Today, 27th January, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army soldiers. When they arrived, they found 7,500 surviving prisoners. Ten days earlier, 60,000 healthier inmates had been removed and forced to march away from the front line. 20,000 of them survived at Bergen-Belsen until April, when the British and Canadian forces took control.
Auschwitz was the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. The exact death toll is difficult to determine, because records were deliberately destroyed by the Germans (and some of them had been fabricated to conceal the crimes in the first place), but the concensus among serious historians is something over a million. About 90% were Jews, and most of the remainder Poles, but with substantial numbers of Roma too.
A Polish intelligence officer, Witold Pilecki, had taken forged papers identifying him as a Polish Jew in order to be arrested and infiltrate Auschwitz. He survived in the camp for two and a half years, sending reports to the Polish resistance, before escaping in April 1943. Outside the camp, he prepared a comprehensive document on the mass killings which eventually went to the British authorities. The Poles suggested several plans for liberating the camp, but the British declined to provide military support, assuming that Pilecki’s descriptions were exaggerated.
(Pilecki remained loyal to the Polish ‘government in exile’ after the war, rather than the Soviet-backed communist government. He was sent to gather intelligence inside Poland and caught by the secret police in 1947. One of the staged witnesses against him at the show trial was Józef Cyrankiewicz, an Auschwitz survivor; and his eventual executioner was Piotr Smietanski, who after a bloody career of terminating enemies of the state, retired to Israel in 1968.)
Two Slovak Jewish prisoners, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 and wrote a report which made its way through sympathetic Slovakian and Hungarian officials to Switzerland and thence to the British and American governments. This report was too detailed and comprehensive to dismiss. Information was given to the news media, and broadcast by the BBC and printed by the New York Times in June 1944.
But the Allies still thought that there was no effective military option to relieve the camps until ground troops arrived, so it was a further seven months before Auschwitz was captured, during which time many tens of thousands of prisoners were killed, and it was a further four months before the last camp, the large complex at Mauthausen-Gusen, was freed.
|Soviet POWs||2 million|
|Ethnic Poles||1.8 million|