Eighty-eight pounds of eyeglasses. Hundreds of prosthetic limbs. Twelve thousand pots and pans. Forty-four thousand pairs of shoes. When Soviet soldiers poured into Auschwitz in January 1945, they encountered warehouses filled with massive quantities of other people’s belongings. Most of the people who owned them were already dead, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust’s largest extermination and concentration camp.
But though the camps that made up Auschwitz seemed silent and abandoned at first, soldiers soon realized they were filled with people—thousands of them, left to die by SS guards who evacuated the camps after trying to cover up their crimes. As they saw the soldiers, the emaciated prisoners hugged, kissed and cried.
“They rushed toward us shouting, fell on their knees, kissed the flaps of our overcoats, and threw their arms around our legs,” remembered Georgii Elisavetskii, one of the first Red Army soldiers to step into Auschwitz. After five years of hell, Auschwitz was liberated at last.
Listen to HISTORY This Week Podcast: Episode 4: January 27, 1945 Surviving Auschwitz
The Germans had long known they might have to abandon Auschwitz, but they planned to use it as long as possible, further exploiting the workers whose slave labor they rented to companies that produced chemicals, armaments and other materials. By late 1944, they were still unsure if the Allies would make it to Oświęcim. As they waited, they moved forward with a preliminary evacuation, even founding a new sub-camp at a steel mill.
Even as they waited to determine if a mass evacuation was needed, the Germans began to destroy evidence of their crimes. They murdered most of the Jews who had worked in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and crematoria, then destroyed most of the killing sites. The destruction didn’t end there: The Germans ordered prisoners to tear down many buildings and systematically destroyed many of their meticulous records of camp life. They also took steps to move much of the material they had looted from the Jews they murdered elsewhere.
Nazis Evacuate Camp, Force Prisoners on Death Marches
Then, the Soviets broke through German defenses and began to approach Krakow. As the Red Army marched closer and closer, the SS decided it was time to evacuate.
They planned what prisoners thought of as death marches—lengthy, forced journeys from Auschwitz toward other concentration and death camps. Starting on January 17, prisoners were forced into long columns and told to walk westward toward territory still held by Germany. Only those in good health (a relative term in camps racked with malnutrition and disease) could participate, and those who fell were shot and left behind. The death marches, which occurred in extremely cold conditions, killed up to 15,000 prisoners. Those who remained were forced into open freight cars and shipped further into the Reich, where they were relocated to various camps still under German control.
The guards who remained continued to cover up evidence, including burning warehouses full of plundered possessions. By January 21, most SS officers had left for good.
Most of the 9,000 prisoners who remained at Auschwitz were in dire health. Others had hidden in the hopes they could escape. Conditions were appalling—there was no food, no fuel, no water. Some prisoners scavenged among the possessions the SS had not managed to destroy. A small group of healthier prisoners attended to the sick.
Soviet Soldier: 'We Knew Nothing'
Meanwhile, the Soviets were progressing toward Oświęcim—but they had no idea the camp existed. Liberating Auschwitz was not in their orders, but when a group of scouts stumbled into Birkenau on January 27, 1945, they knew they had found something terrible.
“We knew nothing,” Soviet soldier Ivan Martynushkin recalled to the Times of Israel. Then, he saw it: inmates behind barbed wire. "I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal,” he told the Times.
The scouts were followed by troops who entered the camp. They were shocked by what they saw there: piles of ash that had once been human bodies. People living in barracks that were encrusted with excrement. Emaciated patients who became ill when they ate the food they offered.
Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she spotted the soldiers. She was one of a group of hundreds of children who had been left behind, and she had endured medical experiments during her imprisonment. She remembered how the soldiers gave her “hugs, cookies and chocolate….We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness.”
That human kindness characterized the liberation. The shocked soldiers helped set up hospitals on site, and townspeople volunteered to help. For months, Polish Red Cross workers labored to save the dying and treat the living, working without adequate food or supplies and helping prisoners get in touch with their loved ones. About 7,500 survived.
Though some journalists visited Auschwitz at liberation, the camp did not receive the same kind of international attention that had greeted the liberation of Majdanek, the first major Nazi extermination camp to be captured during the war. But after Soviet investigators learned the true extent of the killing at Auschwitz, it soon became known as a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust. With the help of the Polish government, a group of former prisoners turned the site into a memorial and museum.
Auschwitz Mastermind Is Hanged
Auschwitz had been the site of 1.1 million murders, and in 1947 it became the site of its mastermind’s hanging. After testifying at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Rudolf Höss, the SS officer who served as Auschwitz’s commandant for more than four years, was put on trial by Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal.
Most of the other perpetrators of the Holocaust denied their involvement. Höss did not. While he awaited his execution, he wrote his memoirs and expressed remorse for his crimes. He was hanged near the Gestapo quarters at Auschwitz—Poland’s last public execution.
Despite the best efforts of Höss and his fellow Nazis, approximately 15 percent of the people sent to Auschwitz are thought to have survived. Though their numbers dwindle each year, many are still speaking out about their ordeal in an attempt to commemorate those who were murdered and warn the world about the dangers of bigotry and anti-Semitism.
“We have not won,” survivor Szmul Icek told The Times of Israel, “but we have taught our grandchildren in a way that they understand what happened.”
READ MORE: The Holocaust: Facts, Victims, Survivors
To liberate Auschwitz, David Dushman drove a Soviet tank through its barbed wire. Horrors awaited inside.
David Dushman had no idea of the horrors he was about to discover. He was a 21-year-old major in the Red Army in January 1945, when his tank rolled past Krakow, Poland, heading west, pushing the Nazis. At 3 p.m. on Jan. 27, they approached a fence to a camp. It was Auschwitz.
Dushman didn’t enter the death camp through the notorious gate emblazoned with the words “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free). His tank plowed right through the electrified, barbed-wire fence — a fence many prisoners had intentionally jumped into to end their torture.
Dushman, who was Jewish, died Saturday in Munich at 98 he was the last surviving liberator of Auschwitz, the last eyewitness who could speak of its inhumanity, according to Charlotte Knobloch, the president of the Jewish Community of Munich.
His stay at Auschwitz was brief he only drove his tank over the fence to make a pathway for ground troops in the 322nd Rifle Division and then continued on to “hunt down the fascists,” he told Sueddeutsche newspaper in 2015. But still, what he saw would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Skeletons everywhere. From the barracks they staggered, between the dead they sat and lay,” he remembered. “Terrible.”
By the time the Soviets arrived, Auschwitz and its satellite camps were nearly empty. The Germans had cleared it out earlier in the month as the Red Army approached, forcing 60,000 prisoners on a “death march” to other concentration camps, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Nazis had meant to kill the prisoners who were too weak or ill to walk, but they ran out of time and left behind about 7,000. These were the “skeletons” Dushman found.
Ivan Martynushkin was among the Soviet ground troops who marched into the camp. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, he spoke to several news outlets about what he saw.
“We saw emaciated, tortured, impoverished people,” he told CNN. “It was hard to watch them. I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal,” he told Agence France-Presse.
They were mostly middle-aged or children many of the children were twins and had been experimented on by “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele. At first, the prisoners and soldiers were wary of each other, Martynushkin told Radio Free Europe, “[b]ut then they apparently figured out who we were and began to welcome us, to signal that they knew who we were and that we shouldn’t be afraid of them — that there were no guards or Germans behind the barbed wire. Only prisoners.”
The look in their eyes began to change, he said. “We could tell from their eyes that they were happy to be saved from this hell. Happy that now they weren’t threatened by death in a crematorium. Happy to be freed. And we had the feeling of doing a good deed — liberating these people from this hell,” he said.
