On 27 January 1945, the Soviet army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp located in Oświęcim, Nazi-occupied Poland, freeing about 7,000 prisoners. The liberation took place as World War II was coming to an end, as it seemed inevitable that Nazi Germany would be defeated.
The vast majority of prisoners brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was established in 1941, were Jews, many of whom were sent to gas chambers immediately upon arrival. Incoming prisoners who were sent to labor camps were assigned a number, which was sewn to their prison uniforms and tattooed on their arms in order for SS officers to identify the bodies of registered prisoners who had died. SS officers assigned more than 400,000 prisoner serial numbers.
Days before the Red Army liberated the camp, approximately 60,000 prisoners were forced to march approximately 30 miles northwest to Gliwice or approximately 35 miles west to Wodzislaw. SS officers would shoot anyone who was unable to keep up walking. Overall, approximately 15,000 prisoners would die during the death march. Shortly beforehand, German SS officers began destroying evidence of war crimes, such as camp records and killing sites, and murdered most of the Jews who worked in Auschwitz’s gas chambers.
Upon arrival to Gliwice and Wodzislaw, the prisoners were put on unheated freight trains and transported to concentration camps in Germany, such as Buchenwald and Dachau, as well as to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Conditions on the trains were appalling, with no food or water. Many prisoners would pass away while in transit.
When the Red Army arrived at the camp, they were shocked and horrified by what they saw: piles of dead bodies, and prisoners who looked like skeletons living in overcrowded disease-ridden barracks that were encrusted with excrement. Red Army General Vasily Petrenko, commander of the 107th Infantry Division, remarked, "I, who saw people dying every day, was shocked by the Nazis' indescribable hatred toward the inmates who had turned into living skeletons. I read about the Nazis' treatment of Jews in various leaflets, but there was nothing about the Nazis' treatment of women, children, and old men. It was in Auschwitz that I found out about the fate of the Jews."
While the liberation of Auschwitz did not initially receive the same international attention as the liberation of the Majdanek concentration camp, the first major Nazi extermination camp liberated during the war, Auschwitz would become a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust.
It is estimated that at least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of those, at least 1.1 million were murdered, including approximately one million Jews, approximately 74,000 Poles, approximately 21,000 Roma and approximately 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.
In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United Nations designated 27 January as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate and memorialize the tragedy of the Holocaust and the deaths of six million Jews and millions more.