It was the silence, the smell of ashes and the boundless surrounding expanse that struck Soviet soldier Ivan Martynushkin when his unit arrived in January 1945 to liberate the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
As they entered the camp for the first time, the full horror of the Nazis’ crimes there were yet to emerge.
“Only the highest-ranking officers of the General Staff had perhaps heard of the camp,” recalled Martynushkin of his arrival to the site where at least 1.1 million people were killed between 1940 and 1945 — nearly 90 percent of them Jews. “We knew nothing.”
But Martynushkin and his comrades soon learned.
After scouring the camp in search of a potential Nazi ambush, Martynushkin and his fellow soldiers “noticed people behind barbed wire”.
“It was hard to watch them. I remember their faces, especially their eyes which betrayed their ordeal,” he said
The unit found roughly 7,000 prisoners left behind in Auschwitz by fleeing Nazis — those too weak or sick to walk. They also discovered about 600 corpses.
Ten days earlier, the Nazis had evacuated 58,000 Auschwitz inmates in sub-zero conditions over hundreds of kilometres towards Loslau (now Wodzislaw Slaski in Poland). Survivors later remembered the “death march” as even worse than what they had endured in the camp.
Prior to that retreat, Nazi units had blown up parts of the camp, but failed to destroy evidence of their genocidal work.
Among items discovered by Martynushkin and other Soviet troops were 370,000 men’s suits, 837,000 women’s garments, and 7.7 tons of human hair, according to Sybille Steinbacher, a history professor at the University of Vienna.
– ‘We came to free Poland’ –
January 27, 1945 — now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day — had begun as a normal day for the 21-year-old Martynushkin and his company, until the order was given to move towards the Polish town of Oswiecim, where Nazis had set up a network of concentration camps.
That led to the machine gun commander and his peers taking Auschwitz, liberating its survivors and discovering the nightmarish crimes that had been committed in the camp.
But despite that historic event, the war continued for Martynushkin’s unit, which participated in the Red Army’s Vistula-Oder offensive that captured much of Poland, and struck deep within the borders of the Third Reich.
When the end of the war finally arrived, Martynushkin learned of it in a Czech hospital, after being wounded twice.
He returned to Auschwitz several times after the war — in 2010 travelling aboard Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plane — yet Martynushkin says he and his fellow Soviet comrades have not been hailed as heroes.
Former Soviet satellite countries — including Poland and Baltic states — insist that Red Army troops that liberated Eastern European from Nazi totalitarianism merely replaced that with a Soviet form.
Even with Eastern European nations living freely as democratic states, the anti-Soviet sentiment continues to influence how history is interpreted — including the liberation of Auschwitz.
On the 65th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, Martynushkin recalls, former European Parliament president, Jerzy Buzek, “compared us to occupation troops, but we came to free Poland.”
On January 21 Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna sparked controversy with the claim Auschwitz was liberated by Ukrainians — a statement that angered Martynushkin.
“I do not want to answer. In fact, I am ashamed for him,” said Martynushkin who, nevertheless plans to participate in the commemoration marking the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation on January 27.