Retired Red Army Lieutenant Colonel Anatoly Shapiro was proud of his lifetime service in the Red Army: He spent the last years of his life combatting the Big Lie of Holocaust denial by neo-Nazis.
But never in his wildest dreams did Colonel Shapiro imagine that his own contribution to history and that of the entire Red Army in ending the Nazi genocide of the Jewish and Russian peoples would itself be cast into the black hole of denial.
For Colonel Shapiro, who died in 2005 at the age of 92, has become a non-person himself: Because he was the Red Army officer who commandeered the liberation of Auschwitz the greatest and most frightful death camp of all.
Shapiro had not planned to become a soldier. The son of a Jewish family in Konstantinograd in the Poltava region of Russia, he joined the Red Army in 1935. He saw action throughout World War II and was repeatedly promoted and decorated for gallantry. In the great 1943 showdown battle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht around Kursk, he was seriously injured and had to spend time in hospital.
When Colonel Shapiro received his orders from Major General Petr Zubov’s 322nd Division of the First Ukrainian Front, commanded by legendary Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev to ready his elite 1085th ‘Tarnopol’ Rifle Regiment for immediate action on January 25, 1945 he knew his force was being tapped to liberate a Nazi death camp, but neither he nor any of his men dreamed what lay ahead.
The war was still raging in full fury in the east and the Nazis fought with demented fanaticism to try and prevent the Red Army troops from exposing their most hellish secrets.
On the way to the camp, Shapiro’s forces ran into a minefield. A doctor and five nurses were killed. As British historian Michael K. Jones wrote in his acclaimed 2011 book “Total War: From Stalingrad to Berlin” “The following morning the regiment encountered strong enemy opposition and even had to fend off a counter-attack.”
Lieutenant Ivan Martynushkin, a junior officer told Jones in an interview more than 60 years later: “As we approached Auschwitz we had to fight for every settlement, every house.” Yet as the 1085 the1085th’s combat journal laconically recorded, “No one wanted to turn back.”
It was early morning of January 27, after much heavy fighting that the 1085th advanced into Auschwitz itself in the face of ferocious Nazi artillery fire. By 11 am, Shapiro’s men had crossed the Sola River and he gave the order “Break into Auschwitz.”
The fighting continued to be fierce. Dozens of Red Army troops died. Shapiro and his men entered the camp. The Nazis had evacuated most of the surviving prisoners and sent them on a death march towards the German border. However, the camp still held at least 1,200 people as well as another 5,800 at Birkenau, including 611 children.
“The gates were padlocked. Snow was falling and there was a smell of burning in the air. Inside, were rows of barracks but not a person could be seen,” Jones wrote. The Red Army men shot the locks off the doors with their submachine guns. For the next 60 years, Shapiro vividly recalled what they found inside. Decades later, he said in an interview: “I had seen many innocent people killed. I had seen hanged people. I had seen burned people. But I was still unprepared for Auschwitz…The stench was overpowering. It was a women’s barracks, and there were frozen pools of blood, and dead bodies lay on the floor.”
Outside one barracks, a sign said ‘kinder.’ However, Shapiro recalled “There were only two children alive; all the others had been killed in gas chambers, or were in the ‘hospital’ where the Nazis performed medical experiments on them. When we went in, the children were screaming, ‘We are not Jews!’ They were in fact Jewish children, and mistaking us for German soldiers evidently thought we were going to take them to the gas chambers. We stared at them aghast… This was the hardest sight of all.”
Shapiro recalled that the Russian Red Cross rapidly entered the camp and started cooking chicken soup and vegetable soup for the starving survivors.
Another senior Red Army officer of Jewish origins, Colonel Georgi Elisavetsky became its very first commandant after its liberation. His testimony is preserved in the excellent Russian Holocaust Center in Moscow and was also cited by Jones.
The response of Marshal Konev’s forces to the humanitarian catastrophe they had uncovered was exemplary. Elisavetsky testified, “We knew immediate action had to be taken to try and …It is impossible to describe how our doctors, nurses, officers and soldiers worked – without sleep or food – to try and help those unfortunates, how they fought for every life.”
Red Army Military Hospital Number 2962 run by Dr. Maria Zhilinskaya, Jones noted, “Nevertheless managed to save 2,819 inmates.”
After the war, Shapiro never lost his faith in and love for the Soviet Union. Following its disintegration, he moved with his family to the United States and settled on Long Island. He wrote several books on the subject and on his own experiences before his death on October 8, 2005.
For Colonel Shapiro, the idea that he, his Red Army comrades and the medical staff who fought and died to liberate Auschwitz and who worked so hard to save it’s pitifully few survivors should be casually equated with the Nazis mass-killers would have been ludicrous and contemptible. President Vladimir Putin recognizes this too, he is commemorating the anniversary this year in Israel.
The true story of the Liberation of Auschwitz needs to be told and retold. It needs to be rammed down the throats of Russia-hating bigots and warmongers everywhere.