Auschwitz: The Shocking Story & Secrets of the Holocaust Death Camp (Auschwitz, Holocaust, Jewish, History, Eyewitness Account, World War 2 Book 1)
Auschwitz is well known to everyone as one of the saddest places in history. It is the main work/death camp during World War II in Germany-occupied Poland, and responsible for the deaths of millions of men & women. The living conditions of Auschwitz were unbearable, and people were left there to Discover the Shocking Secrets Behind Auschwitz, the Main Holocaust Death Camp
Auschwitz is well known to everyone as one of the saddest places in history. It is the main work/death camp during World War II in Germany-occupied Poland, and responsible for the deaths of millions of men & women. The living conditions of Auschwitz were unbearable, and people were left there to dead or work until death.
This book will explore the accounts of Auschwitz. It will give you an unbiased view of what the camps were all about, and the secrets behind them. Join us as we examine the road & journey into and through Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's "Final Solution to the Jewish Question".
Here's a Preview of What You Will Learn
* The reason of building Auschwitz
* The details of all the camps in Auschwitz
* The love story in Auschwitz
* Punishments handed out in the camps
* 9 lesser known facts of Auschwitz
Comments From Other Readers
"Auschwitz is one of the greatest human tragedies. This book details the important facts very well. I read this whole book in one sitting because it was so involving." - Robert L. (Portland, USA)
"It's one of the best Holocaust & Auschwitz book I've ever read. I just wished it was a little bit longer, but it was a fantastic book!" - Lance W. (Atlanta, USA)
"This book talks about everything about Auschwitz. Great detail, impressive facts." - Valerie D. (San Jose, USA)
Tags: Holocaust, Auschwitz concentration camp, German SS, Final Solution to the jewish question, Nazi Germany, gas chambers, jewish, jews, voices from the death camp, history, a doctor's eyewitness account, extermination camp, third reich, Adolf hitler, liberation, Rudolf Hoss, viktor frankl, man's search for meaning, Death dealer, World War 2, WW2
Chilling colourised pics capture Auschwitz horrors that revealed true evil of Hitler’s regime – 75years after liberation
CHILLING colourised photographs of prisoners at Auschwitz capture the true horrors of the Nazi's 75 years after the camp's liberation.
The harrowing images show skeletal Auschwitz inmates, discarded bodies and haunting images of belongings such as false teeth and glasses snatched on arrival from those arriving at the camp.
The pictures shed harrowing light on the reality of the notorious camp - as Russain soldiers were horrified by what they found at the site when they got there.
In an attempt to cover up the shocking truth at Auschwitz, SS soldiers who knew that the enemy were fast approaching, blew up the gas chambers to hide the mass killings carried out there.
On January 1945, Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, ordered the evacuation of all camps including Auschwitz, telling commanders, "The Führer holds you personally responsible for. making sure that not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy."
On January 17, 58,000 prisoners were "death marched" out of the camp with many being shot or left to die along the way due to freezing cold weather conditions.
Russain soldiers arrived on January 27 to find the terrible scene, with bodies left on railway carriages, human remains and prisoners left behind starving to death.
Auschwitz concentration camp was constructed in the suburbs of the Polish city Oświęcim, near the modern nation's southern border, in 1940.
Above the gates, like other Nazi death camps, was the famous motto "Arbeit macht frei" – "Work brings freedom".
Evacuation of Auschwitz and its Subcamps
In mid-January 1945, as Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, the SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its subcamps.
SS units forced nearly 60,000 prisoners to march west from the Auschwitz camp system. Thousands had been killed in the camps in the days before these death marches began.
Tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews, were forced to march either northwest for 55 kilometers (approximately 30 miles) to Gliwice (Gleiwitz) or due west for 63 kilometers (approximately 35 miles) to Wodzislaw (Loslau) in the western part of Upper Silesia. Those forced to march northwest were joined by prisoners from subcamps in East Upper Silesia, such as Bismarckhuette, Althammer, and Hindenburg. Those forced to march due west were joined by inmates from the subcamps to the south of Auschwitz, such as Jawischowitz, Tschechowitz, and Golleschau.
