They were harrowingly described as ‘living skeletons’ by the Soviet soldiers who fought to rescue them. They were devastated in every sense of the word; reduced to desperate shells of their former selves, clinging to a tearing thread of hope with weak and shaking hands.
Their eyes went further than the thousand-yard stare, and the word ‘traumatised’ didn’t even come close to describing their collective state of mind. They’d been abandoned, locked behind the rusted barbed wire fences that had been the boundary of their fragile lives for far too long.
In the days leading up to the accidental liberation of Auschwitz, Heinrich Himmler’s SS-Totenkopfverbande had pushed themselves to carry out one final, drastic act of brutality. With the Soviet forces closing in, the guards of Auschwitz forced some 60,000 prisoners to march from the camp toward certain death.
Those they left behind were the ones too weak or sick to even move, and they were simply left to their fate. The biting cold of the Polish winter air chipped away at their already broken bodies, and they simply lay where they fell, waiting for the end. There were around 7,000 prisoners still behind the gates of Auschwitz when the Red Army arrived.
The Soviet saviours had no intention of liberating Auschwitz — they didn’t even know it existed until they stumbled upon it while pushing through Poland. It was one of the best-kept secrets of the Nazi war machine; an abhorrent monument to the devastation wreaked by German forces against the Jewish people.
From 1942 to 1944, more than 1.3 million prisoners were sent to Auschwitz, the vast majority of them being Jews. By the time the camp was liberated, around 1.1 million had been murdered, forced into chambers and gassed to death. It was a horrifically efficient method to strip the world of a staggering amount of innocent lives.
If the prisoners weren’t killed in these chambers, they met their end in Auschwitz through other means. They were lower than the most insignificant of animals in the eyes of the Nazis who watched over them like vultures. There were regular beatings, on-the-spot executions, and starvation, exhaustion, and disease was rampant.
When they arrived on the railway tracks of Auschwitz, these prisoners had already long been stripped of their dignity. As they climbed from the trains they’d been packed into, men, women, children, and babies, they were resigned to their fates. The commanding barks of the German soldiers, aiming rifles at those with no way to defend themselves told the entire story.
I made the decision to visit Auschwitz in 2019. While I knew it would be a unique experience and like nothing I’d ever seen before, I was unprepared for the level of emotion that I felt in the camp. From the moment you walk through the gates into the camp grounds, the air around you changes. You become aware of what happened there, and your mind wanders.
As I moved from room to room, building to building, and tragedy to tragedy, my imagination was overwhelmed. In the last seventy-or-so years, very little has changed, and the buildings that stand there now are very much the same as they were when they were being used to murder innocent people.
I stood inside the chambers used to gas thousands of prisoners. I reached out and touched a wall against which countless individuals were shot dead. My feet walked the same paths that so many people had taken their final steps along. It felt bizarre, and unreal, and so impossible, yet it enabled me to better understand the horrors of the camp.
There’s an atmosphere around Auschwitz that is almost inexplicable. There’s a collective connection between all who visit, and everyone that walks through the gates understands that this is a sacred place. It’s no longer a monument to Nazi atrocities, but a place to remember and honour those who arrived and never left.
It’s so important that we discuss the liberation of Auschwitz, but also that we discuss what happened before the Soviet soldiers arrived. When the gates were opened and the Red Army poured in, there wasn’t a cause for celebration or to rejoice. This was just the beginning of a long and desperate road to condemn those responsible.
Auschwitz wasn’t a lone anomaly; there were six killing centers used in the systematic murder of almost three million people during the Holocaust. As the German army retreated, they attempted to hide evidence of their appalling actions by destroying parts of these camps, but they couldn’t erase every trace of the crimes they’d committed.
I’d revisit Auschwitz in a heartbeat, to once again try to wrap my mind around what happened there. It’s something that the human brain is almost incapable of fully comprehending; a level of brutality and cruelty that seems almost inconceivable. We must remember what happened there.
‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ — George Santayana
Thank you for reading.