The last days of hell: Survivors give account into the final hours at Auschwitz-Birkenau

On July 11, 1944, Winston Churchill was shown evidence provided by four escapees from Auschwitz of the mass murder of Jews at the extermination camp.

For two years, the Nazis had managed to keep the gas chambers in Auschwitz, southern Poland, a secret.

Churchill wrote to his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden: ‘There is no doubt this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world . . . all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death.’

The complex at Auschwitz was the principal Nazi extermination camp in World War II, covering at least 15 square miles.

Of the 67,000 inmates who remain at Auschwitz, about 56,000 are to be led away. The rest, too sick to move, will be left behind to die. Child survivors are pictured behind a barbed wire fence on the day the camp was liberated in January 1945

Of the 67,000 inmates who remain at Auschwitz, about 56,000 are to be led away. The rest, too sick to move, will be left behind to die. Child survivors are pictured behind a barbed wire fence on the day the camp was liberated in January 1945

Of the 67,000 inmates who remain at Auschwitz, about 56,000 are to be led away. The rest, too sick to move, will be left behind to die. Child survivors are pictured behind a barbed wire fence on the day the camp was liberated in January 1945

The site was chosen for the camp because the main railway lines from Germany and Poland passed through the area. Prisoners deported there had to pay their own rail fare, calculated by kilometres travelled.

Auschwitz contained five crematoria, made and patented by German engineering company Töpf and Sons, who had worked out they could dispose of 4,756 corpses a day.

The crematoria contained gas chambers, mortuaries and changing rooms. These had numbered hooks, suggesting the prisoners would return to collect their belongings.

By the summer of 1944, the German army was retreating across Western Europe and, crucially for the inmates of Auschwitz, the Soviets were advancing towards Poland. Panic had set in among the SS guards, who feared for their lives at the hands of the ruthless Red Army when it arrived.

The end was in sight for the few survivors of one of humanity’s most vile atrocities…

January 5, 1945

Snow is lying thickly on the ground across the Auschwitz complex. Temperatures are well below freezing. 

The Soviet Red Army is only a few miles away. Many SS officers and their families have already left, with cases full of valuables plundered from murdered inmates.

January 6

The prisoners in the women’s camp are ordered out of their barracks to watch a hanging. 

The SS have identified four women working as slave labourers at the nearby IG Farben industrial plant as the suppliers of explosives used in an attack on the guards. 

Just before a noose is put round her neck, one of the women, Ala Gertner, calls out: ‘You’ll pay for this! I shall die now, but your turn will come soon!’

Holocaust survivors Miriam Ziegler, Paula Lebovics, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor are pictured above with the original image of them as children taken at Auschwitz in 1945. They are seen above in this 2015 photo

Holocaust survivors Miriam Ziegler, Paula Lebovics, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor are pictured above with the original image of them as children taken at Auschwitz in 1945. They are seen above in this 2015 photo

Holocaust survivors Miriam Ziegler, Paula Lebovics, Gabor Hirsch and Eva Kor are pictured above with the original image of them as children taken at Auschwitz in 1945. They are seen above in this 2015 photo

January 17

The brutal Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele, known as ‘The Angel of Death’, flees Auschwitz, taking with him all the evidence of his experiments on the prisoners, most of them children. 

His sadistic procedures included injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects in a bid to change their colour, sewing twin boys together back to back in a crude attempt to create conjoined twins, and removing organs without anaesthetic.

January 18

Columns of smoke rise over Auschwitz as the SS frantically burn death certificates, files and other written evidence of their crimes in huge bonfires. 

Today a mass evacuation of the camp will begin; prisoners well enough to march will be taken to other camps further west.

Of the 67,000 inmates who remain at Auschwitz, about 56,000 are to be led away. 

The rest, too sick to move, will be left behind to die. At midnight, the inmates are lined up. 

‘A cold wind blew in our faces. We talked about nothing but where they were taking us and what they intended to do with us,’ said Filip Müller, a survivor of three years in the camp.

These ‘death marches’ are being replicated in camps all over Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria. 

