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Jan 27, 1945

Evacuation and Liberation of the Auschwitz Camp 

EVACUATION AND LIQUIDATION OF THE CAMP

In the second half of 1944, in connection the successes of the Red Army and the advancing Eastern Front, the SS authorities in the Nazi German Auschwitz camp evacuated some 65,000 prisoners to camps in the German Reich interior. They also began removing evidence of the crimes committed in the camp: documents were burned, the pits containing human ashes were covered up, the crematorium IV building was dismantled, and preparations were made to blow up the other crematoria buildings. Building materials as well as the property looted from Jewish victims and stored in the ‘Canada’ warehouses were now also transported to the German interior. However, the Germans did not manage to erase all the evidence of their crimes or ship out all the plundered property.

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz I taken by the Allies on 14 January 1945, three days before the evacuation began. Source: Archiwum Państwowego Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives, henceforth APMA-B)
Aerial photograph of Auschwitz II-Birkenau taken by the Allies on 14 January 1945, three days before the evacuation began. Source: APMA-B.
Aerial photograph of Auschwitz III-Monowitz taken by the Allies on 14 January 1945, three days before the evacuation began. Source: APMA-B.

On 12 January 1945, the Red Army launched its offensive in the central Vistula region and broke through the German defensive line. As Soviet units neared Kraków, some 70 km away from Auschwitz (Oświęcim), the SS authorities made the decision to evacuate the camp.

From 17 to 21 January SS guards led some 56,000 prisoners out of the camps and sub-camps, forcing them to march dozens of kilometres in severe winter condition. The main march routes led to Wodzisław Śląski and Gliwice, from where the prisoners were transported by train to other concentration camps. However, some of the prisoners were forced to march all the way to the destination camp. Only around 2,200 prisoners of Laurahütte and Eintrachthütte sub-camps were transported on 23 and 24 January to Mauthausen by trains.

During the evacuation any prisoners who were too exhausted to continue the march or tried to run away were shot dead by the SS escort. It has been estimated that around 3,000 people were killed in this way in Upper Silesia and the Opole region alone, whereas a total of between 9,000 and 15,000 Auschwitz prisoners were killed during the whole evacuation. 

At the same time the SS troops were leaving the camp as well, taking with them some of the plundered belongings. Before they left, they also managed to destroy some documents.

Jerzy Brandhuber, Evacuation (1946). Source: PMA-B Collections
Zbigniew Otfinowski, Evacuation March (1946). Source: PMA-B Collections
Mieczysław Kościelniak, The Burning of Documents (1945). Source: PMA-B Collections
Fragment of a film, secretly shot with an amateur film camera by Jindřich Kremer, showing an evacuation transport of prisoners from the Nazi German Auschwitz camp passing the station in Kolin (Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia) on 24 January 1945. Source: APMA-B.

In the final days around 9,000 prisoners remained in the Auschwitz camp complex. Most of these inmates were sick or physically exhausted. Many were convinced that the Germans intended to murder them. It is not entirely known whether such an order was actually issued, but it is a fact that in Birkenau the SS carried out a mass execution of a total around 300 Jews and several Soviet prisoners of war. Moreover, the SS massacred approximately 400 Jewish prisoners in the sub-camps of Blechhammer, Fürstengrube, Gleiwitz IV and Tschechowitz-Vacuum by shooting or burning them alive. Nevertheless, most of the prisoners who were left behind in the camps survived. This was most probably due to slackened discipline and haste among the SS, who were eager to leave Auschwitz as fast as possible.

The SS guards left their permanent sentry posts in the camp on 20 or 21 January. From then on the SS only conducted patrols. Moreover, retreating Wehrmacht soldiers passed through the camp, often plundering the warehouses there. On 20 January, shortly after the evacuation, the remaining SS functionaries blew up crematoria and gas chambers II and III. The next day, no longer able to ship out all the looted belongings, they set fire to the ‘Canada’ warehouses in Birkenau. The blaze lasted a few days and destroyed virtually all the belongings. On 26 January the SS finally blew up the crematorium V building.

Photograph of prisoner no. 78161. Source: APMA-B.
Photograph of prisoner no. 7843. Source: APMA-B.

Prisoner record photographs and negatives taken by the SS with visible scorch marks. In the final days of the camp, all the records were supposed to be destroyed, but prisoners dared to sabotage tasks assigned by the SS thus saving some documentation. For example, Wilhelm Brasse and Bronisław Jureczek were ordered to burn negatives and printed photographs of prisoners. Against the orders, they extinguished the fire before the negatives were destroyed. Thanks to their courageous action, around 39,000 negatives were saved.

