Red Army liberators recall shock of Auschwitz
By Natalia Reiter
With additional reporting by Ron Popeski
Dated: 26 Jan 2005
KRAKOW, Poland, Jan 26 (Reuters) — When 60 years ago Anatoly Shapiro commanded his Red Army troops to secure a concentration camp complex in Auschwitz, he had no idea he was about to discover the biggest Nazi killing machine.
“We came upon groups of people in striped uniforms. They were no more than skeletons. They were unable to talk. They had a blank look in their eyes,” the 92-year-old told Reuters.
“We told them we were the Red Army and had come to free them. They began to feel our uniforms as if they didn’t believe us. We washed and clothed them and began to feed them,” said Shapiro, whose speech will be aired in Krakow during Thursday’s commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
When the advancing Soviet army reached Auschwitz — the Nazi death camp in what is now southern Poland where 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished — only about 7,000 prisoners remained in its wooden barracks.
The rest were already marched out or dispatched by train in a desperate attempt by the Nazis to cover up evidence of the mass killings.
“We saw everything. The chambers used to gas the prisoners, ovens where the bodies were burned. We saw the piles of ash. Some of my men approached me and said ‘Major, we cannot stand this. Let’s move on.’,” Shapiro said in a phone interview from his New York home.
On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin, alongside 40 leaders including France’s Jacques Chirac and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, take part in ceremonies in Auschwitz, 70 km (40 miles) from Krakow.
Ukraine’s newly elected President Viktor Yushchenko, son of an Auschwitz prisoner, will also attend.
Koptev Gomolov, who was 18 when his division liberated Auschwitz, recalls that among the “starved and exhausted” prisoners he saw one waving a makeshift red flag.
“First we didn’t understand. Later we found out people had sewn it from pieces of red material and cloths they found. When they heard explosions from the cannons they guessed the Red Army is coming,” said Gomolov.
At a tragic cost for Russia and the Soviet Union as a whole, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, the Holocaust’s deadliest death camp, and most of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
Three generations later, Moscow’s sphere of influence over its liberated lands is diminishing, with eight post-communist states in the European Union and NATO and now Ukraine, after Yushchenko’s hard-fought election victory, leaning west.
“The role of the Soviet army changed quite clearly at the end of the war from that of liberator to instrument in maintaining Moscow’s influence,” said Vadim Krushinsky, a historian and professor at Kiev’s Institute of International Relations.
But with 9 million Red Army soldiers killed in World War Two, Shapiro said history was clear: “I can say with conviction that the Red Army was an army of liberation. No one can deny that or take that distinction away.”