As the Soviet troops explored the camp, they discovered 648 corpses, 600 prisoners in the slave labour camp and about 7,000 in the main camp. Concentration camp prisoners are pictured being led through the gate in 1945

As the Soviet troops explored the camp, they discovered 648 corpses, 600 prisoners in the slave labour camp and about 7,000 in the main camp. Concentration camp prisoners are pictured being led through the gate in 1945

As the Soviet troops explored the camp, they discovered 648 corpses, 600 prisoners in the slave labour camp and about 7,000 in the main camp. Concentration camp prisoners are pictured being led through the gate in 1945

The prisoners are escorted by SS guards desperate to avoid advancing Soviet troops. 

They have heard guards from Majdanek extermination camp have been executed as war criminals.

Some have got rid of their SS uniforms and are dressed in the rags of their victims. 

As many as 250,000 people will die on the roads before the end of the war.

January 19

Those on the death marches from Auschwitz survive by eating the snow on the shoulders of the people in front of them; if they bend down to pick up the slush they risk being shot.

As the prisoners march slowly west through Poland, SS Lieutenant Colonel Rudolf Hoess is heading in the opposite direction.

Hoess had been given the task of building Auschwitz by Himmler and had been the camp’s brutal commandant, living in luxury with his wife and five children just 100 yards from the camp grounds.

He is driving back to Auschwitz, past what he describes as ‘stumbling columns of corpses’, to make sure all evidence linking him to the genocide has been destroyed. 

But Hoess will be forced to turn his car around as the Russians advance towards him. 

In 1946, he will be captured and a year later hanged at Auschwitz.

The SS have identified four women working as slave labourers at the nearby IG Farben industrial plant as the suppliers of explosives used in an attack on the guards. Women prisoners are pictured working as slaves at Auschwitz in 1941

The SS have identified four women working as slave labourers at the nearby IG Farben industrial plant as the suppliers of explosives used in an attack on the guards. Women prisoners are pictured working as slaves at Auschwitz in 1941

The SS have identified four women working as slave labourers at the nearby IG Farben industrial plant as the suppliers of explosives used in an attack on the guards. Women prisoners are pictured working as slaves at Auschwitz in 1941

January 22

Twenty-six-year-old Primo Levi, who arrived in Auschwitz in February 1944 as part of a transport of Jews from Italy, has spent the past 11 days in the infirmary suffering from scarlet fever.

But he feels well enough to explore the camp with a French schoolteacher named Charles. Emboldened by the shrinking numbers of guards, they venture into the SS quarters.

They find bowls full of half-frozen soup, mugs of beer and a chessboard left mid-game. 

Primo and Charles load up with medicines, vodka, newspapers and eiderdowns to take back to the infirmary.

Half an hour later, a unit of SS return to the quarters and find 18 French Jews in the SS dining hall. They are all shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the snow.

January 23

Soviet planes attack the IG Farben plant nearby, but stray bombs land on a British POW camp called E715 that is part of the Auschwitz complex.

Its 230 POWs have not been part of the Auschwitz death march and are hiding in air raid shelters.

For the past few weeks, they have watched injured German soldiers walk past their camp and are convinced victory is imminent; they are desperate to survive what may be the last few weeks of the war. 

Just before daybreak the bombing ends and the German guards order the British POWs to assemble at the main gate of the camp.

Twenty-five-year-old Arthur Dodd from Cheshire, a prisoner at Auschwitz for 14 months, makes his way through the snow. During his time at the camp his weight has dropped from 10st to 6st.

Auschwitz contained five crematoria, made and patented by German engineering company Töpf and Sons, who had worked out they could dispose of 4,756 corpses a day. The crematoria contained gas chambers, mortuaries and changing rooms

Auschwitz contained five crematoria, made and patented by German engineering company Töpf and Sons, who had worked out they could dispose of 4,756 corpses a day. The crematoria contained gas chambers, mortuaries and changing rooms

Auschwitz contained five crematoria, made and patented by German engineering company Töpf and Sons, who had worked out they could dispose of 4,756 corpses a day. The crematoria contained gas chambers, mortuaries and changing rooms

When Arthur reaches the camp gates he is amazed to find them wide open. A senior German officer tells the POWs they are free to leave and can head east to meet the Soviets or west towards the Americans and British.

