23 Dec The Liberation of Auschwitz: Ending One of the Darkest Chapters in Human History
It was the dead of winter, January 27, 1945. A date that marked the beginning of the end of one of the darkest chapters in human history, a time that acquired the name of Shoah, the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. It was on that January day that Soviet troops entered Auschwitz, the largest of the industrialized human slaughter camps established by the Nazi regime.
Most of the population of the camp had been sent west earlier on a death march. The remaining prisoners were liberated on January 27, a date now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. More than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill and dying were liberated. Half of the prisoners discovered alive in Auschwitz died within a few days of being freed.
It is estimated that a minimum of 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1940 and 1945. Of these, at least 1.1 million were murdered, approximately 90 percent of them Jews.
Auschwitz, outside of the Polish town of Oswiecim, was the largest death camp established by the Germans. A complex of camps, Auschwitz included a concentration camp, killing center and forced-labor camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, where inmates was murdered in gas chambers and their corpses burned in ovens. The camp complex was located 37 miles west of Cracow, near the prewar German-Polish border.
As Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz camp, the German SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its satellite camps. Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced to march west from the Auschwitz camp system. (Thousands had been killed in the camps in the days before these death marches began.) SS guards shot anyone who fell behind or could not continue. Prisoners also suffered from the cold weather, starvation and exposure.
British, Canadian, American and French troops also freed prisoners from other camps. The Americans were responsible for liberating Buchenwald and Dachau, while British forces entered Bergen-Belsen. Although the Germans had attempted to empty the camps of surviving prisoners and hide all evidence of their crimes, the Allied soldiers came upon thousands of dead bodies “stacked up like cordwood,” according to one American soldier. The prisoners who were still alive were living skeletons.
No one who was there can forget the horror of those dark scenes, which hopefully will never be repeated.