Source: APMA-B

The SS guards left their permanent sentry posts in the camp on 20 or 21 January. From then on the SS only conducted patrols. Moreover, retreating Wehrmacht soldiers passed through the camp, often plundering the warehouses there. On 20 January, shortly after the evacuation, the remaining SS functionaries blew up crematoria and gas chambers II and III. The next day, no longer able to ship out all the looted belongings, they set fire to the ‘Canada’ warehouses in Birkenau. The blaze lasted a few says and destroyed virtually all the belongings. On 26 January the SS finally blew up the crematorium V building.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Part of ruined crematorium and gas chamber II blown up on 20 January 1945. The entrance to the undressing room is in the foreground. The photograph was taken by Stanisław Mucha in February or March 1945. Source: APMA-B
Excerpt from the Soviet Liberation Film Chronicle, made shortly after the camp’s liberation. Source: APMA-B

Apart from the sick and weak, there was a small group of prisoners in the camp who were relatively fit and strong but had managed to hide during the evacuation. Members of the prisoners’ medical staff looked after the sick insofar as it was possible providing them with medicine and food, change their dressings and keep their spirits up. Children received particular care, especially those without parents. They were gathered together in selected blocks and received extra food. After the evacuation of the Auschwitz camp complex, around 9,000, mostly sick and emaciated prisoners, remained. They primarily stayed in Auschwitz I (the main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (sectors BIIe and BIIf), Auschwitz III-Monowitz and several sub-camps.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, part of sector BII. In the foreground, the kitchen and seven barracks from sector BIIe, where women with children were held. Frame from the Soviet Liberation  Film Chronicle, shot shortly after the camp’s liberation. Source: APMA-B

LIBERATION

On 27 January, before noon, soldiers of the Soviet 100th Rifle Division entered the Monowitz camp, which the Germans had by then abandoned. Then at around noon they took the centre of the town of Oświęcim, without encountering too much resistance, and subsequently Birkenau at around 3.30 p.m. That same day,between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., the Soviet 322nd Rifle Division  occupied the main camp along with its adjacent area. Moreover, still that same day, they continued their advance in a south-westerly direction. 231 Red Army soldiers were killed fighting around the Auschwitz camp complex, the town of Oświęcim and surrounding villages.

Irena Szczypiorska, a Pole, brought to Auschwitz on 13 May 1943. She was registered as prisoner no. 44779. In January 1945 she was employed in the women prisoners’ hospital laundry. Liberated in Birkenau.

On 27 January, at three in the afternoon, a Russian woman I knew ran to me crying out ‘Irochka, ours are in the camp’. But I strained my eyes in vain to where she was pointing to. I could see nothing but mounds of snow. Then, suddenly… one of them clearly moved. These were scouts, in white overalls. After an enthusiastic outburst of greetings, they told us: ‘Go to the blocks, women, take the children with you. Don’t wander outside, this camp is mined. We will return tomorrow.’

They actually came back the same day, in the evening. One of them was wounded, he only called out for us to give him some bandage, wrapped it around his arm, and then rushed on. They came in groups. We hugged them with cries of joy, from the beds the women just raised their arms, sending their kisses. But they did not stay for long. They were too busy chasing after the Germans. It was not until 28 January that larger Red Army units arrived. We took the bread loaves straight off the trucks.

Source: APMA-B, Memoirs Collection, vol. 19, p. 169.

Jakub Wolman, prisoner no. 33611, physician. Liberated in Auschwitz. In January 1945 he remained in the camp and took care of sick prisoners.  

It was in the afternoon. Three Russians came. Or rather, three Soviet scouts in white service greatcoats, because it was winter. [p. 155] They looked like ghosts. It is difficult to describe their faces. When they appeared, the sick started coming out of the blocks, wrapped in blankets. ... Once they had freed themselves from the embraces of greeting prisoners, I explained to them where they were and that the figures wrapped in blankets were sick inmates. As I have already stated, the first Soviet troops soon moved on to where they were heading.    

Source: APMA-B, Statements Collection, vol. 134, pp. 154-155.

Terezie Freundova-Jírová, a Czech, prisoner no. 81315.

Only on 27 January, that is after a nine-day interregnum, did the first signs of the arrival of the long-awaited Soviet troops appear. How great was the joy! Quite indescribable. After all that had happened, at last we felt we were free people. Yes, people! Up until then we had been labelled by the SS as less valuable. Less valuable than cattle.

Source: APMA-B, Memoirs Collection, vol. 22, p. 80 (transl. from the Czech language by Dr Jacek Lachendro).

Fragment from Soviet Liberation Film Chronicle,  made shortly after the liberation of the camp. Source: APMA-B 

Thanks to the soldiers of the 100th and 322nd Division, around 7,000 prisoners of the three major Auschwitz camps were liberated. The soldiers of other Soviet units also liberated around 500 prisoners from several sub-camps. Most of those liberated arrived in Auschwitz in 1944, predominantly Jews, but with a relatively large group of Poles, mainly brought over following the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, as well as Belarusians and Russians. At the time of the liberation, there were almost 500 children in the camp, of whom over 60 had actually been born there. The majority were Jews, but there were also some Poles and Belarusians. Only a small number of them were in camp under the care of their parents or relatives.

MEDICAL ASSISTANCE

A few days after the liberation, two field hospitals were set up in the camp and their personnel started to provide the survivors with constant medical care. Before that happened, soldiers of the second-line units passing through the camp had provided first aid and improvised assistance.

In early February a Polish Red Cross (PRC) hospital was set up by over 30 volunteer physicians and nurses from Kraków. The city authorities had decided to set up this hospital on site in Auschwitz because Kraków hospitals did not have the capacity to cope with several thousand patients. The Polish Red Cross staff quickly established cooperation with the Soviet field hospitals and jointly treated the camp survivors. 

There were also around 90 former prisoners working in these hospitals. They were former camp’s senior and middle-ranking medical staff as well as administrative staff. Their help was especially important in the initial period, soon after the hospitals were set up, since at the time there was a shortage of medical doctors and nurses.

