Evgeny Kovalev was captured by the Nazis during a partisan reconnaissance mission in 1943. Loaded on a freight train, he had no idea he was being taken to Auschwitz and was unaware of the hell that awaited him there. Now, 75 years after the Red Army liberated the infamous extermination camp in January 1945, Kovalev remembers his days of horror.
“We were crammed into these trains and sent somewhere. It was a very long journey, at least a day and night.” he says. The train carrying Kovalev and other Soviet prisoners eventually arrived at Oswiecim station, just minutes from Auschwitz camp – but they still had no way of knowing where they really were.
Gates of Hell
“Everything was lit, bright lamps all over the field. So bright that you could see a needle in the grass… We had no idea what a concentration camp was. We didn’t know anything.”
As soon as we arrived, remember, women and young children were separated and grouped together on one side. Kovalev himself was only 14 years old, but he was sent the other way and joined a row of other prisoners. They were guarded by dogs and SS soldiers armed with machine guns.
They marched us to the health inspection building, a large barracks. Inside, they cut everyone’s hair, sprayed water on it, put ointment on our skin. Then they sent us to cold showers. On the way out, they tattooed the numbers on our hands.
Kovalev was assigned to block 32 in the ‘Kanada’ section, where the prisoners worked in the warehouses, unloading luggage and sorting the personal belongings of other prisoners as they arrived on the trains.
“People were arriving from Russia, Hungary… they were bringing prisoners from all over,” says Kovalev. “The task was to unload the trains, undress the people, take everything from them and take them to the crematorium.”
“They drove a lot of people inside, locked all the doors and turned on the gas. Within 5-7 minutes, everyone was dead.”
Working to survive
The Sonderkommando unit, composed mainly of Jews, was then forced to burn the corpses and remove the ashes, explains Kovalev. Constantly fearing for their lives, the prisoners took the ashes out to bury them in the fields or threw them into the Vistula River. Another unit was charged with sorting precious remains such as jewels and gold teeth.
Kovalev himself was assigned to a team that built sheds for storing vegetables. “I dug basements, built walls and poured cement. We worked like this for a long time.” he said.
While being able to do manual labor significantly increased a prisoner’s chances of survival, the threat of death was always in the air. Every week, Kovalev recalls, there was a selection process conducted by camp chief doctor Josef Mengele, where prisoners were stripped naked near the furnaces. “I survived the selection three times,” he said.
After a long journey through Poland, fighting the Germans in every town and village along the way, the Red Army soldiers finally reached Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. “You can probably imagine how we felt when we were rescued,” says Kovalev. “We were crying tears of joy.”
My most vivid memory is when the Soviet troops came and freed us… I don’t know how to explain it, I was so excited… we never expected to survive.
Years later, in a forum in Krakow, Kovalev was surprised to hear people say that it was the American troops who liberated Auschwitz. He was grateful when the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwasniewski, stepped forward and rightly thanked the Soviet army.
Wladyslaw Osik, a Polish survivor of Auschwitz, was equally angry at the efforts to rewrite and belittle the role of the Red Army in history. “I have never questioned the merits of these [Soviet] soldiers. I have always been grateful to them – and the representatives of Russia should attend the celebrations in Warsaw,” he added.
“People tell us there was no liberation… but if there hadn’t been a Red Army, I wouldn’t be here now,” he recalled.
Polish President Andrzej Duda failed to extend an invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the national commemorative ceremony at Auschwitz on the occasion – the two countries are involved in a diplomatic confrontation, both accusing each other of historical revisionism.
For Osik, excluding Russia from these events is a “huge mistake”. but acknowledges that this climate has developed over the years. Yet, for him, the political quarrels of today are not what matters most.
“My mother was returned from Oswiecim in Warsaw. This is all I know,” he concludes.