Survivors, Soviet veterans and world leaders have gathered in Auschwitz, to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp by Soviet troops.
Over a million Jews were murdered there and, in 2005, the date was declared as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Anatoly Vanukevich was eleven years old when the doors of the death camp closed behind him. He was too young to understand why people around him were dying by thousands, and yet old enough not to cry.
“Once I was taken to work at a meat plant. Every carcass was on count, all stamped. We managed to steal half a carcass of pork – but what followed! They lined us up, tortured us one by one and said – if nobody confesses, we'll kill you all. An old Pole came out and took the blame for us. They shot him in front of our eyes,” recalls Auschwitz survivor Anatoly Vanukevich.
Unlike the pork carcasses, the bodies of human victims were not so highly prized by the Nazis. There were five crematoria at the Auschwitz death camp, but even they failed to deal with the workload.
New trains full of people came in everyday. For over a million of those passengers, Auschwitz-Birkenau became their final stop.
Anatoly and his parents were together on a train to Auschwitz when the boy's mother threw him out of the carriage onto the track to save her son's life and said “Go! Live!” Ironically Anatoly entered the same gate just several months later – but he lived to tell the tale.
“I ate snow, slept in snow, then wandered around looking for a living soul in the woods. I was captured by Polish traitors. I had a Bolshevik hat on, so they tortured me, trying to find out where the partisans were hiding,” Anatoly Vanukevich says.
Anatoly didn't know anything about partisans, but he was suspected of siding with them and taken to Auschwitz.
Luckily for the boy, he didn’t look Jewish, which saved his life. By the time Soviet troops liberated the biggest Nazi death camp, only 300 Jews were still alive there – and around a million had been killed.
“We stumbled over the camp. It wasn't part of a military operation. We had to go deeper to the German border, but then the plan changed and we stopped at Auschwitz. We only realized long after what we’d found,” explains Auschwitz liberator Ivan Martynushkin.
86-year-old Ivan Martynushkin is one of only two Auschwitz liberators still alive to tell the story in Russia.
Ivan’s army lost 300 soldiers in the battles around Auschwitz, one death for each Jew saved at the camp.
“The Soviet tank division blocked the way of the SS guards who were rushing to Auschwitz,” says Ilya Altman, director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Holocaust. “People were saved because of our army and it was our doctors who managed to save even the most hopeless patients.”
The director of the only Holocaust museum in the post-Soviet space keeps the doors open to all survivors and liberators of Auschwitz.
He says January 27 marks a victory, but should also be declared a national day of mourning in Russia – at least for those three million Soviet Jews who were killed in WWII.
At a news conference in Poland, the president of the European Jewish Congress Viatcheslav Moshe Kantor said it was important to remember that the Soviet Union has paid the highest price for the victory in WWII. Speaking about recent attempts to equate Stalinism to Nazism he said: "In no way do we excuse Stalinism. Our attitude towards Hitler is also obvious. But we draw a very clear distinction between those two positions in terms of the history of WWII. We can try to treat everything equally, but let’s still look at who started the Holocaust and who ended it, who paid the highest price in human lives, even within the coalition."
Speaking to RT, Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, said that the end of the holocaust was not the end of anti-semitism.
“It is a problem which has to be addressed on a daily basis by every government.”