The sick were initially treated in all three parts of the Auschwitz camp complex, i.e. the former main camp, Birkenau and Monowitz. Conditions in the hospitals were not good, especially in the latter two former camps. Therefore, from the first half of February, the patients were gradually moved to former Auschwitz I, where living conditions were comparatively better.

Meanwhile the orphaned children were first transferred to care centres in Kraków and later to other places further afield. A dozen or so children were taken under the loving care of local inhabitants. Later some of these children were adopted.

In June 1945 the Soviet authorities took over the former Auschwitz I camp entirely and converted it into a transit camp for German prisoners of war. Therefore the hospital for former prisoners was transferred to three blocks beyond the former camp’s perimeter (the old administration building, the commandant’s office and the SS hospital building) as well as four nearby barracks. On 1 October 1945 the hospital was finally closed. Most of the patients returned to their homes, whereas a now small group that still needed treatment were transferred to Kraków.

Former Auschwitz I. Building housing the offices of the Polish Red Cross. Previously it had been the administration building of the SS garrison, as is indicated by the SS-Standort-Verwaltung sign over the entrance door. Photograph taken when the hospital was functioning. Source: APMA-B
The first page of a list of female former prisoners remaining under the care of the Polish Red Cross in block 22, sector BIIe of the former Birkenau camp, February 1945. The list includes the women’s first names and surnames, prisoner numbers, last places of residence and countries of origin. The women listed on this page were brought to Auschwitz from Hungary, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, France and Czechoslovakia. Source: APMA-B
The first page of a list of male and female former prisoners remaining under the care of the Polish Red Cross in block 14 of the former Auschwitz I camp. The list includes first names and surnames, dates of birth, prisoner numbers, citizenships (countries of origin) and addresses. Those listed included citizens of Russia, the Netherlands, France, Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Source: APMA-B
Former Auschwitz I. Polish Red Cross staff together with Soviet doctors and nurses. Photograph taken in front of the former SS hospital. Among those standing, fifth on the left is Dr Józef Bellert, the chief physician of the Polish Red Cross hospital, and beside him Major Zhylynskaya, a commander of one of the field hospitals. Source: APMA-B

The medical doctors and nurses of one of the Soviet field hospitals who looked after Auschwitz survivors. Photograph taken in February 1945.

Source: APMA-B

Initially sick former prisoners were treated in all three former Auschwitz camps, Auschwitz I, Birkenau and Monowitz. Difficult conditions, however, led to patients gradually being transferred to the former main camp.

Photograph show the sick being escorted out of the barracks in Birkenau Photographs is frame from the Soviet documentary film Liberation Chronicle. Source: APMA-B
Photograph show the sick being escorted out of the barracks in Birkenau Photographs is frame from the Soviet documentary film Liberation Chronicle. Source: APMA-B
Photograph show the sick being escorted out of the barracks in Birkenau and also their transport. Photograph was taken by B. Borisov in March 1945. Source: APMA-B
Former Auschwitz I. Hospital ward on the first floor of block 21, with the Polish Red Cross nurses looking after the patients standing in the centre. Photograph taken by Stanisław Mucha in February or March 1945. Source: APMA-B

The orphaned children were first transferred to care centres in Kraków and later to other places further afield. A dozen or so children were taken under the loving care of local inhabitants. Later some of these children were adopted.

In the photograph Lyudmila Bezludova, b. 1940, transferred from Majdanek concentration camp to Auschwitz on 15 April 1944, and registered as prisoner no. 77263. After liberation, she was transferred in a group Belarusian children to a care centre in Kraków, then to an orphanage in Harbutowice near Kraków and then to the Bucze Harcerskie preventive centre near Skoczów. There she was renamed Hanna Kosińska. In 1963 she met up with her mother and siblings for the first time since they were separated in Majdanek. At the time her family was living in Orsha, Belarus. Lyudmila, however, stayed in Poland. The photograph was taken in 1948. Source: APMA-B
A Russian-born girl, name unknown, about five years old. She was found in Birkenau by Soviet soldiers shortly after the liberation. According to one of the soldiers, Vladimir A. Gladyshev (standing on the left), she had lost her mother just before the liberation. The girl was put under the care of a Polish lady, name undetermined (seated on the left). Photograph taken in 1945 in Oświęcim, before Vladimir A. Gladyshev parted company with the little girl and her guardian. Source: APMA-B

