On this day: The liberation of Auschwitz

January 27 1945: The beginning of the end of the Holocaust

By Jennifer Lipman, January 27, 2011

The largest of the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz and its sister camp Birkenau have become bywords for the unimaginable horror and evil of the Nazi genocide.

Located in Nazi-occupied Poland, estimates put the total number murdered there at 1.1 million – a tragic majority of the 1.3 million Jews and non-Jews the Nazis deported there and sent through the infamous gates adorned with the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free).

The camp opened in the summer of 1940, initially to hold non-Jewish political prisoners but ultimately as a physical centre for the Nazis to implement the Final Solution.

Soviet troops were marching towards Auschwitz by the beginning of January 1945, but the Nazis attempted to thwart them by sending some 60,000 prisoners on death marches out of the camp, and attempting to destroy some of the crematoria within the camp.

Many of those sent away died of cold, starvation and disease along the way; others were shot by SS guards.

By January 27 just 7,000 people remained in the camp. When the Red Army found them, most were barely alive.

The site is now a museum, dedicated to educating future generations about the brutality that went on within the gates. In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation, the United Nations declared the date an international day of Holocaust memorial.

What the JC: First investigations reveal that the horrors perpetrated there put even those of Maidanek in the shade. Several thousand of completely exhausted prisoners in the last stages of emaciation were rescued by the Russians. When the Maidanek atrocities were exposed to the world, the Germans began to try and hide what was taking place at Oswiecim. They destroyed an electrical machine which was able to kill several hundred victims at once, the bodies then being dropped on to a conveyer belt which carried them to the electric furnace where the bodies were burned and reduced to powder. A mobile plant for slaughtering children was removed by the Nazis, and the gas chambers were reconstructed to make them appear to be garages. Mass graves in the camp were levelled. According to the survivors, the death factory was a great industry with many departments.

See more from the JC archives here.

For more on Holocaust Memorial Day 2011 see our dedicated HMD page

Last updated: 3:36pm, January 27 2011