BBC History Magazine

WHEN THE LIBERATORS CAME

On 27 January 1945 – 75 years ago this month – advance units of the Red Army, fighting their way into Germany in the final stages of the war, reached the vast camp complex of Auschwitz, located on the eastern fringes of the Greater German Reich. It was a cold, sunny winter’s afternoon. Hearing the noise of a grenade being detonated, some of the prisoners came out to greet the soldiers, holding aloft pieces of wood with fabric attached, or waving their scarves in welcome. The troops lowered their weapons as the inmates went forward to greet them. One of the prisoners described the “mad rush” to shake the Soviet soldiers by the hand. Some of the troops shouted, “You are free!” In the huts and the camp hospital, prisoners who were too ill to move found it hard to believe they had been liberated until more Red Army units arrived. Many inmates were too sick, weary and starved to feel much elation.

The Germans had hurriedly abandoned Auschwitz as the Red Army approached. Ten days earlier, the SS had begun to march long columns of prisoners away to other camps further west. Some 60,000 had joined what would become known as the ‘death march’, on which at least a quarter perished as guards shot stragglers or would-be escapees. When they arrived at the new camps designated to accommodate them, they found conditions drastically overcrowded and under-supplied, unhygienic and filthy. There, thousands more succumbed to malnutrition and disease. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 – mostly those judged unfit for

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