When the Soviet Army’s 322nd Rifle Division entered the concentration camp at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, they found a desolation. Mounted on shaggy ponies, they had proceeded with caution as they entered the camp, fearful of a Nazi ambush. But there was no trace of the German enemy.
Eventually, Ivan Martynushkin, then a 21-year-old lieutenant, and his comrades spotted “some people behind barbed wire.” The Nazis had evacuated the facility in Poland, the site of one of the world’s most horrific slaughters. But some 7,000 of the weakest and most infirm inmates remained. The Soviet soldiers also came across more than 600 moldering corpses.
“It was hard to watch them. I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal,” Martynushkin told Agence France Presse this week, ahead of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. Martynushkin is one of the few surviving Soviet soldiers from that day, and has spoken on numerous occasions about his experience then.
“At first there was wariness, on both our part and theirs,” he said in an interview with Radio Free Europe. “But then they apparently figured out who we were and began to welcome us, to signal that they knew who we were and that we shouldn’t be afraid of them — that there were no guards or Germans behind the barbed wire. Only prisoners.”
There was a grim sense of relief. “We saw emaciated, tortured, impoverished people,” Martynushkin told CNN five years ago. “Those were the people I first encountered. … We could tell from their eyes that they were happy to be saved from this hell. Happy that now they weren’t threatened by death in a crematorium. Happy to be freed. And we had the feeling of doing a good deed — liberating these people from this hell.”
Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis killed at least 1.1 million people in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and execution grounds — the vast majority of them were Jews, but the victims also included Poles, Roma, homosexuals and Soviet prisoners of war. Ten days prior to the arrival of the Soviet Army, which had been sweeping through Nazi-held territory in Poland, retreating Nazi troops abandoned Auschwitz and forced some 60,000 inmates on a “death march” away from the site.
The Nazis had attempted to destroy parts of the camp, but could not erase all evidence of the genocide they had perpetrated. At Auschwitz, Martynushkin and his unit found some 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tons of human hair, reports AFP.