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.
Richard Ferrer talks about why we really should never forget the evil that was carried out by the Nazi regime.
As we approach a time when there will be no more survivors, focus is intensifying on recording their stories and learning the lessons of then - for now
Last week a Conservative Party investigation found MP Aidan Burley had “caused deep offence” by organising a Nazi-themed stag party and buying an SS uniform for the groom. Members of the group reportedly chanted: “Mein Fuhrer”, “Himmler” and “Eichmann” and toasted the Third Reich.
Mr Burley, who was forced to resign as a ministerial aide, is not anti-Semitic. Nothing he has said or done before or since suggests otherwise. This was simply a stupid, badly-judged stunt. Any 10-year-old, let alone an MP, should have damn well known better.
What’s most troubling is that his idiotic behaviour says something much more worrying about wider society.
WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Holocaust survivors, politicians, religious leaders and others marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday with solemn prayers and the now oft-repeated warnings to never let such horrors happen again.
Events took place at sites including Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former death camp where Hitler’s Germany killed at least 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, in southern Poland. In Warsaw, prayers were also held at a monument to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking from his window at St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, warned that humanity must always be on guard against a repeat of murderous racism.
“The memory of this immense tragedy, which above all struck so harshly the Jewish people, must represent for everyone a constant warning so that the horrors of the past are not repeated, so that every form of hatred and racism is overcome, and that respect for, and dignity of, every human person is encouraged,” the German-born pontiff said.
Not all words spoken by dignitaries struck the right tone, however.
On the sidelines of a ceremony in Milan, former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi sparked outrage when he praised Benito Mussolini for “having done good” despite the Fascist dictator’s anti-Jewish laws. Berlusconi also defended Mussolini for allying himself with Hitler, saying he likely reasoned that it would be better to be on the winning side.
The United Nations in 2005 designated Jan. 27 as a yearly memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust — 6 million Jews and millions of other victims of Nazi Germany during World War II. The day was chosen because it falls on the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most notorious death camp and a symbol of the evil inflicted across the continent.
“Those who experienced the horrors of the cattle cars, ghettos, and concentration camps have witnessed humanity at its very worst and know too well the pain of losing loved ones to senseless violence,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Obama went on to say that like those who resisted the Nazis, “we must commit ourselves to resisting hate and persecution in all its forms. The United States, along with the international community, resolves to stand in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity, and stay true to the principle of ‘Never Again.’”
London - The Sunday Times marked Holocaust Memorial Day in a less-than-traditional manner, running a virulently anti-Israel cartoon depicting a big-nosed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu paving a wall with the blood and limbs of writhing Palestinians.
The cartoon included a caption beneath the image entitled ‘Israeli elections- will cementing peace continue?’ Drawn by Gerald Scarfe, the cartoon appeared in the national paper on Sunday.
‘This cartoon would be offensive at any time of the year, but to publish it on International Holocaust Remembrance Day is sickening and expresses a deeply troubling mindset,’ said European Jewish Congress President Dr. Moshe Kantor. ‘This insensitivity demands an immediate apology from both the cartoonist and the paper’s editors.’
‘Amazingly, as this cartoon was published days after the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel, underwent fully democratic elections, as others in the Middle East were being butchered by the tens of thousands, the Sunday Times focuses its imagination solely on the Jewish State. This contravenes many of the criteria laid out in EUMC’s Working Definition of Antisemitism and is part of a worrying trend to legitimize the growing assault on Israel by opinion-shapers.’
British anti-Semitism has made headlines throughout the week after Liberal Democrat MP David Ward accused ‘the Jews’ of inflicting violence on Palestinians on a daily basis,’ and questioned how they could do this so soon after their ‘liberation from the death camps.’
He issued something of a backtrack on Saturday evening, in response to condemnation from his party and a huge backlash on social media. ‘I was trying to make clear that everybody needs to learn the lessons of the Holocaust,’ the MP posted on his website.