Seventy-five years ago, Auschwitz was liberated, with Dachau to follow a couple of months later. Here, a Soviet soldier and an American soldier recall the moment they first set eyes on the camps.
The elegantly grayed 94-year-old lives in an apartment in a Philadelphia suburb, a man who answers his emails so quickly that he could be the manager of a small company. But 75 years ago, Don Greenbaum was among the U.S. troops who liberated the Dachau concentration camp. A Purple Heart lies on the table in his living room, the medal received by soldiers who are injured in battle. Greenbaum received his after being struck by German shrapnel in November 1944. Next to it are pictures from the concentration camp in Dachau, images taken by medics of the dead and the emaciated. Greenbaum is careful to keep safe: They are proof that his memories aren’t wrong – that the horrors he saw with his own eyes really did happen.
Greenbaum is a close follower of the news and he has watched as the divide between truth and lies has grown increasingly blurred, as facts are being transformed into myths and conspiracy theories are being reinterpreted as facts. That, too, is a reason why he hasn’t yet tired of telling his story of that terrible day when he marched into the Dachau concentration camp together with other GIs from the 7th U.S. Army. It was April 29, 1945, a Sunday. Nine days later, the war in Europe would be over.
In total, the Nazis established more than 1,000 concentration camps and auxiliary camps along with six extermination camps. One of them has become a symbol for this vast machinery of murder: Auschwitz. January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, has become the most important day in the commemoration of Holocaust victims, no matter where they were imprisoned.
Some victims are still alive, but time is running out. Today, Monday, is the 75 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A few of those who participated in committing the vast crime of the Holocaust are also still alive: the 93-year-old Bruno D., an SS guard at the Stutthof concentration camp, is currently on trial in a court in Hamburg. But along with the victims and the perpetrators, another group is also slowly dying out: those who liberated the concentration camps.
Whereas the perpetrators caused the suffering and the victims were made to endure unspeakable horrors, the liberators have a third perspective, both close and removed at the same time. Not that they were unmoved by what they saw, but because they were neither part of the crimes nor were they the victims of those crimes. Most only spent a few moments in the camps they helped liberate – and they were almost completely unprepared for what they saw.
Western reporters had, to be sure, already visited the liberated Majdanek concentration camp in German-occupied Poland in August 1944 and reported on what they saw on the front pages of American newspapers and magazines. Soviet military newspapers had also written about the camp. But the troops, both American and Soviet, were focused more on fighting the war than on reading about it – and it’s likely that only a very few knew what was in store for them as they approached the camps.
Machinery of Murder
The soldiers belonging to the 100th Infantry Division of the 1st Ukrainian Front, in any case, had advanced from the north across the Vistula River on the evening of Jan. 26, 1945, and had been assigned the task of capturing a factory complex that had developed just outside the Polish town of Oświęcim over the previous four years. The Germans called the town Auschwitz.
At around 9 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 27, a unit reached the auxiliary camp Auschwitz-Monowitz. The soldiers saw emaciated people and dead bodies everywhere. In the entire Auschwitz camp complex, more than 7,000 prisoners were waiting to be set free.
The vastness and the complexity of this evil machinery of murder wasn’t obvious at first sight, with the picture only being completed with the help of witness testimony, court cases and research. The barracks with their wooden bunk beds where the prisoners were forced to sleep, crammed together side-by-side. The ramp where new arrivals were sent to their deaths or to hard labor – a process the Nazis referred to as “Selection.” The gas chambers. The crematoria. The experiments conducted on prisoners by Dr. Josef Mengele. And the factories where prisoners were forced to work.
It was the Red Army that liberated the extermination camp and it was the Russians who suffered the most casualties during the war – a fact that is important to emphasize because the Russians have developed the impression that they are slowly being forgotten.
The victory over Hitler’s Germany continues to influence today’s world order. The tensions that arose during the peace negotiations between the Allies, particularly between the Americans and the Soviet Union, resulted in the Cold War. That stand-off, meanwhile, appeared to come to an end in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its effects are still felt today.
But despite all of the divisions among the Allies – the Soviets, the Americans, the British and the French – that sprung up once the guns of World War II fell silent, a decisively positive development is undeniable. After two world wars in the first half of the 20th century, there hasn’t been another conflict of that size since 1945.
The victory over Nazi Germany was not only the product of political leadership, such as that demonstrated by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill or, despite everything, by the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Rather, it was also the achievement of the simple soldiers who risked their lives day after day, hour after hour.
Here, we present the recollections of two of those soldiers, each of whom participated in the liberation of a different concentration camp. Don Greenbaum of the U.S. was there when Dachau was freed, and the former Red Army soldier Ivan Stepanovich Martynushkin of Moscow helped liberate Auschwitz.
