Last days of hell: 75 years on, death camp survivors recall the Red Army liberation of Auschwitz
Now, 75 years after the Red Army liberated the notorious death camp in January 1945, Kovalev recalls his days of horror for RT.
“We were crammed into these trains and sent somewhere. It was a very long road — at least a day and a night,” he says. The train carrying Kovalev and other Soviet prisoners eventually arrived at Oswiecim Station, just a few minutes away from the Auschwitz camp — but still they had no way to know where they really were.
Gates of hell
"Everything was lit up, bright lamps all around the camp. So bright you could see a needle in the grass… We didn't have the faintest idea what a concentration camp even was. We knew nothing".
As soon as they arrived, he remembers, women and young children were separated and grouped to one side. Kovalev himself was only 14 years old, but he was sent to the opposite side and joined a line of other prisoners. They were watched by dogs and SS soldiers armed with machine guns.
They marched us to the sanitary inspection building, a big barracks. Inside, they cut everyone's hair, sprayed us with water, put some ointment on our skin. Then they sent us to cold showers. At the exit, they tattooed numbers on our hands.
Kovalev was assigned to block 32 at the ‘Kanada’ section, where inmates worked in warehouses, unloading the luggage and sorting through the belongings of other prisoners as they arrived on trains.
“People were arriving from Russia, Hungary... they were bringing prisoners from everywhere,” Kovalev says. “The job was to unload the trains, undress the people, take everything off of them and take them to the crematorium.”
They drove a lot of people inside, shut all the doors and turned on the gas. Within 5 to 7 minutes, everyone was dead.
Working to survive
The Sonderkommando unit, comprised mostly of Jews, was then forced to burn the dead bodies and remove the ashes, Kovalev explains. Constantly fearing for their own lives, the prisoners took the ashes out to bury in the fields or threw them into the Vistula river. Another unit was tasked with sorting through valuable remains like jewelry and gold teeth.
Kovalev himself was assigned to a team building vegetable storage sheds. “I dug basements, built walls and poured concrete. We worked like that for a very long time,” he says.
While being able to carry out manual labor increased a prisoner’s chances of survival significantly, the threat of death always hung in the air. Each week, Kovalev remembers, there was a selection process carried out by the camp’s chief doctor Josef Mengele, where prisoners were stripped naked near the furnaces. “I survived the selection three times,” he says.
After a long trek across Poland, fighting back the Germans in every town and village along the way, Red Army soldiers finally reached Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. “You can probably imagine how we felt when we were rescued,” Kovalev says. “We were crying tears of joy.”
My most vivid memory is when the Soviet troops came and set us free… I don’t know how to explain it, I was so emotional… we never expected to live through it.
Years later at a forum in Krakow, Kovalev was surprised to hear people say it had been American troops who really liberated Auschwitz. He was thankful when Poland’s president at the time, Aleksander Kwasniewski, took the floor and rightly thanked the Soviet Army instead.
Wladyslaw Osik, a Polish Auschwitz survivor, is similarly angered by efforts to write the Red Army’s role out of history. “I have never questioned the merits of these [Soviet] soldiers. I have always been grateful — and representatives of Russia should be at the celebrations in Warsaw,” he tells RT.Also on rt.com ‘People want to know the truth’: Red Army veteran speaks out on liberation of Auschwitz & distortions of history
“People tell us that there was no liberation… but if there was no Red Army, then I wouldn’t be here,” he says.
Polish President Andrzej Duda failed to extend an invite to Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the national memorial ceremony in Auschwitz on Monday — and the two countries are embroiled in a diplomatic spat, both accusing each other of historical revisionism.
To Osik, sidelining Russia from these events is a “huge mistake” — but he acknowledges that the atmosphere has been brewing for years. Yet, for him, the political squabbles of today are not what matter most.
“My mother returned from Oswiecim to Warsaw. That’s all I know,” he says.
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