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Liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration and Extermination Camp

In mid-January 1945, the Red Army launched an offensive to capture the territory around Cracow and Auschwitz. On January 18, 1945, the SS began evacuating prisoners from the Auschwitz camp complex. Around 58,000 inmates were forcibly taken on death marches under SS guard. Approximately 9,000 completely exhausted and seriously ill prisoners and a few prisoners deployed as male nurses in the hospital barracks remained behind in the various camps of Auschwitz. Some relatively healthy prisoners managed to hide, hoping that liberation was imminent.


In the final days of the camp, the SS sought to obliterate, insofar as possible, all proof and traces of their crimes. Loot and documents were carried away or burned, and during the night of January 25–26, 1945, an SS detachment blew up the last of the crematoriums in Auschwitz-Birkenau that were still functional. The arbitrary and systematic murders continued, however. In Birkenau alone, units of the SS and the SD killed about 300 Jewish prisoners between January 20 and 23. In several subcamps, SS men perpetrated massacres: They shot more than 100 inmates in the Fürstengrube subcamp, and in the prisoner infirmary they burned 239 people alive. Then the SS guard details withdrew as the vanguard of the Red Army approached.


On January 27, 1945, at 9 in the morning, the first Soviet soldiers of the 322nd Infantry Division, part of the 60th Army of the First Ukrainian Front, reached the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. Of the 850 sick prisoners abandoned on January 18, more than 200 had died. The Red Army soldiers were completely unprepared. They distributed their bread to the patients. The same day, a military doctor began organizing medical care. Around noon the downtown area of Auschwitz was liberated, and at 3 o’clock that afternoon the first Soviet units reached the main camp and Birkenau, where they provided for the surviving prisoners. The corpses of male and female prisoners who had been shot or who died during the preceding days were found: 48 on the grounds of the main camp, and 600 in Birkenau. Overall, more than 7,000 sick and exhausted prisoners were freed: 1,200 in the main camp and 5,800 in Birkenau; 4,000 of them were women. Despite the immediate provision of medical care, hundreds more prisoners lost their lives in the weeks that followed. The Red Army lost 231 men in fighting against the retreating German Wehrmacht units in and around Auschwitz.


Since the mid-1990s, January 27 has gained international acceptance as a day of remembrance. On January 3, 1996, Federal President Roman Herzog proclaimed January 27 a “Memorial Day for the Victims of National Socialism” in the Federal Republic of Germany, and in 2005 the General Assembly of the United Nations designated this date as “Holocaust Remembrance Day” throughout the world.

(FS; transl. KL)


Czech, Danuta: Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

Strzelecki, Andrzej: The Evacuation, Dismantling and Liberation of KL Auschwitz. Oświęcim: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2001.