SS guards shot anyone who fell behind or could not continue. Prisoners also suffered from the cold weather, starvation, and exposure on these marches. At least 3,000 prisoners died on route to Gliwice alone. Possibly as many as 15,000 prisoners died during the evacuation marches from Auschwitz and the subcamps.
Upon arrival in Gliwice and Wodzislaw, the prisoners were put on unheated freight trains and transported to concentration camps in Germany, particularly to Flossenbürg , Sachsenhausen , Gross-Rosen , Buchenwald , Dachau , and also to Mauthausen in Austria. The rail journey lasted for days. Without food, water, shelter, or blankets, many prisoners did not survive the transport.
In late January 1945, SS and police officials forced 4,000 prisoners to evacuate Blechhammer on foot. Blechhammer was a subcamp of Auschwitz-Monowitz. The SS murdered about 800 prisoners during the march to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. SS officials also killed as many as 200 prisoners left behind in Blechhammer as a result of illness or unsuccessful attempts to hide. After a brief delay, the SS transported around 3,000 Blechhammer prisoners from Gross-Rosen to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany.
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The escape of the SS and the final victims
The almost 9 thousand prisoners left behind in the Main Camp (Stammlager), Birkenau, and the sub-camps as unfit to join the evacuation march found themselves in an uncertain situation. The majority of them were sick or suffering from exhaustion. The SS intended to eliminate these prisoners, and only fortunate coincidences prevented them from doing so. The SS did manage to murder about 700 Jewish prisoners in Birkenau and the sub-camps in Wesoła (Fürstengrube), Gliwice (Glewitz IV), Czechowice (Tschechowitz-Vacuum) and Blachownia Śląska (Blechhammer) between the departure of the final evacuation column and the arrival of the Red Army.
The majority of the SS men on duty in the guard towers left Auschwitz on January 20 or 21. However, larger or smaller SS units continued to patrol the camp. Wehrmacht units also passed through, and joined the SS in plundering the camp warehouses. Some prisoners took advantage of the confusion and risked escape.
Liberation of Auschwitz 75th Commemoration
Instead of allowing the memory of the Holocaust to be used for political purposes, today let’s remember that it’s about the people, not the politics. That using history in this way denies so much of what was created by the act of survival itself.
So many seemed interested in reshaping the history of the Holocaust instead of moving to compassion and understanding. In a way, it is our own kind of Holocaust denial.
“Well that is a fairly obvious reaction the denial of the
Holocaust stems from the incapability of a society to accept what
it did. In a broader sense, not in an American sense, also all
these professors who stand up and say what you said they say, are
really aiming at American democracy, let’s become Hitlerites you
know, turn America into a well ordered, law and order society and
for that we don’t need the Jews. And how wonderful the Nazi
society was, they never did anything to the Jews. So the aim is
not the Jews actually, the aim is American society.” Yehuda Bauer
After the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, January 27 1945
Those were the words of Alexander Vorontso, a camera operator with the Red Army who was part of a film crew sent to document the horrors of the most infamous Nazi death camp of them all – Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz was liberated by the soldiers of the 100th Infantry Division and the 60th Army of the 1st Ukrainian Front on the 27th of January 1945. What greeted them when they entered the gates of the largest of Auschwitz’s three main camps, Birkenau, was a vision of hell. In the barracks Vorontso’s crew would later document, the soldiers found bunk beds crammed full of barely alive human skeletons crawling with lice. Rats scampered across floors encrusted with excrement. The dead lay amongst the living. Outside the barracks, withered, hollow-cheeked inmates shuffled amongst the corpses. The stench of death hung heavy in the air.
At first, the inmates didn’t even acknowledge the soldiers’ presence. One Soviet soldier, Georgii Elisavetskii, would later recall how he tried to explain that he and his comrades were there to liberate the prisoners. After telling them they were free in several languages, he eventually told them they were free in Yiddish, and on hearing the language so despised of their Nazi tormentors, those who were able rushed to their liberators and fell at their feet, kissing their greatcoats and boots. For many, this was a moment they never thought would come.