Edit MoreOrClick & start typing or drag an item from the basket below.It's possible to leave this empty.Lusia Kałuszyner (Perla Spinka), a Jewish girl from Poland, deported with her aunt Sala Spinka and her daughter Janeczka from a labour camp in Bliżyn on 31 July 1944. The Jews in this is particular transport did not undergo selection on the Birkenau ramp and so everyone, including the few children among the adults, was sent to the camp. Lusia was given prisoner no. A-15515. After one of the selections in the camp, Lusia’s aunt and cousin were sent to the gas chamber, but she was cared for by other female prisoners and thus survived until liberation. On 29 January 1945, Lusia was put under the care of 16-year-old Kazimiera Nowak, a resident of Oświęcim. One and a half months later she was found by her mother, who had survived the ghetto in Piotrków Trybunalski (where they had been separated) and next a labour camp in Skarżysko. After they were reunited in Oświęcim, the mother and daughter moved to Łódź. In January 1946 they left Poland and settled in the Palestine.Lusia Kałuszyner (Perla Spinka), a Jewish girl from Poland, deported with her aunt Sala Spinka and her daughter Janeczka from a labour camp in Bliżyn on 31 July 1944. The Jews in this is particular transport did not undergo selection on the Birkenau ramp and so everyone, including the few children among the adults, was sent to the camp. Lusia was given prisoner no. A-15515. After one of the selections in the camp, Lusia’s aunt and cousin were sent to the gas chamber, but she was cared for by other female prisoners and thus survived until liberation. On 29 January 1945, Lusia was put under the care of 16-year-old Kazimiera Nowak, a resident of Oświęcim. One and a half months later she was found by her mother, who had survived the ghetto in Piotrków Trybunalski (where they had been separated) and next a labour camp in Skarżysko. After they were reunited in Oświęcim, the mother and daughter moved to Łódź. In January 1946 they left Poland and settled in the Palestine.

Lusia with her mother. Source: APMA-B
Lusia with her guardian Kazimiera Nowak. Source: APMA-B

The medical staff looked after over 4,500 patients from over 20 countries, predominantly Jews. Around 80 percent of them were suffering from severe alimentary dystrophy (dystrophia alimentaris), often taking the form of starvation sickness. The symptoms were persistent diarrhoea, disappearance of body fat, wasted muscles and severe weight loss (the average weight among adults was from 25 to 35 kg), dry, discoloured skin and oedema. The patients also suffered from respiratory diseases, especially tuberculosis. A large number of patients required surgery on account of sustained injuries as well as frostbite combined with gangrene and necrosis. In addition, there were also groups of patients suffering from typhoid fever, or psychological or nervous disorders. In many cases patients were simultaneously suffering from more than one disorder or disease, which greatly hindered the process of treatment. While the hospitals were active, at least 500 patients died, most of them in February and March.

Istvan (Stefan Bleyer). Source: APMA-B. 

Istvan (Stefan) Bleyer, a 14-year-old Jewish boy from Hungary deported to Auschwitz in July 1944 (prisoner no. B-14615). When they examined him, doctors found that he was suffering from alimentary dystrophy of the second degree. Photograph taken during an examination of former prisoners conducted by physicians from the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union for the Investigation of Crimes of the German-Fascist Aggressors, February‒March 1945.

Source: APMA-B

Josef Hajman, a four-year-old Jew from Slovakia, brought to Auschwitz concentration camp at the start of November 1944. The child was diagnosed as having third degree alimentary dystrophy (wasting syndrome), vitamin deficiency and internal haemorrhaging. He died on 30th March 1945.  Photograph taken during an examination of former prisoners conducted by physicians from the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union for the Investigation of Crimes of the German-Fascist Aggressors, February-March 1945.    Source: APMA-B
Right forearm of female former prisoner Margarette Kantor, a 36-year-old Jewish woman from Belgium, brought to Auschwitz in April 1944. After liberation she was diagnosed as having third degree alimentary dystrophy (wasting syndrome). Moreover, as a result of beatings, a phlegmon had formed on her right forearm. M. Kantor was 168 cm tall but weighed only 35 kg, whereas before being sent to the camp she had weighed 60 kg. Photograph taken by Stanisław Łuczko in the Polish Red Cross Hospital during an inspection carried out by members of the Kraków Division of the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, May 1945. Source: APMA-B

HELP PROVIDED BY THE INHABITANTS OF OŚWIĘCIM, BRZESZCZE AND NEIGHBOURING VILLAGES TO LIBERATED PRISONERS

Considerable help to the Auschwitz survivors was provided by volunteers, predominantly members of the Polish Red Cross in Oświęcim, Brzeszcze and other localities. Shortly after the liberation, many took up work in the field hospitals and the PRC hospital. They cleaned the rooms, delivered the water, transferred and washed the patients, prepared the meals and carried out the corpses. In horse-drawn carts they also transported patients from the other former camps of Birkenau and Monowitz to the former main camp. Some local inhabitants provided medical care for former prisoners, among them children, in their own homes.

Polish Red Cross hospitals were also set up in the town of Oświęcim and nearby Brzeszcze. The documentation of the hospital in the latter town has largely survived.

Request addressed to the Local Social Welfare Committee in Brzeszcze to pay 1,000 zlotys for bread and milk for 26 mothers with children – former Auschwitz prisoners who were being treated at the PRC hospital. Source: APMA-B
The first page of a list of people who offered money for the needs of the PRC hospital in Brzeszcze. Apart from the names of the benefactors, the list also includes the sums of money each individual donated. Source: APMA-B
A list of people who donated to PRC hospital in Brzeszcze various food items, including eggs, flour, semolina, sugar as well as rabbits and a hen. Source: APMA-B
Message sent by Dr Józef Sierankiewicz to the Parish Office in Brzeszcze, informing of the death in the PRC hospital of two children, Marek Wincenty Zdrojewski and Leokadia Żuk, who had been born in the Auschwitz camp. Source: APMA-B
Request directed to the management of the Brzeszcze coal mine for the construction of two small coffins for children who had died in the PRC hospital. The document does not mention the names of the children, only their heights, 70 and 55 cm. One may assume that the request concerned coffins for Marek Zdrojewski and Leokadia Żuk. Source: APMA-B
Certificate for former prisoner Leokadia Niewiadomska and her son Maciej, issued by the Brzeszcze PRC Board on 7 March 1945. On that day they were leaving for Wawer near Warsaw. The document includes information on the treatment they received in the local hospital since 6 February 1945 as well as a request to the military and administrative authorities to facilitate their return and provide necessary care. Source: APMA-B

Antoni Leśniak, teacher, member of Polish Red Cross in Oświęcim, organiser of relief provided to liberated prisoners.