Giving their voices a platform one more time before they fall silent forever isn’t just an expression of appreciation for what they did, but it is also a contribution to telling the true story. What did they see? What is memory? It is no coincidence that both of them speak about the stench that they encountered: Memories, after all, are tightly connected with such sensory experiences.
Both of the men were young soldiers at the time, but had plenty of fighting experience. Both had displayed great courage in the face of death, and both of them had experienced great fear – but both also describe as singular and unforgettable the scenes they were forced to see at the liberation of the two camps. They were witness to horrors that cannot be minimized, crimes that cannot be dismissed as “bird droppings,” as the German right-wing populist Alexander Gauland, a leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, did in 2018. The very fact that the two soldiers are still alive shows just how close that history still is to our present day.
Having participated in the liberation of a concentration camp was a defining moment in the lives of Greenbaum and Martynushkin. The experience has made them vigilant, another product of having seen what they saw.
Ivan Stepanovich Martynushkin, 96, is still mobile and his mind is sharp, just like Greenbaum’s. He lives alone in a newly refurnished apartment on the fourth floor of a residential complex – with no elevator. He leaves his apartment twice a day. His living room contains mementos from his military past, including a Maxim machine gun of the kind used by his company: “Heavy and impractical,” as he says. There are also photos, including a portrait of him in uniform, his medals on display. There is also a picture of him with Russian President Vladimir Putin along with family photos of his two daughters – one of whom lives next door – and his three great-granddaughters.
He advanced rapidly in the military. The simple son of a shoemaker when he went to war, he rose to first lieutenant and commanded a machine-gun company in the 1087th Regiment of the 322nd Rifle Division.
He returned in 1946 and was assigned to the country’s nuclear bomb project, as a secretary to project leadership. He is proud of that assignment as well. “I went from one front to the next,” he says. This time, it was a front in the Cold War.
Martynushkin would have liked to travel to the liberation celebrations this year – to Yad Vashem, where Putin spoke, or to the Auschwitz memorial. But he didn’t feel up to it this time around.
Don Greenbaum, U.S. Army
Liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp
The first thing I noticed was that odor, that awful odor. We didn’t know what it was and where it came from. Many of my comrades had to throw up. We thought the Germans would use poison gas against us. But the boys just got sick, nobody died. So what was it?
Up until April 29, 1945, I had never heard of concentration camps. After high school, I was drafted into the military, into the 3rd Army Field Artillery Battalion. In the summer of 1944, I landed in Normandy, on the Utah Beach section. I wasn’t in the first wave of attacks, but the fighting started right behind the beach. I saw men in body bags and realized that they were sons, fathers, husbands. The training was over.
My parents were Jews, I was never particularly religious. In 1943, when I was still at school, it was said that Hitler would persecute the Jews. But nobody thought that the Germans would be able to do that. Me neither. Despite the war, we saw the Germans as an educated, civilized people.
When we approached Dachau, we suddenly understood where this terrible smell came from. There were 15 railroad cars, in which lay corpses, some of them terribly mutilated and already decaying. The dead had just been thrown on top of one another like logs. They were prisoners who had been killed elsewhere and were to be burned in a concentration camp. But I only found that out later.
We then went through Dachau, the sky was black, I can remember that. We encountered occasional resistance from German soldiers, then we arrived at the concentration camp. In front of it was a beautiful villa, really lovely, it looked like a clubhouse. All the soldiers had already fled the concentration camp, they had simply left their weapons and had run away. Those who wanted to hide among the prisoners had been recognized and beaten to death.
The inmates of the concentration camp were in a terrible condition. There were thousands of them wearing these striped uniforms that looked like pajamas. Most of the prisoners were too weak to walk or even speak. They weighed less than 80 pounds.
We couldn’t communicate at first. The prisoners spoke all sorts of languages, German, Czech, just no English. Then we found out that one of our boys could speak Yiddish. He said: “We are American soldiers. We are here to free you. You can go wherever you want.” But where should the poor devils go?
We couldn’t even feed the prisoners. People were so starved that they were unable to eat normal food. We said to the comrades behind us: “Bring something to the people here that they can keep with them! Soft food, something like jelly. Anything they can swallow. And bring blankets! ”
At the camp, I met a French minister who showed me around. He showed me the machine-gun positions of the SS people, the gas chamber and the crematorium. There were suitcases around, and you could see piles of clothes. The priest also showed us the prison barracks, which was a bad sight. The people there were simply penned in, without mattresses, without nothing.
I stayed with my company for about another day in the concentration camp. Then we received the order to move on. We were told to take the next city. The war was over a week later. But I will never forget Dachau, especially not that terrible odor. It’s been 75 years since I was there, and I still remember that horrible odor.
Ivan Stepanovich Martynushkin, Red Army
Liberation of Auschwitz
I was 21 years old and still remember how I celebrated my birthday – on the evening of Jan. 18, 1945, with a Polish family. That same day, we had liberated Krakow. We were all impressed by the city – not a single building had been destroyed!