Arthur fears the Russians and so decides he would rather take the longer route west.

Only four soldiers opt to walk towards the Russian lines. Arthur hears later that they were mown down by Russian tanks.

Inmates employed at Auschwitz’s Identification Service have been instructed by the SS to destroy the thousands of negatives of prisoners’ ID photographs. 

The photos were intended to be a way to identify prisoners if they escaped, but their rapid emaciation made these images useless.

Two inmates, Wilhelm Brasse and Bronislaw Jureczek, keen to preserve evidence of the atrocities at Auschwitz, pull more than 40,000 negatives from the flames.

January 25

The SS sentries have been removed from the watchtowers at Auschwitz and most of the guards have fled, but the killings don’t stop. 

In one sick-bay the SS shoot 350 Jewish patients in their beds. Since Arthur Dodd and the rest of the British POWs from E715 left Auschwitz, they have walked more than 50 miles, often treading on bodies half covered in snow.

Arthur is at the rear and regularly has to stop to persuade his fellow soldiers to keep walking. Some give up and die.

The men are all beginning to suffer from frostbite. Every time Arthur closes his eyes, his eyelids freeze. A sergeant trots up and down the line, encouraging the men with promises of food and shelter at the end of the day.

Many weeks later, Arthur finally makes it to Regensburg, south-east Germany, where he is liberated by American troops.

On July 11, 1944, Winston Churchill was shown evidence provided by four escapees from Auschwitz of the mass murder of Jews at the extermination camp. For two years, the Nazis had managed to keep the gas chambers in Auschwitz, southern Poland, a secret

On July 11, 1944, Winston Churchill was shown evidence provided by four escapees from Auschwitz of the mass murder of Jews at the extermination camp. For two years, the Nazis had managed to keep the gas chambers in Auschwitz, southern Poland, a secret

On July 11, 1944, Winston Churchill was shown evidence provided by four escapees from Auschwitz of the mass murder of Jews at the extermination camp. For two years, the Nazis had managed to keep the gas chambers in Auschwitz, southern Poland, a secret

January 27, 8am

In Auschwitz town, Red Army soldiers are fighting pitched battles with the retreating German troops. 

Much of the town was built for the 3,000 SS guards and their families. A total of 231 Soviet soldiers die liberating Auschwitz town and the camps.

3pm

A unit of Red Army soldiers arrives at the gates of Auschwitz and slowly makes its way inside.

Ten-year-old Eva Kor and her twin sister, Miriam, are lying in their bunks. For the past nine months the girls have been subject to inhuman experiments by Dr Mengele who has killed about 1,500 pairs of twins in two years.

Eva and Miriam fought to stay alive for each other because they know that, if one dies, the other will be surplus to requirements.

The girls hear shouts of ‘We’re free! We’re free!’, and they run to the door of the barracks but can’t see anything in the snow.

It takes a few moments before they can spot Soviet soldiers in white camouflage. 

The girls, dressed in rags and covered in lice, run up to the soldiers who give them biscuits and chocolate.

It is the hugs the twins receive from the soldiers that are more precious. 

Eva recalled: ‘A hug meant more than anyone could imagine. We were not only starved of food but of human kindness.’

Primo Levi and his friend, Charles, are on their way to a communal grave, carrying a stretcher containing the body of a man who died in the night, when they see four Soviet soldiers on horseback — ‘Four messengers of peace, with rough and boyish faces beneath their heavy fur hats’.

Ten-year-old Paula Lebovics watches the Soviet soldiers and thinks they look ‘tattered and worn and beaten up’ and not smart like the Germans.

One comes over and picks Paula up, rocks her in his arms and weeps. ‘You mean somebody cares about me?’ Paula thinks.