They [the survivors] found themselves in appalling unhygienic conditions, they lay in dirt and excrement, some were already nervously exhausted. When they saw us [PRC volunteers], they started calling out, crying, begging to be taken away post-haste and transported to Kraków or Warsaw. ... The work squads the Municipal PRC Division sent to the camp had to carry out the hardest and heaviest duties. They had to pull the sick out of the dirt and excrement and carry them to cleaner blocks. Healthier former prisoners were transported by cart to a PRC hospital that was set up in the Świderski building, now the courthouse. There, they were treated and next transferred for further treatment by the Polish Red Cross in Kraków. I remember that some 30 prisoners were transferred from the camp to the convent of the Seraphic Sisters in the town, where they also received medical treatment. They were put up on the first floor.

Source: APMA-B, Statements Collection, vol. 70, p. 116.

Jan Drzewiecki, co-founder and director of the PRC hospital in Brzeszcze. 

The worst problem was having to feed these people [i.e. patients], but here our colleague Friebe Ernest worked tirelessly, and worked miracles to deliver food supplies on time. He approached the town authorities to help out. He went from village to village to homesteads and collected and brought in everything that there was to eat. Every day he personally travelled with a cart to collect 25 litres of milk all the way to Miedźna beyond the Vistula. Moreover, the local women brought in whatever they could offer, hence the food supplies mainly included homemade jams.

Source: APMA-B, Memoirs Collection, vol. 150, p. 53.

THE RETURNS OF LIBERATED PRISONERS TO THEIR HOMES

Soon after the liberation, some of the survivors who were in a relatively good physical condition, set out from the camp by their own means. In smaller or larger groups they most often headed for Kraków. Citizens of the Soviet Union, both men and women, were directed to a Red Army assembly-stage point. From there, after tests, those deemed able-bodied were sent to reserve regiments. The rest, after passing through NKVD vetting interrogations, were gradually transported back to the Soviet Union. Citizens of other countries were just passed through the NKVD vetting point, and then received certificates of their captivity in the camp, allowing them to travel. Such certificates were also issued by the local Polish administration and Citizens’ Militia stations. On the other hand, those who remained in the camp for longer, including those undergoing convalescence received such certificates from the directors of the PRC hospital or the field hospitals.  

In Kraków former prisoners received help from workers of the Polish administration and charities. This included the financing and running of field kitchens, dressing stations and dormitories. Help was also provided by the Soviet military authorities. Some of the Auschwitz survivors who were originally from Poland, Slovakia or Hungary, where fighting with the Germans had already ended, tried to return to their homes independently. On the other hand, those who had been deported from Western or Southern Europe could not return on account of still ongoing military operations in the central regions, and were therefore directed to transit camps that the Soviet authorities had set up in Katowice-Bogucice.

Children who had been left in the camp without parents or relatives were taken to various care centres. These included: Kraków, Harbutowice near Kraków, Katowice, Rabka and Okęcie near Warsaw. Only some of the children were later reunited with their parents or taken in by Polish families and adopted. The rest remained in the children’s homes until they reached adulthood. A dozen or so children were taken in by the inhabitants of Oświęcim and surrounding areas. Some of these children were later reunited with their families, while others remained with their adoptive parents.

A group of female prisoners leaving the former Birkenau camp. The Birkenau main gate is in the background. Photograph taken by Henryk Makarewicz shortly after the camp’s liberation. Source: APMA-B

Genowefa Marczewska with her six-year-old son Andrzej. Both had been sent to Auschwitz from the Pruszków transit camp on 12 August 1944, during the Warsaw Uprising. In Auschwitz the mother was registered as prisoner number 83397 and her son as prisoner number 192850. They left the camp shortly after liberation and reached Kraków.

Genowefa Marczewska with her son. Photograph taken before their deportation to Auschwitz. Source: APMA-B
Pass issued to Genowefa Marczewska by the Citizens’ Militia headquarters in Chrzanów on 1 February 1945. In the bottom right corner is added the comment ‘Returning with son Andrzej from the Auschwitz camp’. Source: APMA-B

Otto Klein, together with twin brother Ferenc, sister and mother, was brought to Auschwitz in a transport of Jews from Hungary on 27 June 1944. At the time aged 12, together with twin brother (respective prisoner numbers A-5332 and A-5331) they were selected to be the subjects of Dr Mengele’s experiments. Both survived to be liberated.

