When they were young, they fought the Nazis, and then bore witness to the extreme depravity of which human beings are capable. Now in or nearing their 80s and 90s, the Allied soldiers who liberated the concentration camps of Europe are recounting their memories of the horrors. Approaching the Jan. 27 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, many of those still living feel urgency to testify about what they encountered.
Anatoly Shapiro, 92, has never forgotten what he saw at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. That was the day Shapiro, who says he is the first Russian officer to enter the infamous concentration camp, led his battalion to liberate it.
In an interview Saturday in his apartment in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, where he sits alongside his wife, Vita, his tall, thin form is upright and his eyes are clear as he describes, through a translator, the things he says he still sees in nightmares 60 years later.
“We saw German soldiers, and when we opened the gate, we saw one barrack, then the next, on and on for a hundred barracks,” he recalled.
“When I saw the people, it was skin and bones. They had no shoes, and it was freezing. They couldn’t even turn their heads, they stood like dead people.”
“I told them, ‘The Russian army liberates you!’ They couldn’t understand. Some few who could touched our arms and said, ‘Is it true? Is it real?’ “
As a commanding officer, his task was to direct his men. Half his battalion — originally 900 men — had died in battle. But nothing they had endured had prepared them for what they found inside Auschwitz.
His men pleaded with him to let them leave.
“The general told me, ‘Have the soldiers go from barrack to barrack. Let them see what happened to the people,’ ” he recalled.
He ordered them to accompany him, and they went from barrack to barrack. He remembers, “In German, it said, ‘damas,’ — women. When I opened the barrack, I saw blood, dead people, and in between them, women still alive and naked.
“It stank; you couldn’t stay a second. No one took the dead to a grave. It was unbelievable. The soldiers from my battalion asked me, ‘Let us go. We can’t stay. This is unbelievable.’
“We went to the barracks for men; it was the same as the barracks for the women.
“People in the barracks were naked, or [had] just thin clothes, no shoes, in the freezing cold; it was January. Only a few people could talk; they didn’t have energy. But a few people were able to talk, so slowly. [They told us] once a day they got a little water, no bread, no anything. If someone died, they took the clothes, to get a little warmth, anywhere. They died from hunger and cold.
“I was shocked, devastated.”
Shapiro remembers two barracks for children.
“Outside it said, ‘kinder.’ Inside one, there were only two children alive; all the others had been killed in gas chambers, or were in the ‘hospital’ where the Nazis performed medical experiments on them. When we went in, the children were screaming, ‘We are not Jews!’ “
It turned out that they really were Jewish children and were afraid they were about to be taken to the gas chambers.
He remembers the Russian Red Cross trying to feed the people. “Immediately they started cooking chicken soup, vegetable soup, but the people couldn’t eat because their stomachs were like” — instead of using words, he shows his clenched fist.
After the Red Cross had removed survivors, Shapiro continues, he directed his soldiers to begin cleaning the barracks to prevent disease from spreading.
Because of the repression of Judaism in the former Soviet Union, Shapiro says he did not know how many Jews the Nazis had killed until he learned that the figure was 6 million when he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1992.
Shapiro has been asked to speak after the president of Poland at the Jan. 27 ceremony in Krakow commemorating the liberation. As it turns out, he cannot be at the ceremony, but he feels it is crucial to speak about what he saw so that future generations will remember. He is particularly gratified to be able to talk about what he saw because he was not able to do so in the former Soviet Union.
“If I had spoken of what I saw, I would have been sent to jail,” he said. “Today, I never forget what happened in Auschwitz and in the war to our 6 million, and to all [those who died at the hands of the Nazis].”
Auschwitz was one of the first camps that the Allies reached, so the anniversary of its liberation prompts reflection by the liberators of other camps as well.
Marvin Josephs, 81, of Phoenix, helped liberate Ohrdruf and Buchenwald in Germany. As a master sergeant with Ace Corps headquarters, 3rd Army, Josephs’ unit entered Buchenwald on April 12, 1945, with a military chaplain, Rabbi Herschel Schachter.
“Rabbi Schachter announced with a bullhorn, ‘You’re free,’ and the survivors “came and tried to kiss his boots,” Josephs said. “They were emaciated, starving.”
One man in particular, who said he had been a professor at the University of Prague, showed the camp to Josephs, the rabbi, and several other American soldiers. The tour included the crematoria and the home of the commandant and his wife, Ilse Koch, who brutality earned her the nickname “Beast of Buchenwald.”
“It was so terrible; it was hard for the mind to absorb it.”
Shortly after Josephs’ unit arrived, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered the entire U.S. 4th Armored Division to tour Buchenwald so they could see the Nazis’ brutality.
“He didn’t want people to ever deny what happened,” Josephs said.
Eugene Cohen, 89, of Pittsburgh served under Gen. George Patton as chief investigating officer of Mauthausen, a conglomeration of concentration camps including Gusen, in Austria.
He supervised an investigating team of 13 men, including six interpreters and several photographers whose documentation was later used to convict Nazi war criminals, including Franz Ziereis, at the Nuremberg Trials.
He was among the first officers to enter Mauthausen in May 1945.
Cohen recalls that he and his men posted signs that read, “Maj. Eugene Cohen is here to investigate crimes against humanity.”
“When the Jewish people saw the name Cohen, they came rushing to me,” he recalled, tears in his voice.
Day after day, he and his men took depositions. His many indelible memories include the time, several days after he had begun his work, when his chief interpreter, Jack Nowitz, summoned him to hear a man’s deposition.
“I saw a man sitting there and Jackie said, ‘This man sitting before you was to die two weeks after we came to liberate the camp.’
“The Germans kept these things called tote books, in which it was marked down, who was to die on such and such a day. Here was a man who was to die, and he was living because we were there. This man came crying to me, and I cried with him.”
Cohen said he felt a kinship with the survivors as fellow Jews, and a unique sense of purpose as a Jewish soldier documenting the atrocities.
“Of course, being of the Jewish faith, we did the best we could to get as much evidence as we could,” he said.
At the Nuremberg trials, there were more war criminals charged from Mauthausen — based at least in part on the depositions he and his men gathered — than there were from some of the larger concentration camps. As recently as 2001, the FBI gained access to Cohen’s personal records to gather evidence to support the deportation of a Nazi war criminal.
“We looked him up, and sure enough, he was there in my report,” Cohen said.
“We’re dying off now; there are only a few who witnessed what took place,” he said. “The most important thing is never to forget.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.