Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Auschwitz

Auschwitz, in south-western Poland was liberated 69 years ago yesterday (27th January 1945) by the Red Army.

Millions of Polish and other European Jews were held prisoner there in appalling conditions and many were been killed in the gas chambers. Auschwitz, was the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.

When Germany began to realise it was about to lose control of Auschwitz, German guards were given orders to destroy the crematoria and gas chambers. Tens of thousands of prisoners - those who were able to walk - were moved out of the prison and forced to march to other camps in Germany. When the Red Army arrived at the camp they found only a few thousand prisoners remaining - the ones who were too sick to leave.

In July 1944 details were revealed of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were sent to Poland many of whom ended up in Auschwitz. They were loaded onto trains and taken to the camp where many were put to death in the gas chambers. Before they went they were told they were being exchanged in Poland for prisoners of war and made to write cheerful letters to relatives at home telling them what was happening.

According to the Polish Ministry of Information, the gas chambers were capable of killing 6,000 people a day. Since its establishment in 1940 to its liberation in 1945, only a handful of prisoners managed to escape to tell of the full horror of the camp.

The capture of Auschwitz came as the Red Army made important advances on three fronts: in East Prussia to the north, in western Poland and as Silesia in eastern Germany. Fighting continued around the historic Polish western city of Poznan.

The Polish capital, Warsaw, was also liberated in January 1945 after five-and-a-half years of German occupation.

On 8 May 1945 a State commission compiled by the Soviets with advice from Polish, French and Czechoslovak experts revealed the full horror of conditions at the camp. Nearly 3,000 survivors of various nationalities were questioned and on the basis of their evidence the report estimated 4,000,000 people had perished there between 1941 and early 1945. The dead included citizens from the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Italy and Greece. 

The commission, which had previously investigated conditions at Majdanek, Treblinka and other camps, described Auschwitz as the worst in its experience. It found evidence of experiments carried out on humans "of a revolting character".  According to the evidence, the commission said the Germans had moved out up to 60,000 inmates - those still fit enough to walk - when they retreated. The few thousand who were left behind were freed by the Russians.

They also found seven tons of women's hair, human teeth, from which gold fillings had been extracted and tens of thousands of children's outfits. The final death toll was later revised by the Auschwitz Museum, to between 1 and 1.5 million, including almost 1m Jews.