PETER FROST discovers what happened to the prisoners liberated from Auschwitz
TODAY the very word Auschwitz still has the power to shock, standing as it does for one of the most horrendous actions in the history of the world — the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe.
However to the Red Army Soviet soldiers Auschwitz was just a tiny name on the map as they battled to liberate the Polish city of Krakow. What they would discover at Auschwitz, they — and the world — would never forget.
The world would reel as they heard the stories of the gas chambers disguised as shower blocks, the huge ovens for the mass burning of the murdered bodies, the railway yards where prisoners, young and old, sick and well, Jews, Gypsies, communists, trade unionists, gay people and Jehovah’s Witnesses, arrived from all over Europe to meet their deaths.
Some of the starving and emaciated prisoners, most little more than skeletons, were just about fit enough to greet the Soviet forces as liberators.
Starving prisoners had to be introduced gradually to normal eating. Food came in small doses. Some at first could only manage one tablespoon of thin potato soup three times a day.
Understandably, old camp habits remained. Many weeks after liberation, nurses were still finding bread hidden under the patients’ mattresses.
Some of the ex-prisoners hoarded bread because they could not bring themselves to believe that they would receive more the next day.
Soviet army doctors, nurses and orderlies gave the first organised help to liberated Auschwitz prisoners. Two Soviet field hospitals soon arrived and began caring for the ex-prisoners.
Numerous local Polish volunteers, as well as Poles from other parts of the country, soon pitched in to help. Jozef Bellert, a doctor from Warsaw, opened the Polish Red Cross Camp Hospital at the beginning of February.
Between them the hospitals treated more than 4,500 ex-prisoners from more than 20 countries. Most were Jews but there were also Gypsies and political prisoners — mostly communists and trade unionists.
The large number of sick prisoners included over 400 children, some of whom were Jewish twins who had been used in cruel racial experiments by nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
The few prisoners who were in relatively good physical condition left Auschwitz immediately after the Soviet liberation. Hospital patients were mostly well enough to leave within three to four months.
Some set off for home on their own, and others in a variety of organised transports. Some went to Odessa in the Soviet Union, some travelled to Marseille and others went to transit camps for displaced persons in Belarus and Ukraine.
The majority of the children left Auschwitz in separate groups in February and March 1945, with most of them going to homes run by charities or children’s homes.
Sadly very few ever found their parents. Most would grow up in orphanages, children’s homes and children’s villages in Poland, Israel, the Soviet Union and other countries.
It was important that the evidence of the horrific crimes committed by the nazis in the camps was recorded. Special Soviet and Polish commissions charged with preserving the evidence worked at the site in the first months after liberation.
Two years later, the Poles used these in the trials of former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess and forty other nazi guards.
With the rise of right-wing parties all across Europe as well as here in Britain, many people would like to forget the inheritance of Hitler, the nazis and the camps like Auschwitz.
We all owe it to the prisoners who lived or died in the camps and to the soldiers who fought and died to liberate them that we never forget, or let it happen again.
First published in the Morning Star on Holocaust Day 27 January 2015