Those left behind were mostly sick or dying. The vast majority of prisoners – some 58,000 – had been rounded up and marched out of the camp in an infamous ‘death march’ that saw a quarter of them die in the freezing winter temperatures on the long journey to concentration camps in Germany and Austria. Of the inmates still left in the camp, most suffered from a multitude of health problems such as malnutrition and diarrhoea. Typhus was rife throughout the camp. Of the 7,500 prisoners the Russians found across Auschwitz’s three main camps and various sub-camps, hundreds would die after liberation despite the soldier’s efforts to sanitise the camp and provide the prisoners with better food and accommodation.
Some were able to leave the camp, stepping out of the gates in a state of bewilderment, unable to quite believe this wasn’t yet another cruel trick by the devils who had made their lives a living hell for so long. Others, some 4,500 in total, were in no fit state to leave. To look after them, a temporary field hospital was set up and the patients were treated by Russian army doctors and nurses. Representatives of the Red Cross would swell their ranks from February onwards. At first, the death rate among the sick was high as a combination of malnutrition and typhus took their toll on the prisoners’ ravaged bodies. Eventually, after a permanent hospital was established in the brick-built barracks of Auschwitz I, death rates steadily dropped until by July, most former prisoners were well enough to leave the hospital.
When former inmates did manage to leave, their thoughts naturally turned towards home. Unfortunately, for many of Auschwitz’s former prisoners, that meant making their way – usually on foot - through territory overrun by Soviet soldiers brutalized by the war. As the survivors fanned out from the camp, the majority heading for various towns and cities across Eastern Europe, many were robbed of what meagre possessions and rations they had managed to acquire. Worse, women faced the very real threat of being raped by Red Army soldiers who were frequently drunk and indifferent to the suffering the women had already endured.
What Happened After the Liberation of Auschwitz
It was January 1945, and fires burned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Not at the crematoria where, at the height of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp’s operations, an average of 6,000 Jews were gassed and cremated each day—those had been blown up at the command of SS officers preparing the camps’ evacuation. This time, the Nazis had set ablaze their prisoners’ looted possessions. The fires raged for days.
Once, the sprawling 40-camp complex now known as Auschwitz was characterized by grim record-keeping and brutal order. With chilling efficiency, the architects of the Holocaust orchestrated processes of deportation, detention, experimentation, enslavement and murder. Between 1940 and 1945, approximately 1.1 million Jews, Poles, Roma people, Soviet POWs and others were killed at the Auschwitz camps. Now, as Soviet troops marched westward through occupied Poland, the SS sought to dismantle their killing machine.
The Red Army’s arrival meant liberation, the camps’ end. But what came after the murders finally stopped?
In the final days of the camp, the commanding SS officers “evacuated” 56,000 prisoners, most of them Jews. Leaving Auschwitz, however, did not mean the end of their ordeal. Instead, the SS ordered their charges into columns and marched them into the miserable winter. At first, the prisoners went on foot, monitored by officers who shot those who fell behind or tried to stay behind. Malnourished and inadequately clothed, the marchers were subject to random massacre. Eventually, they were shipped back toward Germany in open train cars. Up to 15,000 of the former camp inhabitants died on the death march.
“[The Nazis] wanted to continue to use those tens of thousands of prisoners for forced labor,” says Steven Luckert, senior program curator at the Levine Family Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and former chief curator of the museum’s permanent collection. “Those prisoners got dispersed over all of the remaining camps.”
Back at Auschwitz, where by some estimates 9,000 prisoners remained, only a few SS guards maintained their watch. Most of the prisoners were too sick to move. “There was no food, no water, no medical care,” says Luckert. “The staff had all gone. [The prisoners] were just left behind to die.”
