On 27 January 1945, the Soviet forces in the Vistula-Oder offensive liberated the Nazi camps in the vicinity of the towns of Auschwitz and Birkenau in German province of Silesia (Occupied Polish province of Upper Silesia). The “Auschwitz Death Camp” was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, but by 1945 it had grown into a series of 48 extermination, concentration, and labor camps around the towns of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz.
Unlike pure extermination camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belsec, Auschwitz-Birkenau was hybrid camp system of three main camps and their satellite camps. KL Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp and railway terminal, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work makes you free”). Built in the spring of 1940, the first Polish prisoners arrived shortly thereafter. The first gassing and mass cremation took place in August 1941, when 300 Russian prisoners of war were used to test the effects of Zyklon-B. The first mass arrival of Jewish prisoners occured in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference in January. The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high level Nazi officials to work out the logistical details needed to eradicate European Jews, with a planning factor of 10,000,000.
Auschwitz II Birkenau was a purpose built death complex, opened in late 1941, whose slave labor inmates worked the gas chambers and crematorium ovens. Most prisoners never made it to the main camp and went directly gas chambers after their baggage, clothes, and even hair were collected. 900,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz II Birkenau.
KL Auschwitz III at Monowitz was a slave labor camp complex for IG Farben that produced synthetic rubber for the German war effort. Many German corporations threw in their lot with the National Socialists, whom offered free land, labor, and tax credits in the conquered territories for ideologically pure companies. Each SS guard was paid for each inmate that worked a shift under their watch. 23,000 workers were executed, worked to death, or died of disease or malnutrition at KL Auschwitz III. This number doesn’t include the monthly 1/5 worker turnover of those sent to Auschwitz II Birkenau to be killed to make space for healthier workers.
1.1 million people, from all over Europe, were systematically worked to death, or looted, murdered and cremated in the camps. This also includes those that died during the routine sadistic torture, and/or the gruesome medical experiments on human subjects, few of whom survived. 90% of the victims were Jewish but they also included ethnic Poles, Roma, homosexuals, Polish and Russian soldiers, and German political opponents of National Socialism.
The camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were murder on an industrial scale.
When the Soviets launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in early January, 1945, the German administration of the camps attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes: They destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums. They burned down the warehouses of stolen looted goods that had been an integral part of the German economy for the previous five years. They burned the meticulous camp records. They murdered as many inmates as they could, stopping only when they couldn’t dispose of the bodies. The remaining inmates were marched west to rail heads where they were sent to camps further inside Germany. Those that fell out were shot and left behind. Tens of thousands died on these death marches in the frigid January temperatures. However, the scale of their crimes against humanity couldn’t be covered up.
On morning of 27 January 1945, scouts from the 322nd and 100th Rifle Divisions of the 1st Ukrainian Front found first a sub camp of KL Auschwitz III, and then the main camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau and KL Auschwitz I later in the morning and afternoon, respectively.
The Russian troops found only 7000 scattered survivors; most were too sick to move or had hid during the prisoner round ups prior to the death marches.
Auschwitz-Birkenau camps weren’t the first extermination camps discovered by the Soviets, but they were the first to expose the scale of National Socialist crimes against humanity. The first extermination camp “liberated” from the Germans was Majdanek in July, 1944. The Majdanek Death Camp was overrun during Operation Bagration before it could be dismantled. Ironically, or maybe not so, the Soviets kept Majdanek open for Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian partisans allied with Western powers and supporters of the Polish Government in exile in London. At the very moment the Russians were realizing the scale of the German camps around Auschwitz, they were processing tens of thousands of political prisoners in former German camps for transport to the gulags in Siberia. However, several KL Auschwitz III camps were used for workers to dismantle the IG Farben factories for transport east. And several other camps were eventually used to hold Polish political prisoners by the NKVD and its proxies once Silesia was fully occupied by the Soviets. The Soviet vow of “Never Again” clearly didn’t apply to themselves.
The conversion of Auschwitz-Birkenau into a Soviet reeducation camp initially wasn’t attempted due to the scale of the Nazi slaughter and its later documentation. Russian soldiers found 350,000 men’s suits, 860,000 women’s garments, and seven tons of human hair estimated to be from 150,000 people. Entire buildings were full of human feces, to the point where it was caked and solidified on the walls and ceilings. Soviet doctors and the Polish Red Cross managed to save 4500 of the 7000, though some were still in the camps months later because they were too weak to move. Soviet authorities estimated 4,000,000 people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, and the Soviets maintained this number until 1989. The inflated number actually assisted the German cover up, as Western observers dismissed the number as propaganda, and by extension the camps themselves. The discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau was only taken seriously by Western journalists and authorities after similar camps were liberated by the Allies in April.
In 2005, 27 January became known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million Jews and 11 million others murdered by Nationals Socialists during the Second World War, 1.1 million of whom were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.