“There was such a stench that it was impossible to be there for more than five minutes, my soldiers could not stand it and they begged me to let them go, but we had a mission to fulfill.”
These words belong to Anatoly Shapiro, the first Soviet army officer who entered the brutal Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp after the German defeat in World War II.
On January 27, 1945, during the final stage of the conflict, Soviet forces managed to enter the camp of Auschwitz, present-day Poland.
For that reason this Tuesday, when exactly 70 years of that fact are fulfilled, there have been various commemorative acts of liberation by the Soviet Army which is considered the place where the worst crimes were committed during the war.
It is estimated that in May 1940 to January 1945, 1.1 million people were exterminated in Auschwitz-Birkenau, most of them Polish Jews.
The man who opened the doors of that hell and freed him from Nazi rule was Shapiro, a 32-year-old battalion commander, who released the 500 prisoners who were there.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, a few months before dying in 2005, the Ukrainian official described the horror of what he saw 70 years ago.
“We had no idea of the existence of that field, my commander had not told us anything about this matter,” Shapiro said.
“We entered the morning of January 27, 1945. We saw some people dressed in rags, they did not look like human beings, they looked terrible, they were pure bone,” he added.
Shapiro, as commander of the battalion, told the survivors that they were the Soviet army and that they were free from German rule.
“But they did not react, they could not move their heads or say a word.”
He remembered that impression about people, in addition to their skeletal appearance, that they had no shoes and their feet were wrapped in old clothes: it was January and snow surrounded the place.
“I do not know how they survived that,” he said.
Women and children
But Shapiro did not just talk to the American newspaper. At that time, the military also gave an interview to the Israeli national radio, where he gave more details about what he and his men found in Auschwitz.
“When we approached the barracks that were supposed to be for women, we found a terrible image,” he said.
“Women who lay dead on the ground, naked, because the clothes had been stolen by the people who survived, there was a lot of blood and human excrement around them,” he added.
All that Dantesque panorama was impregnated by an impossible smell. Shapiro’s soldiers began to beg him to leave the mission.
“But we could not do it, they had given us the order to be there,” he said.
In his testimony to the New York Daily News, in the barracks where the children were, the horror continued.
“In the last barracks there were only two children who had managed to survive and when they saw us they started shouting: ‘We are not Jews !, we are not Jews!’ They were scared because they thought we were going to take them to the gas chamber” , He said.
Killing for compassion
But the effort to help the prisoners was not always successful, as Shapiro confessed to Israeli radio.
“As soon as we arrived, we set up some field kitchens and prepared some light foods, but some of them died when they tasted the food, because their stomachs did not work normally,” he explained.
“We were furious, the soldiers wanted to kill all the Germans, but I had to explain that many of them were not fascists or responsible for the crimes that the Nazis had committed,” he added.
Hiding the evidence
But beyond the regrettable state of the concentration camp, the Russians could not find any physical evidence related to the medical experiments, not even to the patients they treated in the hospitals.
“On January 18 of that year the Germans who ran the camp gathered as many people as they could, our intelligence estimated that there were at least 10,000 and that the Nazis forced them to march, hungry and naked, to other camps located in the west, none of them managed to survive, they all died along the way, “he said.
Shapiro recalled that when he inspected the Auschwitz facilities he found kilns and extermination machines, while the ashes of the bodies were shaken by the wind.
“If I have a message for the next generation it would be very simple: do not allow for a second that what happened during these years is repeated again.”
Most people who died in this concentration camp were due to the gas chamber, or because of hunger, various diseases or exhaustion.
Shapiro received all possible military honors in the Red Army and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was declared a hero of Ukraine by President Viktor Yushchenko in 2006.
In 1992 he emigrated to New York, where he died in 2005. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery of Beth Moses on Long Island.