The front was very close and in our group of twins there were fears that the Germans would return, which for us could only mean death. We therefore decided to leave the camp. This we finally did the following day, on 28 January. But no one summoned us together, we just joined the group, one after the other. We set off in the direction of Kraków. The first night was spent in a barn, a few kilometres from Auschwitz. We could hear sounds coming from the front and bullets flying through the air. The next day, we were proceeding on foot when three Soviet trucks bound for the front stopped. They took us and we continued the rest of the journey to Kraków by truck. Unfortunately, just before we reached Kraków the third truck skidded and caused an accident in which one of the twins was killed. When we finally reached Kraków, we encountered problems because we did not have any documents. All along the river [Vistula] in Kraków there were Soviet checkpoints and we could not get to the other side without documents. Then the Polish authorities issued a document which included the names of all 33 of us. ... Our journey in Poland lasted five weeks. We travelled in an easterly direction via Tarnów and Przemyśl, usually by train. In Przemyśl we were stopped by a Soviet soldier who asked us where we were coming from and where we were going to. He was in charge of rail traffic and put us into an additional carriage attached to a train that travelled through Czechoslovakia to Hungary. He also instructed us where we had to get off. The situation at the time was very difficult, it was very cold and there was a shortage of food. … In our group there were initially 36 of us, but when we left Kraków, the number was reduced to 33. One had died in the accident outside Kraków, and then two remained in Kraków, one was in hospital, suffering from bad injuries, and so his twin brother remained with him. After arriving in Hungary … we found our family. 

Source: APMA-B, Statements Collection, vol. 125, pp. 129‒130.

Ferenc and Otto Klein – twins born on 7 June 1932 – together with their sister and mother. All four were sent to Auschwitz in a transport of Jews from Hungary on 27 June 1944. During the selection, the boys were sent to the camp to be subjected to the experiments of the SS physician, Dr Josef Mengele. They survived to be liberated on 27 January 1945. The next day, in a group of 30 people, mostly twins, they set out for Kraków, which they reached on 29 January. Photograph taken before the deportation. Source: APMA-B
Certificate issued by the mayor of Kraków to the group of former prisoners returning from the liberated camp to Hungary. Mentioned at the bottom of the list are Ferenc and Otto Klein. The certificate authorises them to apply for travel passes from the Kraków War Commander and requests for assistance to be provided by the security forces. The photograph photocopies were provided by Otto Klein. Source: APMA-B

Anna was deported to Auschwitz on 22 February 1944 (number 75560), there, on 15 October 1944, she gave birth to her son. Shortly after liberation, they reached Kraków, where they were passed through an assembly-stage point. On account of her child, Anna was not drafted into a reserve regiment, as was the case with other female former prisoners who were citizens of the Soviet Union. After a month’s stay in Kraków, they returned to Yalta.

Anna Polshchikova with her son Viktor. Photograph taken shortly after liberation. Source: APMA-B
Certificate issued to Anna Polshchikova on 27 February 1945 by the 1st Ukrainian Front Department for the Repatriation of Soviet Union Citizens in Kraków. The certificate states that Anna was liberated from Auschwitz concentration camp by the Red Army and that together with her son she was returning to her original place of residence in Yalta. A photocopy of this document was provided by A. Polshchikova. Source: APMA-B

The twins Eva and Miriam Mozes, Jewish girls from Romania. At the age of ten, they were deported to Auschwitz with their parents and two other sisters in May 1944. On arrival they were selected as subjects of Dr Josef Mengele’s experiments and directed to camp, whereas their mother and sisters were murdered in the gas chamber. Their father was also killed in the camp. Eva received prisoner no. A-7063 and Miriam A-7064. Both girls survived to be liberated. In March 1945 they were transported in a group of Jewish children to a Caritas centre in Katowice, then some three months later they were taken under the care of female former prisoners to Chernivtsi (Ukraine) and next they were sent to Slutsk (Belarus). In September 1945 they reached their home village, where they were looked after by their aunt Irena, their only surviving relative.

In the photograph, taken in Porţ in 1943, the twins are sitting next to their mother, Zsenia, with Eva on the left and Miriam on the right. Lying in front of them is their cousin Hersch Schmilu. Standing above them, from the left is their sister Aliz, father Alexander, sister Edit and a friend, Luci. Source: APMA-B
List of Jewish children without parents in the PRC hospital. They were transferred to the Caritas centre in Katowice in March 1945. The Mozes sisters figure as nos. 12 and 13. Source: APMA-B

BURIAL OF CORPSES

After the liberation, on the sites of the former camps of Auschwitz I and Birkenau there were over 600 corpses of prisoners who had been murdered by the SS or died at the start of the evacuation or shortly afterwards. On 28 February 1945 funeral of victims was organised by the local administration and military authorities. It was attended by several thousand inhabitants of Oświęcim and surrounding villages, former prisoners, representatives of the Polish and Soviet military authorities as well as the local clergy. The bodies of those who died later in the PRC and field hospitals were buried in smaller graves dug near the existing large ones.

