 600 prisoners on the grounds of the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps, either shot by the retreating SS men or dead from malnutrition. The bodies were not the only evidence of crimes that they found, however.
Some of the prisoners liberated from Auschwitz who was in a relatively good state of health immediately made their way home.
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After the Liberation of Auschwitz
Already in the first days after Auschwitz's liberation, the Red Army's medical staff, as well as Polish authorities and individual Poles, rushed to the former prisoner's assistance. The Polish Red Cross (PCK) chapters in Oświecim, Brzeszcze, and Cracow played a significant role.
The largest contingent of PCK volunteers, from Cracow, also included Varsovians, former participants in the Warsaw Uprising, who had been evacuated from the capital by the Nazis. A PCK Camp Hospital arose alongside the Red Army field hospitals at the liberated camp.
Rudolf Hoss extradition to Poland
Around 4,500 former prisoners came under the hospital's care, citizens of over 20 countries, mainly Jews. Of the 960 who were Polish citizens, the largest grouping of 160-170 people were Polish women who had been deported to KL Auschwitz during the Warsaw Uprising.
More than 200 children (up to 15 years of age) were housed at the hospitals, including many twins. Most of the former prisoners suffered from starvation diarrhea, a symptom of «hungry disease», accompanied most often by tuberculosis, but also psychological and nervous disorders.
Because the conditions at the Birkenau and Monowitz did not allow the necessary care, all the patients were transferred to brick blocks at the main camp (Auschwitz I) in the course of several weeks.
The medical staff progressively overcame the difficulties that they faced, including, an insufficient number of medications and the lack of various types of food, bedding, and water. A former PCK volunteer Maria Rogoż says:
«Already during my first night-shift in the room, eleven women died. I had to lift the corpses off the pallets and carry them out into the corridor myself... I was constantly handing out bed-pans. I did not have anyone to help.»
The patients were re-accustomed to eating by feeding them meals in medical doses e.g., a tablespoon of strained potato soup three times a day, subsequently increased to several tablespoons.
Wearhouse Burns in Birkenau
Weeks after Auschwitz liberation, the nurses would still find bread that the patients had hidden beneath their pallets or mattresses for the next day, due to their disbelief that they would soon receive a new ration.
For the same reason, many patients sent to the shower would run away at the word «bath». It took them a long time to convince them that the bathhouse did not represent any threat.
A similar reaction confronted the nurses whenever they tried to administer intravenous and intramuscular injections. Some women patients did not like receiving injections and even defended themselves for fear of «phenol extermination».
Under the thoughtful care of the doctors and nurses, the patients slowly freed themselves from the reflexes that they had learned at KL Auschwitz. The impact on their psyches from their experiences at the camp, however, was irreversible.
Finally, we should stress the contribution made by several dozen former prisoners in helping cure their comrades lying in the PCK and Soviet field hospitals. Despite their own generally poor state of health, they worked as doctors, nurses, and sanitarians.
Former prisoners who volunteered include Dr. Irena Konieczna from Poland, Dr. Tibor Villanyi from Hungary, Dr. Otto from Austria, Terezie Jirova from Czechoslovakia, and Aldo Ragazzi from Italy.
Auschwitz Liberation - Book: «Auschwitz Nazi Death Camp»
That was the Auschwitz Liberation on January 27, 1945
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