HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The Soviet 322nd Rifles liberate the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland. Auschwitz opened in 1940 and became the most infamous of all the concentration camps.
First used to house political prisoners, Auschwitz II-Birkenau would become one of the major answers to "the Jewish problem." From 1942 until 1944 "cattle cars" hauled Jews, Romanis, gypsies, homosexuals, Russian prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, Poles and other people deemed "undesirables" from all over Nazi-controlled territory into the "Gates of Death." These prisoners' belongings would be taken from them, they were stripped naked and ordered into gas chambers disguised as showers were they would be executed by a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon-B. After about twenty minutes passed, the corpses would be hauled into an incineration chamber and cremated. Day and night until late 1944 the corpses burned. In the summer of 1944, prisoner intake so overwhelmed the crematoriums that the Nazis resorted to burning bodies in pits in the open air. That summer, somewhere between ten and twenty thousand people lost their lives each day.
Possibly more than 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz. 1 in 6 Jews killed during the Holocaust died there.
Auschwitz, and camps like it were operated by the Schutzstaffel (SS). One of the most infamous SS officers at Auschwitz was Dr. Josef Mengele, nicknamed "the Angel of Death." He was infamous for the grisly experiments he forced upon his victims, especially twin children. He often infected one twin with a disease simply to compare their conditions before one or both died. He escaped Germany after the war and fled to Argentina where he cheated the hangman's noose, drowning in 1976 during a stroke.
Some of the prisoners at Auschwitz were not immediately killed; they performed slave labor and died of exposure or starvation. One such group was the Sonderkommando, prisoners forced to gather the belongings of incoming inmates and operate the crematoriums. A Sonderkommando took the photo attached to this story showing a group of women being led to a gas chamber. Very few photos from the atrocities at the camp exist because possession of a camera earned an instant death sentence. The man who took the photograph did not survive Auschwitz.
Today the world celebrates January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation. Nearly 300 Holocaust survivors gathered at the Auschwitz museum to observe a ceremony along with world leaders such as Germany's Angela Merkel. Some believe it will be the last major gathering of Holocaust survivors.