Former Birkenau camp. Funeral procession passing sector BIa. All the coffins were carried by the mourners except the coffin of a two- or three-year-old child (seen in the foreground), which was transported in a hearse. Source: APMA-B
A group of former prisoners participating in the funeral. Source: APMA-B
Coffins laid out just before burial in a large grave near the former Auschwitz I camp. A frame from the Soviet Liberation Chronicle film which was shot shortly after the camp’s liberation. Source: APMA-B

COMMISSIONS INVESTIGATING GERMAN CRIMES IN THE FORMER AUSCHWITZ CAMP: THE SOVIET COMMISSION

In February and March investigations into the crimes committed in the Auschwitz camp were conducted by the Prosecution of the 1st Ukrainian Front, acting under the supervision of the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union for the Investigation of the Crimes of German-Fascist Aggressors. Its representatives carried out visual inspections of the former camp, its buildings, the sites of the crematoria and the incineration pits near crematorium V, where the ashes and unburned human bone fragments still remained beneath a layer of soil. They also secured as evidence of the committed crimes, the plundered property of murdered Jews which the SS had not managed to ship to Germany (including almost 1.2 million items of clothing, 43,500 pairs of shoes, almost 70,000 cooking utensils, almost 50,000 brushes of various sorts, 5,500 talliths, over 3,000 suitcases and almost 13,000 pairs of glasses) as well as around seven tonnes of human hair found in the warehouses of the former camp’s tannery. Moreover, they interviewed over 200 former prisoners on subjects concerning the camp, including: methods of extermination, medical experiments, the treatment of prisoners, living conditions and the work they were made to do. The investigators also secured Auschwitz documents, which were, unfortunately, later taken to Moscow, once the Soviet investigation was finished. In addition, a forensic commission medically examined 2,800 survivors, diagnosing the majority of them with medical conditions acquired in the camp ‒ above all, the severe depletion of the organism (dystrophia alimentaris), but also tuberculosis, phlegmons, and frostbite. They also carried out over 500 post-mortems, from which they concluded that most deaths resulted from the wasting away of the organism.

Former Auschwitz I, members of the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union for the Investigation of Crimes of German-Fascist Aggressors. Photograph taken by Stanisław Mucha in the office of the first commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, in February or March 1945. Source: APMA-B
Members of the Soviet commission during a visual inspection of one of the barracks in the former Birkenau camp. Photograph taken in February or March 1945. Source: APMA-B
Clothing plundered from Jews who had been deported to Auschwitz and murdered in the gas chambers. Photograph taken in one of the former camp’s warehouses shortly after liberation. Source: APMA-B  
Members of the Soviet commission inspecting the hair cut off women who were murdered in the gas chambers. The photograph was taken in the camp tannery building, where the hair had been prepared for shipment. A frame from the Soviet Liberation Chronicle film. Source: APMA-B
Shoes plundered from Jews deported to Auschwitz. Source: APMA-B.

Various items that had been plundered from murdered Jews, and were later secured by the Soviet commission in the so-called camp extension (Lagererweiterung) a few hundred metres to the north of Auschwitz I. Photographs were taken shortly after the camp’s liberation by Stanisław Mucha and Soviet cameramen.

Source: APMA-B

Glasses plundered from Jews deported to Auschwitz. Source: APMA-B.

The work of the commissions investigating the crimes committed by Germans in Auschwitz included conducting medical examinations of many former prisoners. The physicians found that the vast majority of these former inmates had contracted diseases during their incarceration in the camp.

Jana Ecksteinova, a 9-year-old Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia. Brought to Auschwitz from the Theresienstadt ghetto in October 1944. She was diagnosed as having second degree dystrophia alimentaris (alimentary dystrophia). Frame from the Soviet Liberation Chronicle film. Source: APMA-B
Sophie Tencer (Tenzer), a 22-year-old Jewish woman from Germany brought to Auschwitz probably in October 1944 and registered as prisoner no. 88972. During the medical examination she was diagnosed as having second degree dystrophia alimentaris (alimentary dystrophy). Photograph taken during the medical examination of former prisoners by physicians of the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union for the Investigation of the Crimes of German-Fascist Aggressors, February‒March 1945. Source: APMA-B

Alexei Melnikov, a 31-year-old Russian brought to Auschwitz in February 1944 (no. 173989). In the camp he had been beaten and wounded with a bayonet, which resulted in the scars in his back. Photograph taken during the medical examination of former prisoners by physicians of the Extraordinary State Commission of the Soviet Union for the Investigation of the Crimes of German-Fascist Aggressors, February‒March 1945.

Source: APMA-B

Aleksyj Melnikow. Source: APMA-B
Photograph of Aleksyj Melnikow's back. Source: APMA-B

COMMISSIONS INVESTIGATING GERMAN CRIMES IN THE FORMER AUSCHWITZ CAMP: POLISH COMMISSIONS

In April 1944 the Polish Commission for the Investigation of German-Hitlerite Crimes in Auschwitz began its work. Its members inspected the ruins of the crematoria and gas chambers in Birkenau and learned of the living conditions in the camp. Next they inspected the main camp, where former prisoners told them about conditions in block 11, showed the gallows, the underground cells and the place of executions between blocks 10 and 11. Finally the commission members visited former prisoners at the Polish Red Cross (PRC) hospital, who told them about their personal experiences at the camp. Next, during a plenary session in Kraków they interviewed former prisoners as witnesses. At the same time a legal sub-commission also heard former prisoners as witnesses.

In May 1945 members of the legal sub-commission, later also the members of the newly formed Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (Kraków Division) headed by Judge Jan Sehn, conducted a detailed inspection of the site of the former camp. With great determination they secured extant camp documents. They also secured physical evidence of the perpetrated crimes, including samples of victims’ hair as well as ventilator parts from the gas chambers, which they sent to be analysed at the Forensic Research Institute in Kraków. The Institute’s report revealed the presence of hydrogen cyanide and derivative compounds. The Polish Commission’s members also interviewed many former prisoners. The gathered documentation was later used in trails against the former commandant Rudolf Höss as well as 40 other members of the Auschwitz camp personnel.

