Shadows and ghosts
Just five survivors remain today from the three Soviet divisions that liberated Auschwitz concentration camp in January 1945. I am the youngest — I was only 19 when the war ended. But the events of 60 years ago are as fresh in my memory as if they happened yesterday.
I come from Vinnitsa in Ukraine.
But my mother took me to Moscow in 1934 because of famine. In the summer of 1941 I went to help my grandad in Ukraine with his vegetable garden. I arrived on Saturday June 21, and the next day we took his cow to the market. At noon we heard on the loudspeaker that war had begun. Money became worthless immediately. We could have got twice as much for the cow, but it was too late.
Although I was just 15 years old, I was immediately conscripted. We were kept in reserve, but when I turned 17 I was sent to the front. I had my baptism of fire in January 1943, when we kicked the Germans out of Voronezh. The following month, we liberated Kursk. It was a bloodbath: a whole regiment was killed in three hours. Later, I was badly wounded in the chest in the battle of Kursk. On recovery, I caught up with my regiment, under the command of General Vasily Petrenko, who died not long ago. He was a great commander. Under him we liberated Lvov in the summer of 1944, and on January 19 1945 we freed Krakow, a beautiful ancient city.
At about 4am on January 27 we approached Oswiecim (Auschwitz). It is a small town on the Sola river. We didn’t even know there was a concentration camp there.
The Germans had far better weapons than us, and their rations were excellent, not like the gruel we had. Sometimes we didn’t even get that and went hungry for days. The Germans also had warm clothing, but we looked like riffraff by 1945: our clothes were threadbare and we had no decent boots or blankets. It was mild for January. There was no snow, which we needed to melt in our pots to get water.
We won that war with our bodies. We would lose seven of our men for each German. It was tough in Auschwitz, too. The Germans deployed artillery and submachine guns outside the camp. They shot at us from the watchtowers and barracks. The fight raged for about five hours, and we lost many men. Then they pulled back.
When we entered the camp, we gasped: barbed wire everywhere, everyone in striped clothes and caps. The prisoners could barely walk: they looked like shadows or ghosts, they were so skinny. Some could not even move, others were supported by friends. They tried to talk to us, but we could not understand them: there were people from different countries, including many Jews from France, Poland and even Palestine. At the time of our assault there were 7 000 to 10 000 people in the camp — I learned after the war that the Germans had earlier shipped hundreds of thousands of prisoners to Germany and continued to use them for forced labour. But those left behind were barely alive.
At first, when they saw us, they could not believe they were free. But when they understood, some began to laugh, others broke down crying. Many tried to kiss us, but they looked so horrible that we kept away so as not to catch some bug. Many asked for food, but we didn’t have any. Our support units arrived the next day and got busy with the prisoners, feeding and washing them. But we only stayed for a couple of hours. It was a horrible scene. We went into a filthy women’s barrack, with bunks in tiers and bloodstains on some of them.
The Germans had not expected everything would move so fast: we carried out the operation very quickly. They hadn’t had time to blow up anything or plant mines. There was a huge construction site next to the camp: prisoners were building a chemicals plant. There were not just camp inmates working there, but also tens of thousands of civilians shipped from the USSR.
The grim barracks stood in rows and, from a distance, looked like a factory — and it was a real factory of death. I saw a great deal in the war, but nothing so horrible or awesome as that camp. The experience gave us a new energy and determination to put an end to the abomination of Nazism. Our men did not spare their lives — we knew our cause was just. In a few days we moved on to the west, and I was again gravely wounded, now on German territory, at a place called Lonau.
I did not visit Auschwitz again until 2000, at the invitation of President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland. This week I am returning for the third time. I do not believe humanity will forget the suffering of the victims of Auschwitz, nor the blood shed by their liberators. Anyone who witnessed such a nightmare would do anything possible to prevent it happening again. — Â