Among the last acts of the SS were to set fire to huge piles of camp documents, a last-ditch effort to hide the evidence. “They understood the enormity of the crimes they committed,” Luckert says.
A surreal quiet fell on Auschwitz in late January, a period filled with confusion and suffering. Then, Soviet scouts stumbled into Auschwitz-Birkenau. The liberators had not intended to go toward the camp though Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had heard about its existence in intelligence communications and conversations with other Allied leaders, Red Army commanders had no idea it existed. “It had no military or economic value from a military viewpoint,” retired Soviet general Vasily Petrenko, who in 1945 was a colonel who helped liberate the camp, told the AP years later.
The Soviets had liberated Majdanek, a Nazi concentration and extermination camp, in July 1944. There, they found a working camp that had been only partially destroyed during its hasty evacuation. It was the first Allied concentration camp liberation, and in the months to follow, the Allies would encounter many more camps as they squeezed the German army from the West and the East.
As Soviet scouts, then troops, arrived at the Auschwitz complex, bewildered prisoners greeted them with tears and embraces. Anna Polshchikova, a Russian prisoner, later recalled the gruff confusion of the first soldiers. “‘And what are you doing here?’ they inquired in an unfriendly manner. We were baffled and did not know what to say. We looked wretched and pathetic, so they relented and asked again, in a kinder tone. ‘And what is over there?’ they said, pointing northwards. ‘Also a concentration camp.’ ‘And beyond that?’ ‘Also a camp.’ ‘And beyond the camp?’ ‘Over there in, the forest, are the crematoria, and beyond the crematoria, we don’t know.’”
Child survivors of Auschwitz show a Soviet photographer their tattooed arms in February 1945. (Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images)
The first Soviet troops to arrive moved on toward other targets, but the Red Army soon took over the camps, establishing field hospitals on site. Polish Red Cross workers—volunteer doctors, nurses and paramedics who just months earlier had participated in the Warsaw Uprising—assisted in the recovery too. “The situation was desperate,” recalled Józef Bellert, the physician who organized the group. “We could barely administer the most urgent medical aid.”
As they got to work, they saw body parts strewn around ad hoc cremation pits used after the SS demolished Auschwitz-Birkenau’s crematoria human excrement and ashes were everywhere. Survivors suffered from malnutrition, bedsores, frostbite, gangrene, typhus, tuberculosis and other ailments. And though the SS had attempted to destroy all evidence of mass murder, they had left massive storerooms filled with shoes, dishes, suitcases, and human hair. “It was chaos,” says Jonathan Huener, a Holocaust historian at the University of Vermont.
Once established, the Red Cross staff and local volunteers responded as best they could to the survivors’ needs, navigating a cacophony of different languages. They diagnosed patients, gave them identification documents and clothing, and sent over 7,000 letters to help the patients locate family and friends around the world. “Some of the sick did not realize that they were now free people,” recalled Tadeusz Kusiński, a Red Cross orderly. At least 500 of the 4,500 patients died, many from refeeding syndrome or a lack of sanitary facilities.
Those who could leave trickled out on their own or in small groups. “There were fears that the Germans would return, which for us would only mean death,” said Otto Klein, a Jewish adolescent who had survived medical experiments by infamous Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele along with his twin brother, Ferenc. Together with a group of 36 people, most of them twins, the Kleins headed toward Kraków, and eventually out of Poland, on foot. Not everyone chose to go: Others stayed in the camp to help former prisoners, including about 90 former prisoners who gave vital assistance to the Soviet and Red Cross hospitals.
Auschwitz had been liberated, but the war still plodded on, shaping the massive camp complex. The camp was still a prison, this time for thousands of German POWs the Soviets forced to do labor that echoed that of the original Auschwitz prisoners. Along with some Polish people imprisoned for declaring ethnic German status during the war, the German POWs maintained the site, tore apart barracks and dismantled the nearby IG Farben synthetic rubber plant where tens of thousands of prisoners had been forced to work as slave laborers.
