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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
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Liberation & Revenge


January 1945 to 1963

Auschwitz prisoners

Auschwitz prisoners are liberated by Russian forces

"I realized that they were prisoners and not workers so I called out, "You are free, come out!"
– Vasily Gromadsky, Russian officer, 60th Army, liberating Auschwitz

As the Soviet army approached and the end of the war came closer the vast majority of Auschwitz prisoners were marched west by the Nazis, into Germany. Those few thousand remaining were thought too ill to travel, and were left behind to be shot by the SS. In the confusion that followed the abandonment of the camp, the SS left them alive. The prisoners were found by Soviet forces when they liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.

Vasily Gromadsky, a Russian officer with the 60th Army liberating Auschwitz recalls what happened.

"They [the prisoners] began rushing towards us, in a big crowd. They were weeping, embracing us and kissing us. I felt a grievance on behalf of mankind that these fascists had made such a mockery of us. It roused me and all the soldiers to go and quickly destroy them and send them to hell."

“We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies, and chocolate. Being so alone a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human worth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that.”

– Eva Mozes Kor, age 10, child survivor of Auschwitz


Child survivors of Auschwitz, wearing adult-size prisoner jackets. Eva Mosez Kor (right) and her sister

Eva Mozes Kor, age 10, was one of several hundred children, many of them twins, who were left behind. She and her twin sister Miriam had been subjects in Dr. Josef Mengele’s medical experiments. She describes what it was like to see the liberating Russians.

In the days before the Russians arrived at Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, and his men tried to conceal the mass murders that had taken place at the camp. Files were removed or destroyed and gas chambers blown up, but their rushed efforts could not hide from the Russians and the world the fact that terrible crimes had been committed here.

Zyklon B warning label

Soldier raising the Russian flag on the reichstag in Berlin, April 30, 1945

Within 84 days of liberating Auschwitz, Soviet forces were in Berlin. With Russian soldiers only blocks away, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, in his fuehrer-bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery.

Shortly before the end of the war, Commandant Höss was told by his boss Heinrich Himmler to disappear into the navy to avoid capture. Höss disguised himself as a petty officer and hid among the sailors at the German navy base on the holiday island of Sylt. His disguise worked perfectly. Höss was briefly detained by the British and then released to work on a farm as a field hand. Himmler, however, was captured. But he committed suicide before he could be put on trial.

As the Allies learned more about the severity of the Nazis’ crimes at Auschwitz, they realized that Rudolf Höss was still alive and hiding in Germany. British Intelligence discovered Höss’s wife and family living north of Hanover. She was arrested and interrogated. At first she said her husband was dead, but at the threat of having her son turned over to the Russians, she revealed her husband’s whereabouts, and British soldiers captured him on the farm where he was hiding. Höss was incarcerated locally and then moved to Nuremberg as part of the war crimes trial.

Whitney Harris, a member of the prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials, recalls what Rudolf Höss was like.

“He struck me as a normal person, that was the horrible thing about it. He was cool, objective, matter of fact. ‘This is my war duty. I did my war duty.’ It was like I had to go out and cut down so many trees. So I went out and took my saw and cut the trees down. He was just acting like a normal, unimportant individual.

“He simply answered the questions, and as far as I could tell, told what happened without emotion. Without emotion. Without a sense of guilt. Not in the slightest apologetic, not in the remotest degree was he apologetic. In a sense, I think he showed a certain pride in accomplishment.”

– Whitney Harris, Member of the prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials


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