Liberation of KL Auschwitz
In contrast to the chaos that marked the evacuation and liquidation of Nazi labor camps in the final weeks of the Third Reich, the evacuation of Auschwitz was, for the most part, carried out according to plan by an SS apparatus that was still functioning effectively. As a result of this operation, the Nazi authorities managed to evacuate approximately 100 thousand prisoners and put them to work as slave laborers for the benefit of the German war economy. They also salvaged a large amount of the loot stored in the camp. About 7 thousand prisoners awaited liberation in the Main Camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz.
From August 1944 until mid–January 1945, approximately 65 thousand prisoners were evacuated. Among them were almost all the Poles, Russians, and Czechs in the camp (some 15 thousand people). They were employed in various industrial plants in the depths of the Third Reich at tasks that included the expansion of armaments plants in the Harz Mountains and in Austria. In the second half of 1944, the SS authorities devoted a great deal of attention to removing the traces and destroying the evidence of the crimes committed in Auschwitz. They stepped up their existing practice of destroying out-of-date prisoner files and registration forms, and began burning the lists of names of the Jews deported to Auschwitz for immediate extermination.
In September, October, and November 1944, the SS killed some of the Jewish prisoners assigned to the Sonderkommando that operated the crematoria and gas chambers, since they were direct eyewitnesses to extermination. A mutiny broke out on October 7, 1944, during one of the attempts to liquidate Sonderkommando prisoners, as a result of which more than 450 of them died fighting or were killed. Crematorium IV, damaged during the mutiny, was demolished by the end of 1944. Preparations were made in November and December of that year, on orders from Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, to blow up the three remaining crematoria. Most of the technical installations in the gas chambers and furnace halls of Crematoria II and III were transported into the depths of the Reich after being dismantled. However, Crematorium V and its gas chambers remained in fully operational condition until the second half of January 1945.
Liquidation of the camp
In mid-January, the Nazi leadership embarked on the final evacuation and liquidation of Auschwitz. Between January 17 and 21, approximately 56 columns marching on foot, mostly westwards through Upper and Lower Silesia. About 2,200 prisoners, evacuated from the Eintrachthütte sub-camp in Świętochłowice and the Laurahütte sub-camp in Siemianowice on January 23, were the only ones transported by rail. The main routes for the columns evacuated on foot led to Wodzisław Śląski and Gliwice, where the prisoners boarded trains to continue westward. 3,200 prisoners from the sub-camp in Jaworzno had one of the longest routes, covering 250 kilometers, to Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp in Lower Silesia.
The evacuation columns were supposed to consist exclusively of strong, healthy people capable of completing a march of up to a hundred kilometers. In practice, sick and exhausted prisoners also volunteered for evacuation, since they felt – not without reason – that those left behind would be liquidated. Underage prisoners-Jewish and Polish children – also set out on the march along with the adults. Along all the routes, SS guards shot not only any prisoners who attempted to escape, but also those who were too physically exhausted to keep up with the others. The corpses of thousands of prisoners who had been shot, or who died of exhaustion or exposure, lined the routes of both marching and rail evacuation. About 3,000 evacuated prisoners died in Upper Silesia alone. It is estimated that a total of not fewer than 9,000 and probably as many as 15,000 Auschwitz prisoners died in the course of the evacuation.
Removing the evidence of the SS crimes
While the prisoners were marching away, and afterwards, the Germans made a final effort to remove all traces of the crimes they had committed in the camp. They blew up Crematoria II and III on January 20, 1945. On January 26, they blew up Crematorium V, which was in fully operational condition. On January 23, they burned “Kanada II”, the complex of warehouse barracks containing property plundered from the victims of extermination. The almost 9 thousand prisoners who had been left behind in the Main Camp (Stammlager, Auschwitz I), Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and the Auschwitz sub-camps, were mostly sick and terminally exhausted. Regarded as unfit for the evacuation march, they now found themselves in an uncertain situation. The SS wanted to liquidate all or almost all of them, and only happenstance saved the majority of them from death. Between the departure of the last evacuation column and the arrival of the Red Army, the SS managed to murder approximately 700 Jewish prisoners in the sub-camps of Fürstengrube in Wesoła, Tschechowitz-Vacuum in Czechowice and Blechhammer in Blachownia Śląska.
The prisoners left behind in the camp hoped to regain their freedom. This hope became reality on January 27, 1945. Red Army soldiers entered Oświęcim that day. Soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front appeared on the grounds of the Monowitz sub-camp, on the eastern side of the city, that morning. They liberated the Auschwitz Main Camp and Birkenau at about 3 p.m., meeting some resistance from withdrawing German units at the Main Camp. The prisoners welcomed the Soviet soldiers as true liberators; the soldiers, for their part, passed through the camp gates in full awareness of the historical significance of their mission. The paradox is that soldiers who were the formal representatives of Stalinist totalitarianism were bringing freedom to the prisoners of Nazi totalitarianism. Over 230 Soviet soldiers, including the commander of the 472nd Infantry Regiment, Semen Lvovich Bezprozvanny, died fighting to liberate Monowitz, the Main Camp, Birkenau, and the city of Oświęcim; 66 of them fell during fighting in the camp buffer zone. About 7 thousand prisoners awaited liberation in the Main Camp, Birkenau, and Monowitz. Soviet soldiers also liberated approximately 500 prisoners before or shortly after January 27 at sub-camps in Stara Kuźnia, Blachownia Śląska, Świętochłowice, Wesoła, Libiąż, Jawiszowice, and Jaworzno. Soviet soldiers discovered the corpses of about 600 prisoners in the Main Camp and Birkenau. The SS had shot some of them during the withdrawal; others had died of exhaustion. These were far from the only traces of crime that the soldiers found. Prisoners in relatively good physical condition immediately left the camp and started on the journey home. For other medical assistance was organized on the site of the former camp.