I was a first lieutenant and commanded a machine-gun company. I had been drafted in 1941 in central Russia and then sent to the border with Manchuria, which was occupied by the Japanese at the time. Later, I received machine-gun training. In the autumn of 1943, I was sent to the front, to regiment Nr. 1087 of the 322nd Rifle Division. Our army group was called the 1st Ukrainian Front.
Auschwitz lies only 60 kilometers from Krakow, but every village and every hill was defended. The weather was cold and wet. One morning, we had to fight our way across the frozen Vistula River. There was standing water on the ice and we all got soaked through. On the other side of the river, we captured a Polish settlement, and behind it, we suddenly came across a gigantic field surrounded by a huge fence of barbed wire and electric fencing, along with watchtowers. We saw further barricades behind the fence along with barracks.
Our first thought was that it must be an army base. It was already dark, and we didn’t advance any further. We spent the night outside the camp in a heated barracks with beds – in hindsight, I think it may have belonged to the guards. The next morning, our first task was to carefully comb through the settlement, and while we were doing so, we saw that people were moving behind the fence. We were suspicious at first, but then we saw that they were waving to us. That’s when we realized: They’re prisoners!
As evening approached and our regiment had to continue onward, I and a couple of other officers decided to go into the camp. I was simply curious.
Next to one barrack was a group of prisoners wearing striped prisoner garb or had draped something across their shoulders. We tried to communicate in Polish, but it didn’t work. We could only see in their eyes that they knew that they were free. I remember that someone pointed to himself and said: “Hungary.” I didn’t understand at the time and thought: Was that his first name, like mine was Ivan? Only later did learn that one of the last large groups of prisoners had been deported from Hungary. Had they been part of it?
We looked inside the barracks. It was dark and the air was stuffy, but we could hear people moving on the bunks. They were apparently those who were no longer able to get up. We didn’t go further inside, it was difficult for us.
And I remember something else too: The burned smell, even before we saw the camp. As soldiers, we had marched past a lot of fires, but this smelled different. More toxic. A comrade of mine fought with the 1085th Regiment and they entered the camp at a different spot, and he told me afterwards that they had seen a larger, burning pile – wood on the bottom and corpses on top. The SS people had blown up the crematoria, but there were still dead bodies left over, so they piled them up and poured gasoline over them. It just kept smoldering.
My experience in the camp was brief, just a dozen minutes or so, we had to continue on to the Oder River that evening. The war ended for me on April 20, 1945, when I was badly wounded in Mähren.
I am often asked what I felt when I saw Auschwitz. We felt sympathy for the prisoners, of course, and we understood that they had gone through hell. Each of us could tell ourselves: You, too, could have ended up there. In our political training, we were told how poorly the Germans treated our soldiers who they had taken prisoner, and near Lemberg (the present-day city of Lviv in Ukraine), we saw a German camp for Soviet prisoners of war. The real shock only came when documents from the Nuremberg Trials were made public. That’s when I understood, when I began to feel that I was an eyewitness – where I had been and what I had seen. Even if I had only seen a tiny part of the vast camp.
I went back to Auschwitz much later – the first time was for the 60th anniversary of the liberation in 2005. President Vladimir Putin took me along in his jet, just me and a former Auschwitz prisoner. It was ceremonial and Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski presented me with a medal. I went again for the 65th anniversary, but the atmosphere was completely different, unpleasant. Jerzy Buzek, president of European Parliament, held a short speech in which he said that in Poland in 1945, one totalitarian regime had simply been replaced by another. And that the liberation from the Red Army had not brought along freedoms like those in America, which the Poles had yearned for. Our people said in response: “We brought you what we had. We couldn’t have brought you anything else.” On that same anniversary, a journalist approached me and said: “You know what? I just interviewed Polish schoolchildren and they think that Auschwitz and Krakow were liberated by the Americans.”
On the 70th anniversary, the Polish foreign minister claimed that Auschwitz and Krakow were liberated by the Ukrainians, merely because our army group was called the “1st Ukrainian Front,” a name that reflected our area of operation. Yet I still know exactly who was fighting under my command. One of my platoon leaders, who fell near Auschwitz, was Armenian. A private was Kazakh. As for myself, I am pure Russian. And of course, as we advanced further, many Ukrainians were drafted. Only in western Ukraine, in the area around Lemberg, was the atmosphere quite different, with groups fighting against us. Sometimes, officers and soldiers would disappear without a trace. We were only allowed to camp in groups of five men, with one standing guard. In Poland, things were quite a bit easier. I was deeply moved when, as I was celebrating my 21st birthday near Krakow, a woman at the table said in Polish: What young boys you all are! How difficult it must be for your mothers! Merciful mother of God! With this blessing, we headed out in the direction of Auschwitz.