“Some of the barracks were simply dismantled by members of the local population who needed wood,” Huener says. Though the historian in him laments the deconstruction of so much of the camp, he says it was also “understandable in a period of tremendous deprivation and need.”
Over the months that followed the camps’ liberation, many former prisoners returned seeking family members and friends. And a small group of survivors came back to stay.
“The earliest stewards of the site were former prisoners,” explains Huener. In his book Auschwitz, Poland, and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945-1979, Huener tells the story of how the site went from operational death camp to memorial. Most of the cadre of men were Polish political prisoners, and none of them had experience with museums or historic preservation. But even during their imprisonments, they had decided Auschwitz should be preserved.
“We did not know if we would survive, but one did speak of a memorial site,” wrote Kazimierz Smoleń, an Auschwitz survivor who later became the memorial site’s director. “One just did not know what form it would take.”
The Auschwitz II gate, as seen in 1959 (Bundesarchiv, Bild / Wilson / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Smoleń returned to Auschwitz after the war, drawn back to the camp by his desire to tell the world about the horrors committed there. He later described his return—and his 35-year tenure as the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s director—as “some type of sacrifice an obligation for having survived.”
For Smolén and others determined to preserve Auschwitz, the site was both a massive graveyard and essential evidence of Nazi war crimes. But for others, it was a place to continue the plunder. Despite a protective guard, which included former prisoners, looters stole artifacts and searched through ash pits for gold tooth fillings and other valuables. “Gleaners, or as they were called at the time, ‘diggers,’ searched through the ashes of all the Nazi extermination camps in Poland [. ] for many years after the war, looking for pieces of jewelry and dental gold overlooked by the Nazis,” write historians Jan Tomasz Gross and Irena Grudzinska Gross.
Huener says that there is no comprehensive answer to the question of how many of those early museum workers were Jews, or why they came back to Auschwitz. “Poland was inhospitable to Jews after the war, yet there were tens of thousands who did return to Poland, and tens of thousands who remained.” They did so despite a resurgence of anti-Semitism and violent incidents like the Kielce pogrom, in which 42 Jews were killed by massacred by townspeople who blamed Jews for a local kidnapping. Other Jews who survived Auschwitz fled Poland after being liberated, living in displaced persons camps, scattering into a worldwide diaspora, or emigrating to British Palestine.
The museum staff lived in former SS offices and did everything from groundskeeping to rudimentary preservation work to exhibit design. They staved off looters, acted as impromptu tour guides to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who streamed toward the camp, and tried their best to preserve everything that remained of the camp.
Despite the lack of modern preservation technology and questions about how best to present evidence of years of mass murder, the former prisoners who fought to preserve Auschwitz succeeded. The most notorious of the over 40,000 sites of systematic Nazi atrocities would be passed on to future generations. Other sites would fare differently, depending on the extent of their destruction by the Nazis and the deterioration of time.
When visitors in the 1940s and s walked beneath Auschwitz I’s iconic “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign and into the camp, they were faced with buildings that looked much as they did during the Holocaust. The museum’s directive was to offer historical proof of the Germans’ crime—a mostly silent endeavor that left visitors in tears or simply speechless.
The exhibitions have changed over the years, but Auschwitz still inspires speechlessness. Last year, 2.3 million people visited the memorial, where 340 guides offer tours in 20 different languages. Now, Auschwitz has a state-of-the-art preservation laboratory, an extensive archive, and conducts education and outreach around the world. The end of Auschwitz was the beginning of a monumental task of preservation and commemoration that continues to this day.
But for Luckert, it’s important not to let the end overshadow the beginning. “Sometimes instead of focusing on the end, we need to look at how it got there,” he says. “What was it that led Nazi Germany to create such a symbol of inhumanity, a place of infamy? In a matter of a few short years, it transformed a sleepy Silesian town into the greatest site of mass killing the world has ever known.”
Seventy-five years after the Holocaust, he fears, it would be all too easy to get on the road to Auschwitz again.