The hearing of former prisoner Géza Mansfeld (right). Photograph taken in April 1945 while he was giving evidence before the Commission for the Investigation of German-Hitlerite Crimes in Auschwitz. Source: APMA-B

Géza Mansfeld, a Hungarian Jew, b. on 26 February 1882 in Budapest, pharmacologist, professor of the University of Pécs. In March 1944 he was arrested and held in Mauthausen concentration camp. On 15 June 1944 he was transferred to Auschwitz and registered as prisoner no. 189121. For most of his internment he was employed at the SS-Hygiene Institute in Rajsko. After liberation he worked in the PRC hospital on the site of the former camp.

Luigi Ferri. An Italian, b. in Milan on 9 September 1932. Arrested together with his grandmother, who was of Jewish origins, in Trieste and deported in a transport of Italian Jews to Auschwitz in June 1944. There registered as prisoner no. B-7525 and directed with other male prisoners to the Birkenau quarantine camp (sector BIIa). Thanks to the care of prisoner-physician Otto Wolken Ferri survived to be liberated.

The hearing of Luigi Ferri. Photograph taken during a hearing before the Commission for the Investigation of German-Hitlerite Crimes in Auschwitz in April 1945. Source: APMA-B

In the autumn of 1944 the SS ordered prisoners to dismantle gas chambers and crematoria elements for the purpose of transporting them to other concentration camps in Germany. This plan, however, was only partly realised. Hence, various elements remained in the Auschwitz building materials depot, called Bauhof. In May 1945 these elements were photographed and described by the Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland (Kraków Division).

In the foreground are some fire irons which were used by Sonderkommando prisoners during the burning of corpses in the crematorium furnaces. Further back to the right are boxes for taking out the ashes and on the left are some furnace grills. Photograph taken by Stanisław Łuczko, May 1945. Source: APMA-B
Gas chamber entrance door, probably from crematorium IV. Photograph by Stanislaw Łuczko, May 1945. Source: APMA-B
Ventilation pipes from crematorium II or III. Photograph by S. Łuczko, May 1945. Source: APMA-B  
The interior of one of camp buildings, exact location unknown, with tattered camp documents strewn on the floor. Photograph by S. Łuczko, May 1945. Source: APMA-B
Commission members inspecting the ruins of gas chamber and crematorium II. First on the left is Dr Jan Sehn and third from the left is former prisoner Otto Wolken. Photograph by S. Łuczko, May 1945. Source: APMA-B

Henryk Tauber, Polish Jew, b. in Chrzanów on 8 July 1917. Brought to Auschwitz from the Kraków ghetto on 19 January 1943, registered as prisoner no. 90124. At the start of February employed in the crematorium of Auschwitz I, and a month later transferred to Birkenau, where he was included in the Sonderkommando of crematorium II. Tauber managed to escape from the evacuation march in January 1945. In May 1945, he submitted an extensive testimony before the Main Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes in Poland, Kraków Division.

Source: APMA-B

Henryk Tauber. Source: APMA-B

EPILOGUE

The work of the Polish Commission was hampered by the Soviet authorities, which in the spring of 1945 used the former main camp and part of the Birkenau camp to set up transit camps for German prisoners of war. The transit camp in the former Auschwitz I was in operation until the autumn of the same year, while the one in Birkenau was liquidated in early 1946. After the liquidation of the POW camps, the Soviet authorities handed the former Auschwitz I and Birkenau camp premises over to the Polish administration. On the initiative of former prisoners, the Warsaw authorities undertook actions to protect former camp sites and create a Museum. The first proposals in this matter were put forward by members of both Polish commissions, but realisation was not possible while the camps for German prisoners of war existed. 

As a result of actions undertaken by the Warsaw authorities, the Protection of Former Camp Territories Board was founded and its members arrived in Oświęcim in April 1946. It was then that they started securing the premises and setting up the Museum. The employees of this new institution were chiefly former prisoners, who protected former camp property, prepared exhibitions and served as guides for visitors. Thanks to their efforts, the Museum was officially opened on 14 June 1947, on the seventh anniversary of the arrival of the first political prisoners to Auschwitz.

Former Auschwitz I camp. Entrance gate with a sign that reads: ‘State Museum in Oświęcim’. Photograph by Antonin Ćenek, 1946. Source: APMA-B

Although the Museum was officially opened on 14 June 1947, it had actually been functioning since the spring of the previous year. Its employees protected the former camp premises, prepared exhibitions and provided guided tours for visitors. Seen in the photograph is one of many groups of visitors who visited the former camp in 1946.

Credits: Exhibit

Autor — Dr Jacek Lachendro, Centrum Badań PMA-B
Kurator — Agnieszka Juskowiak-Sawicka, MCEAH
Tłumacz na język angielski — Witold Zbirohowski-Kościa
Korekta wersji niemieckiej — Łukasz Martyniak, Centrum Badań PMA-B
Korekta wersji rosyjskiej — Nadia Ivanets
Korekta wersji angielskiej — Beata Kłos
Korekta wersji holenderskiej — Janna Ebbens
Korekta wersji francuskiej — Jarek Mensfelt

Credits: All media
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