The site was chosen for the camp because the main railway lines from Germany and Poland passed through the area. Prisoners deported there had to pay their own rail fare, calculated by kilometres travelled. They are pictured being separated in 1944

The site was chosen for the camp because the main railway lines from Germany and Poland passed through the area. Prisoners deported there had to pay their own rail fare, calculated by kilometres travelled. They are pictured being separated in 1944

The site was chosen for the camp because the main railway lines from Germany and Poland passed through the area. Prisoners deported there had to pay their own rail fare, calculated by kilometres travelled. They are pictured being separated in 1944

5pm

Red Army Lieutenant Ivan Martynushkin is making his way through the camp. He is struck by how calm it is and by the gratitude in the eyes of the prisoners.

Several of the emaciated prisoners have made some simple red flags to show their thanks to their liberators.

Although he feels compassion, Ivan is not overwhelmed by what he sees. In the past year he has witnessed many horrors in camps, villages and towns. Auschwitz is just the latest atrocity.

Smoke is coming from 29 warehouses full of prisoners’ personal effects that the SS set alight before they fled.

The inmates have nicknamed the warehouses ‘Canada’ — a place they think of as a land of plenty.

Inside, the soldiers find piles of children’s clothing, more than 300,000 women’s coats and dresses, 44,000 pairs of shoes, and seven tons of human hair ready to be made into work clothes and to line the boots of U-Boat crews.

Over the past few years, the Reichsbank has been sent the prisoners’ confiscated money, household goods went to German settlers in Poland, and Luftwaffe pilots received wristwatches.

6pm

Captain Alexander Vorontsov, a film cameraman accompanying the Soviet troops, makes his way through the camp, appalled at what he sees.

He enters the barracks, some without roofs, and tries to talk to the prisoners. They look like ‘skeletons clad in skin, their eyes staring blankly’. 

The barracks are dark and he has no lights, so Alexander doesn’t film, but instead writes down what they tell him.

Alexander films survivors, the dead and dying in the next few days. He also photographs Eva and Miriam Kor and Paula Lebovics standing at the wire fence.

Primo Levi, who in 1947 published one of the greatest Holocaust memoirs, If This Is A Man, never recovered from the trauma of his experiences in the camp

Primo Levi, who in 1947 published one of the greatest Holocaust memoirs, If This Is A Man, never recovered from the trauma of his experiences in the camp

Primo Levi, who in 1947 published one of the greatest Holocaust memoirs, If This Is A Man, never recovered from the trauma of his experiences in the camp

Visiting Auschwitz years later, Eva said: ‘We couldn’t believe we really were free, so we kept walking out the gate and back in again. To do that without being shot . . . was such a feeling of freedom.’

11pm

In the dark of the infirmary, Primo Levi cannot sleep. 

Although he knows he has survived the terrors of Auschwitz, he is overcome with a feeling of pain: ‘The pain of exile, of my distant home, of loneliness, of friends lost, of youth lost and of the host of corpses all around.’

Aftermath

As the Soviet troops explored the camp, they discovered 648 corpses, 600 prisoners in the slave labour camp and about 7,000 in the main camp. 

It is impossible to know exactly how many died, but historian Laurence Rees writes: ‘The current estimate is that of the 1.3 million people sent to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died. A staggering one million were Jews.’

The Soviets and Red Cross set up field hospitals to care for the sick and dying. Their staff were assisted by many former inmates who were doctors and nurses.

Many patients died as a result of their imprisonment, and some may have died from eating too much food too soon.

News of Auschwitz was slow to reach the outside world. Despite repeated requests by the Foreign Office for information about the camp, it was only in April 1945 that the British were sent a brief telegram by the Russians stating that ‘more than four million citizens of various European countries were destroyed by the Germans’.

The British thought this figure had to be a mistake — it could not be the number of deaths from a single camp.

Primo Levi, who in 1947 published one of the greatest Holocaust memoirs, If This Is A Man, never recovered from the trauma of his experiences in the camp.

In 1987, aged 67, he fell from the third-floor landing of his apartment building in Turin, Italy, and died. A coroner later ruled the cause of death as suicide.

The Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said of him: ‘Primo Levi died at Auschwitz 40 years later.’

Hitler’s Last Day: Minute By Minute by Jonathan Mayo and Emma Craigie is published by Short Books, £8.99.

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