David Dushman had no idea of the horrors he was about to discover. He was a 21-year-old major in the Red Army in January 1945, when his tank rolled past Krakow, Poland, heading west, pushing the Nazis. At 3 p.m. on Jan. 27, they approached a fence to a camp. It was Auschwitz.
Dushman didn’t enter the death camp through the notorious gate emblazoned with the words “Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free). His tank plowed right through the electrified, barbed-wire fence — a fence many prisoners had intentionally jumped into to end their torture.
Dushman, who was Jewish, died Saturday in Munich at 98; he was the last surviving liberator of Auschwitz, the last eyewitness who could speak of its inhumanity, according to Charlotte Knobloch, the president of the Jewish Community of Munich.
His stay at Auschwitz was brief; he only drove his tank over the fence to make a pathway for ground troops in the 322nd Rifle Division and then continued on to “hunt down the fascists,” he told Sueddeutsche newspaper in 2015. But still, what he saw would haunt him for the rest of his life.
“Skeletons everywhere. From the barracks they staggered, between the dead they sat and lay,” he remembered. “Terrible.”
By the time the Soviets arrived, Auschwitz and its satellite camps were nearly empty. The Germans had cleared it out earlier in the month as the Red Army approached, forcing 60,000 prisoners on a “death march” to other concentration camps, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Nazis had meant to kill the prisoners who were too weak or ill to walk, but they ran out of time and left behind about 7,000. These were the “skeletons” Dushman found.
Ivan Martynushkin was among the Soviet ground troops who marched into the camp. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, he spoke to several news outlets about what he saw.
“We saw emaciated, tortured, impoverished people,” he told CNN. “It was hard to watch them. I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal,” he told Agence France-Presse.
They were mostly middle-aged or children; many of the children were twins and had been experimented on by “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele. At first, the prisoners and soldiers were wary of each other, Martynushkin told Radio Free Europe, “[b]ut then they apparently figured out who we were and began to welcome us, to signal that they knew who we were and that we shouldn’t be afraid of them — that there were no guards or Germans behind the barbed wire. Only prisoners.”
The look in their eyes began to change, he said. “We could tell from their eyes that they were happy to be saved from this hell. Happy that now they weren’t threatened by death in a crematorium. Happy to be freed. And we had the feeling of doing a good deed — liberating these people from this hell,” he said.
Some of the prisoners realized more suddenly that they had been liberated. In Dan Stone’s book “The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath,” officer Vasily Gromadsky described calling out “You are free!”
“They began rushing toward us, in a big crowd. They were weeping, embracing us and kissing us,” he said.
But other prisoners were slower to convince of their liberation. In 1980, Soviet colonel Georgii Elisavetskii recounted entering a barrack filled with “living skeletons.”
“I sense that they do not understand [us] and begin speaking to them in Russian, Polish, German ... Then I use Yiddish. Their reaction is unpredictable. They think that I am provoking them. They begin to hide,” Elisavetskii said.
He told them he was a colonel in the Soviet Army and a Jew, and finally they realized they were free. They fell at his and his comrades’ feet, kissing their overcoats and holding their arms around the men’s legs. “And we could not move, stood motionless while unexpected tears ran down our cheeks,” he said.
Even three days after liberation, some women were still too afraid, too weak or both to leave their bunks, one Soviet doctor said.
Soviet medics began offering the sickest among them medical help, and soon they had constructed two field hospitals outside the camp. The Polish Red Cross built another. Bedridden patients were carried from barracks caked with excrement to clean wards, according to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum.
At least 4,500 survivors needed serious medical care, and 1,500 died before they could recover.
The patients had to be gradually reintroduced to food, because immediately giving a person suffering from long-term starvation normal portions can be deadly. At first, it was just one tablespoon of potato soup three times a day. Later, when the meals got bigger, nurses reported finding bread hidden underneath the patients’ mattresses — so accustomed they had become to hoarding every scrap they could.
As soon as the former prisoners were well enough to leave, most of them did, either by themselves on foot or in organized transports to their homelands, according to the Auschwitz museum. For many, this took three or four months of medical care. By June, only 300 remained, according a Jewish Relief Unit quoted in Stone’s book, but “the Russians are caring for them well, providing white bread, wurst and sugar.”
Before the Nazis evacuated, they had also tried to destroy evidence of their war crimes — namely, the murder of 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, in gas chambers. But again, they ran out of time. The Red Army reported finding the sickening evidence of the Nazis’ “Final Solution”: 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments and 7.7 tons of human hair, all collected in massive piles.
Six hundred bodies — the last people shot by the Nazis — lay unburied on the ground.
Aleksander Vorontsov was in a Soviet film crew that captured these horrors. “My memories from there have stayed with me all my life. All of that was the most moving and horrific thing that I filmed during the war,” he said.
Most of these soldiers were later awarded medals for the liberation of Auschwitz and were invited to commemorations and ceremonies over the years. But not Dushman; he was never awarded a medal, presumably because his contribution was so brief.
He said that was okay with him; he didn’t want to be invited back. He had visited Auschwitz once more in the 1970s and, he said, “I couldn’t stop crying.”
Read more Retropolis: