On their way to taking Berlin and cementing the defeat of Nazi Germany the Soviets liberated all the concentration and death camps they encountered in the eastern and central parts of occupied Poland, starting in July 1944 with the German concentration camp in Lublin, commonly known as Majdanek.
On the 27th of January 1945 the soldiers of the 1st Ukrainian Front entered the Auschwitz — Birkenau camp after fighting a battle in the area. Out of the estimated 1.3 million people brought to KL Auschwitz only around 7 thousand prisoners, mainly the sick and exhausted who weren’t able to participate in the evacuation of the camp, survived to the day of liberation . The remaining prisoners, at least 1.1 million people were murdered. Most numerous among them were Jews — around 1 million.
On the 28th of January 1945, the day after the liberation of the camp, Adolf Forbert , who documented the liberation of Cracow a few days earlier, arrived at the camp as one of the first filmmakers. He described his first impression of the camp as a massacre similar to Majdanek only on a larger scale. Forbert was part of the Polish People’s Army Film Crew (Czołówka Filmowa Wojska Polskiego) which also filmed the Majdanek camp after its liberation in July of 1944. The film crew, led by Aleksander Ford, created the first documentary showing Nazi crimes titledMajdanek — the Cemetery of Europe.
This is what Adolf Ford wrote of the Auschwitz cam, or rather, of what he saw here:
…long rows of empty barracks, limbs of the dead sticking out from the snow and a dead silence all around.
Forbert set himself one goal — filming as much as he possibly could. However when, due to the poor quality of the Soviet made camera, the lack of lighting or a tripod, he could not film or photograph the insides of the barracks he wrote, full of frustration:
…there are dead bodies everywhere and I’m helpless, can’t film, I have no lighting.
Forbert spent two days and one night in the camp. The former prisoners led him and his film crew colleagues to the women’s hospital in Birkenau where around 500 sick women were staying and where he sat long into the night listening to the tales of the women. On the second day he walked around Birkenau, which he called “a gigantic factory of suffering and death”, taking pictures and continuing his conversations with former prisoners. Forbes had a lot of experience in filming the war and might have been considered inured to the horrifying images especially since he was one of the crew that documented the liberation of Majdanek. However, what he saw in KL Auschwitz-Birkenau surpassed any cruelty he could conceive of. He later said that taking photographs in this horrifying place was very problematic for him.
Among the barrack, under the snow, lay larger and smaller heaps of bodies, frozen people. A few here, a few dozen there and then another heap. Nightmare.
Forbert also admitted that only the distance created by the camera between him and what he was capturing on film allowed him to stand all that he saw there:
Only through the viewfinder could I calmly look at those horrifying scenes. It had to be part of my professional skills.
The photographer took same panoramic shots in Auschwitz, filmed the guard towers, the barbed wire, the destroyed crematoria, the faces of the sick, exhausted and starved faces of former prisoners and a container of Zyklon B, which one of the prisoners offered to hold, posing for a surreal photograph that could never have been taken before the camp’s liberation.
After finishing his photographic documentary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp Forbert left the films to be developed in a laboratory. This is where all trace of them is lost and their fate remains a mystery until this day. The negatives mysteriously disappeared, maybe in some Soviet government archive or somewhere else. We don’t even know whether the photographs were ever developed. One thing is certain: nothing that Forbert documented with his camera ever saw the light of day.
Not all the materials documenting the camp after its liberation have been lost however; in fact some of them, like scenes from the documentary The Chronicle of the Liberation of the Camp, became cultural symbol and art of the widespread iconography of the Holocaust. Some of the most recognizable photographs and scenes from KL Auschwitz, like the mass graves or heaps of hair, suitcases, shoes and other objects, come from this documentary. This tragic documentary from the liberated camp was made y a Soviet military film crew probably composed of four Soviet filmmakers including Leonid Bykov and Aleksander Vorontsov who stated after the war:
The memories of that time have stayed with me my entire life. It was the most moving and terrifying thing I saw and filmed during the war.
A Soviet soldier-artist of Jewish descent Zinovij Tołkaczew also documented the crimes, using a pencil rather than a camera. He created many drawings and sketches showing the realities of the liberated camp. His work was published after the war in Polish, Israeli and Soviet albums.
Soon after the liberation of KL Auschwitz — Birkenau other photographers started arriving at the camp to take pictures for a special investigative committee created to collect evidence of Nazi crimes. And so Henryk Makarewicz and Stanisław Mucha, for example, took photographs for the Soviet committee investigating the crimes committed in Auschwitz and the Polish Red Cross. Three months after the liberation “Przekrój” published an illustrated article which contained photographs of the camps gates, the barbed wire and the barracks as well as photographs of the Polish investigative committee with the information that it had begun its investigation into the crimes committed in Auschwitz by the Germans.
It is true however that the Polish press published few photographs from Auschwitz — Birkenau, just as few as in the case of Majdanek’s liberation. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, the publishing industry was almost non-existent after the war and secondly, it lacked the resources to publish photographs. A review of the Polish press between 1944 and 1946 shows that few photographs were published in that time and the ones that showed up in the struggling press were of such poor quality that it was often difficult to discern the people or object they represented.
Meanwhile in the West photographs from Auschwitz — Birkenau, the camp which is now a worldwide symbol of the Holocaust, did not become known to the public until a couple decades later. Both the Americans and the British knew very little about the German concentration camps in Poland being liberated by the Red Army. Their ignorance was mainly due to the news agencies. Even though the West had been receiving reports regarding Auschwitz-Birkenau all through the war, the British press barely mentioned the liberation of the camp and the newspapers never published any photographs. The lack of press coverage was most likely due to purely pragmatic reasons: both the leaders of the Allied forces and the readers themselves were, in early 1945, more interested in news of victories on the front, which brought the inevitable downfall of Germany closer every week, than Soviet reports of German crimes which were very often dismissed as Russian propaganda. This is why from the end of January until the middle of February 1945 British newspapers covered their front pages with reports of the Soviet army’s triumphant march on Berlin. Short mentions of KL Auschwitz’s liberation appeared in reports of the victorious Soviet offensive e.g. on the 29th of January “The Manchester Guardian” contained one sentence on the topic and on the 3rd of February “The Daily Express” dedicated one column to an article about the camp’s liberation. The famous documentary The Chronicle of the Liberation of the Campwas not seen in the West until the late 50’s.
On the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau we invite you to a meeting with Paweł Sawicki from the National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenauwho will talk about photographic documentation from the German Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The meeting will take place on January 29th at 6 p.m and is part of the Thursdays at Tlomackie cycle.
Pawel Sawicki is the author of the “Auschwitz — between crime and sanctity” cycle and the “The Place Where You Are Standing…” album, which compares 31 historical photographs from the so-called Lili Jacob’s album, taken in 1944 by SS men and showing the extermination of Hungarian Jews in the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp, with current photographs of the same places.
31 photographs were chosen from the Lili Jacob’s album which contains around 200 images. They show the stages of a Jewish transport being received in Birkenau: from the arrival at the ramp, through the selection into those capable of work and those not, to the pictures of people being led to their death and those led to the camp. The archival photographs are full of people and easy-to-read situations. The modern ones shock you with the emptiness and stagnation.
Around 1.3 million people were brought to KL Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. The largest group, around 1.1 million people, were Jews, then Poles — 140–150 thousand, Romani — 23 thousand, Soviet prisoners of war — 15 thousand. Prisoners of other nationalities, around 25 thousand in total, consisted of smaller groups from a few thousand people (Czechs, Belarusians, French, Germans, Russians), a few hundred people (Yugoslavians, Ukrainians) to a few or few dozen people. At least 1.1 million people died in KL Auschwitz. The majority were Jews — around 1 million, then Poles — 70–75 thousand, Romani — 21 thousand, Soviet prisoners — over 14 thousand. Among the prisoners of other nationalities around 10–15 thousand people lost their lives.
 In the second half of 1944, due to the approach of the Soviet army, the German authorities began the preliminary evacuation of KL Auschwitz prisoners. Around 58 thousand prisoners were evacuated from KL Auschwitz and all its subcamps. Many of them died during the march and the transport by railway.
The camp commanders also began to destroy evidence of their crimes. The SS men managed to set explosives and blow up the crematoria and gas chambers in Birkenau and set fire to the warehouses (called Canada) containing the looted possessions that the camp’s commanders hadn’t managed to send away. They also burned any documents remaining at the camp.
 In 1943, together with his brother Władysław, he became part of the Film Crew of Zygmunt Berling’s Army. After the war both brothers became two of the best-known filmmakers in Poland. He taught at the Łódź Film School.