When Anatoly Shapiro, a Jewish officer in the Soviet army, entered Auschwitz in January 1945, he confronted death on a scale that no warfare could have prepared him for.
“The first thing I saw was a group of people standing outside in the snow who looked like skeletons, wearing striped clothing and rags on their feet instead of shoes,” he told the New York Daily News back in 2005, just months before he died at the age of 92. “They were so weak they could not turn their heads. We told them, ‘The Red Army has come to free you.’ They couldn’t believe us at first. They would come up to us and touch us to see if it was true.”
Shapiro, 32 at the time of the liberation, said he was the first Soviet officer to enter Auschwitz concentration camp and led his battalion—originally 900 men, half of whom had died in battle—to free it from the Nazis. But nothing Shapiro’s soldiers had seen could have prepared them for the death camp; in fact, his men pleaded with him to let them leave.
“The general told me, ‘Have the soldiers go from barrack to barrack. Let them see what happened to the people,'” Shapiro told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in an interview.
The general ordered them to accompany him, and they went from barrack to barrack. Shapiro remembers, “In German, it said, ‘damas,’—women. When I opened the barrack, I saw blood, dead people, and in between them, women still alive and naked.”
“It stank; you couldn’t stay a second. No one took the dead to a grave. It was unbelievable. The soldiers from my battalion asked me, ‘Let us go. We can’t stay. This is unbelievable.’”
Shapiro and his men found a similarly grisly scene when entering the barracks for men. And for the children’s barracks, the scene was just as devastating.
“In the last barrack, which was for children, there were only two children left alive, and they began yelling, ‘We are not Jews, we are not Jews!'” Shapiro told the Daily News. “It turned out that they were Jews, but were afraid they were going to be taken to the gas chambers. Our medical workers took them out of the barracks to be washed and fed.”
The Soviets arrived just days after the SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its satellite camps. Nearly 60,000 people were forced to march west from the camps, just days after thousands had been killed as the Nazis scrambled to hide their deeds. Not that making it onto the ranks of the march guaranteed survival—SS guards shot anyone who was too weak to continue. More than 15,000 people died during the marches. When the Soviet army arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, just 7,000 prisoners, mostly ill and dying, remained.
The scale of what the Soviets encountered is hard to imagine, but numbers can help. “When Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, they found only the few thousand pitiful survivors who had been left behind as well as 836,525 items of women clothing, 348,820 items of men clothing, 43,525 pairs of shoes and vast numbers of toothbrushes, glasses and other personal effects,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library. “They found also 460 artificial limbs and seven tons of human hair shaved from Jews before they were murdered.”
The enormity of it all seemed to have taken its toll on Shapiro in his later years.
“The truth is that I feel exhausted from all of this,” he recounted to the Daily News, before adding, “Yet I feel strongly about sharing my testimony so that people will know the truth about what happened in Auschwitz.
There is no escaping Shapiro’s curious position as a Jew entering—and playing a leading role in the liberation of—the world’s largest Jewish burial place. But when the Daily News asked how he felt as a Jew liberating the Nazis’ most horrific death camp, he responded, “I was very proud of being in the vanguard of the liberators, not so much because I was a Jew liberating the camp, but because we, the Red Army, liberated it.”
Indeed, Shapiro was proud to be part of the Soviet nation.
According to the Daily News, Shapiro gestured to the medals on his jacket and then said, sadly, “The Soviet Union has disappeared, but these medals remain. I am very sorry the Soviet Union no longer exists. I lived the majority of my life there, and it was my home.”
As valiant as Shapiro’s conduct and that of his Soviet counterparts may seem, some say that that the liberation of Auschwitz was anything but.
“We were terribly hungry,” Auschwitz survivor Kazimiera Wasiak told the Wall Street Journal. “In the camp, they fed us soup with overcooked fat worms. We begged the Soviets to give us at least a piece of meat, but they would only throw bones into the snow.”
“The Soviets? I saw two of them,” another survivor, Hanna Wardak, told the Journal. “They walked by me and other children with some ropes and they didn’t even look at us. They didn’t give us anything to eat, they didn’t help.”
Laurence Rees, a British historian of World War II, has explained that these accounts are not out of the norm. For the 65th anniversary of the liberation, Rees wrote in the Daily Mail:
“Although some Holocaust survivors truly found joy after being freed from Auschwitz, for many it was a very different story—and one that most definitely does not offer us a happy ending… For a start, despite being friendly to the victims, the Russians were strangely unaffected by what they saw at Auschwitz.”
“Indeed, the liberation was hardly reported in the Soviet Press—on February 2, 1945, there was a small report in Pravda, but hardly the coverage you would imagine. One reason is that many of the Soviet soldiers who first arrived at Auschwitz had themselves endured horrors beyond imagining on the Eastern Front…”
“To such soldiers, Auschwitz was just one more terrible sight in a war already overflowing with atrocity.”
Another factor was that the Soviets wanted to make political capital out of the Nazi death camps. In downplaying the suffering of the Jews, the Soviets claimed, as Rees put it, “the murder factory was an example of fascist capitalism’s exploitation of expendable workers. In Soviet minds, there was little suggestion that this was genocide, no real belief that the souls they had liberated deserved special sympathy.”
The historian also points out that the Soviets left the survivors on their own to find their ways back home. In one account, Rees tells the stories of Helena Citronova and her elder sister, newly freed from Auschwitz, who desperately wanted to make their way back to Czechoslovakia. The pair would soon find that the Red Army would not make it so easy:
“’They were drunk—totally drunk,’ says Helena. ‘They were wild animals.’ Red Army soldiers looked ‘for cute girls and raped them.’”
“In order to try to escape the attentions of the Soviet soldiers, Helena would often hide, helped by her older sister who would make herself look as unattractive as possible.”
“As a result, it was the other women cowering alongside them who suffered.”
“And Helena was all too aware of exactly what was happening: ‘I heard screaming until they were quiet and had no more strength left.’”
“’There were cases where they were raped to death. They strangled them…’”
“’We thought if we didn’t die of the Germans, we’d die of the Russians.’”
Rees writes, “the exact number of sexual attacks perpetrated by Soviet soldiers as they advanced through Germany, and then in the immediate aftermath of the war, will never be known, but the figure is certainly in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.” Rees notes that there were indeed some happy endings, in which Soviet soldiers fed and helped newly liberated Jews, but “the overwhelming feeling among many of those who were liberated is one of betrayal and crushed dreams of freedom and happiness.”
The Poles, too, have a different take on the Soviet liberation, as the Wall Street Journal explained during the 65th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation:
“For Poland, which lost many of its citizens in the camp, Jews and Catholics alike, Soviet soldiers couldn’t have brought freedom to the camp or the country because they enjoyed little freedom back home and later helped transplant the Soviet system of totalitarian oppression to post-war Poland and half of Europe.”
“Russia, on the other hand, calls the above Polish view blasphemous and demands unconditional respect for its sanctified Soldier the Liberator. Before 1989, Soviet propaganda tried to imprint it in the minds of millions of people in the Soviet-oppressed part of Europe.”
There is no doubting Anatoly Shapiro’s acts as a liberator. But whichever tale of Soviet actions both during and after the liberation of Auschwitz more accurately reflects what really happened may still not be known for some time.