David Dushman

One of the last surviving liberators of Auschwitz – who also witnessed Munich attack on Israeli athletes


PPF11B David Dushmann, a 91-year-old Russian Jew living in Munich, who in 1945 liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp with a tank of the Red Army. Later, he successfully worked as a fencer and over 30 years as a fencing nationalist of the Soviet Union. The picture shows him with his military and sports medals.

He was just 21 but already a Red Army veteran who had fought at Stalingrad and Kursk, two of the Eastern Front’s most ferocious battles. But when David Dushman, who has died aged 98, drove his T-34 tank through the electric barbed-wire fence of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945, what he saw was a tableau from hell that shocked him to the core.

Many years later, on the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 2015, Dushman would recall that unforgettable scene in an interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Everywhere there were skeletons,” he said. “They stumbled from the barracks, sat and lay among the dead. Only eyes, only eyes, very narrow. It was horrifying.”

Like his fellow soldiers, Dushman didn’t really know about Auschwitz until that fateful day. He was unaware that since its inception in 1940, well over 1 million people had been sent to their deaths there. By the time the Red Army arrived, the camp had been largely cleared out by the Nazis with 60,000 inmates forced to go on what for many would turn out to be a death march to other camps.

The 7,000 who were left when Dushman and his comrades arrived were those deemed too weak or too ill for the march: the Nazis had meant to kill them but didn’t have time to do it before they, themselves fled.

Dushman’s job had been to open the way for the ground troops and, having done that, he drove on, “to keep chasing the Fascists”, as he would put it, but not before he threw all his canned food to those living skeletons. It would be up to his comrades of the 322nd Rifle Division to deal with those terrified beings, trying to earn their trust and learning to feed their emaciated bodies without killing them.

By the end of the war Dushman had been wounded three times and was one of just 69 survivors in his 12,000-strong division, the recipient of over 40 decorations, including the Order of the Patriotic War. He was also, in spite of his young age, a wreck of a man who had to have part of his lung removed and could hardly walk without getting out of breath.

David Dushman was born in what was at the time the free city of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland) but — “for political reasons” — his place of birth was given as Minsk. His parents were both Jewish: his father Alexander, was a military doctor, his mother Bonislava, a paediatrician. The family led a comfortable life, first in Minsk and then Moscow where Alexander was appointed head of the medical centre at the State Institute for Sport. From an early age David showed an aptitude for fencing, which he much preferred to school studies. It all came crashing down in 1938 when Alexander was caught up in one of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s infamous purges. Being a multi-decorated hero of the Revolution didn’t save him and he was banished to a Siberian gulag where he would remain until his death ten years later. But his father’s fate didn’t stop 18-year-old Dushman from joining the Red Army as a volunteer to stop the Nazis’ advance in 1941.

At the end of the war, with the resilience that had helped him survive, Dushman slowly started to rebuild his broken body, little by little. He also went back to university to study medicine, partly because his mother wanted him to continue the family tradition. As soon as his body recovered, he returned to his true love, fencing, and by 1951 he was the Soviet Union’s highest-ranking fencer.

But soon it became clear that his greatest talent was coaching: he trained the Soviet women’s team from 1952 to 1988 and they did him proud by winning a gold medal in the foil competition at the 1960 Rome Olympics for the first time ever.

The 1972 Munich Olympics were particularly successful for his team, who gained two golds, two silvers and three bronzes. However, that medal haul was overshadowed by the Black September terrorist attack that cost 11 Israeli athletes their lives. The Soviet contingent was housed just across from the Israelis and, for the second time in his life Dushman witnessed atrocities against his fellow Jews.

“We heard shots and the buzz of helicopters above us,” he would later recall. “We were all outraged.” It was particularly shocking for Dushman who strongly believed that sport should be an instrument of peace. He reiterated that message during a visit to the Lausanne International Olympic Committee headquarters in 2015.

“I urge the IOC to do everything they can to use sport as a way to spread peace and reconciliation around the world. War is something that should never happen again, “ he said.

The IOC head Thomas Bach, who had invited him to Lausanne, had never forgotten the friendliness and support Dushman had showed him when he was a junior fencer with the West German team in 1970. To this day Bach remembers the “deep human gesture” from a Jew who had experienced the horrors of the Second World War and Auschwitz.

But Dushman never felt any hate against the Germans, often pointing out that he had fought against Fascism, not the German people. In the early 1990s he briefly lived in Austria before moving to Munich in 1996. Besides keeping up his fencing practice, he started visiting German schools to talk about his encounter with the Holocaust.

“Every witness to history who leaves us is a loss, but parting with David Dushman is particularly painful,” said Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Munich Jewish community. “He was on the front line when the Nazi murder machine was smashed in 1945”.

Dushman married Zoja Petrova in 1956; she predeceased him in 2011 and their only son Sergei died in 2017 of lung cancer. Dushman is survived by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.


David Dushman: born April 1, 1923. Died June 4, 2021

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