January 27, 1945 - The Liberation of Auschwitz
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
January 27, 1945. The Soviet Red Army’s 322nd Rifle Division arrives at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Golgotha of the Twentieth Century is finally revealed to the world.
The Holocaust as a concept is well-known to almost every person on Earth; it was Adolf Hitler’s most notorious crime, the most profound collapse of civilization in modern history. Yet it seems to be like this black cloud of dreadful mystery to so many people. Politicians invoke it to criticize their opponents, activists and agitators compare all actions minor and major to its depravities, and it is the backdrop of Oscar-bait Hollywood films and is always useful as a tragic backstory for some fictional character. It almost, at times, seems cheapened.
To delve into the raw history of the Shoah, to understand the motivations of its victims, its perpetrators, and its bystanders, should be required for anyone who invokes it. As for Auschwitz…
The Nazis had two unofficial types of camps for those they deemed subhuman: the concentration camps, intended for mere imprisonment, and the extermination camps designed around industrialized murder. The concentration camps were a nightmare by any stretch of the imagination – millions died in them. Many survived the concentration camps. A fraction of a fraction survived the extermination camps.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was originally established not to kill Jews; it was established to hold Polish political prisoners – this was Auschwitz I. One of the main Nazi actions upon the invasion of Poland was the decapitation of Polish society; its writers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and leaders were targeted for extermination. 74,000 non-Jewish poles died at Auschwitz I.
The first gassings at Auschwitz I were not Jewish, but both Polish political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war. The Jewish Holocaust, as devastating as it was, often pushes out the other victims of Nazi genocide: homosexuals, gypsies, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, the disabled, religious dissidents such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and members of leftist parties from across Europe.
Auschwitz II was built in August 1941, originally to house Soviet prisoners of war – but after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the true Holocaust finally began. From 1942 until 1944, when the camp and the railways came within the range of Soviet aircraft, 1.3 million European Jews were sent to Auschwitz II, and 1.1 million of those were murdered there.
What often goes unsaid is that most survivors of the Nazi death camps were survivors of Auschwitz and none of the others. Auschwitz housed most Jews from outside Eastern Europe: French, German, Dutch, Italian, Hungarian and Greek Jews, among others. Anne Frank was among those murdered at Auschwitz.
The Polish Jews, Europe’s largest and most vibrant Jewish community, had been virtually annihilated in the other abattoirs of occupied Poland: Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Chelmno and Belzec. By the time Soviet soldiers discovered Auschwitz, the other death camps had been closed down, their sites destroyed and hidden. The reason for this was simple and horrifying: their work had been finished. The reason Auschwitz stands as the symbol of the Holocaust is that there are no other sites to be had, and no other camp had more than a handful of survivors. Auschwitz exists in memory because the memory of the other camps died with their victims.
The Holocaust was committed by ordinary men – and women. For all the rants in modern discourse about how this or that cause resembles the Nazis, few are willing to examine themselves and understand how a Hitler could motivate YOU, personally. What would it take to convince YOU to commit mass murder? Most of us will say nothing, of course. Nothing at all.
We cannot be too careful.
We share much in common with Hitler’s world. We dread minorities in our ranks, we romanticize street violence, we place our faith in leaders who can do no wrong. We fetishize war, we fetishize struggle and hardship; we perceive signs of a world in decline, a culture in crisis. We suffer from a loss of moral compass, and inhabit a dislocated generation eager for meaning in an increasingly materialistic world. We are concerned with scarce resources, with global power, with enemies within and without. We fear extremists on either side and seem curiously blind to the extremists cheering along with us. We mock moderation, chastise optimism, and obsess over the coming apocalypse.
We have changed less than we think. And failure to realize that could be our first step to the next great descent of human civilization.
The Red Army lost 231 dead liberating Auschwitz on this day 75 years ago. They brought their own brand of oppression to Poland, but that was not apparent at the time. It certainly did not matter to the 7,000 people they liberated there. For them, a stay of execution had been lifted – though several would die from malnutrition regardless. This liberation is now Holocaust Remembrance Day.
As for the Soviets, soon they continued west, with Berlin in their sights. Retribution was coming, and it would terrible.
Much of my thinking on the Holocaust and one of the most impactful books I have ever read, the source of much of this post's tone and foreboding, is summed up in Timothy Snyder's Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (New York: Penguin, 2015).