LINDSAY: "This excellent to mint condition episode of History Daily originally aired on January 27, 2022.”
It’s April 7th, 1944, and World War Two rages across the globe.
But here, in southern Poland, a pall of gray mist hangs over the town of Oświęcim.
Since the Nazi occupation of Poland began in 1939, Oświęcim has been known by its German name - made notorious by the concentration camp built nearby: Auschwitz.
Inside the Auschwitz prison yard, an SS officer strides past rows of shivering inmates. The officer suspects that two prisoners have escaped. As he conducts a headcount, he barks out numbers. When the prisoners hear their numbers called, they step forward. And once the roll call is complete, the SS officer turns to squadron commander and nods sharply. His suspicions were correct. Two prisoners are missing.
Soon, trucks loaded with armed SS guards thunder around the camp gates as searchlights illuminate the surrounding countryside. Snarling German shepherds are released into the twilight, their noses pressed to the ground.
Suddenly, one of the hounds splits from the pack.
It bounds towards a wood pile, located between the inner and outer perimeter fences. The hound begins sniffing at the wood, just an arm's length from where two prisoners are hiding: Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler – both Slovakian Jews.
Walter and Alfred hope the guards will not think to search for them inside the Auschwitz compound. That’s why they chose this hiding place. Once the guards have given up the search, Walter and Alfred will make their escape. But this dog is threatening their plans.
Walter and Alfred have sprinkled the wood pile with tobacco soaked in gasoline, which is supposed to mask their scent. But the hound keeps getting closer.
Walter hears leather boots striking damp earth. As the guard approaches, Walter braces for the worst. Then suddenly, the guard shouts a command in German – and the dog relents. The guard walks off into the distance with the dog at his heels.
Walter and Alfred remain hidden inside the woodpile for three days without food or water. When they finally emerge, they sneak through the barbed wire fence and begin a grueling trek across Nazi-occupied Poland. They’ve escaped with detailed maps of Auschwitz and evidence of the crimes committed there; including information on the gas chambers, which have been used to murder millions of Jews and other people deemed “sub-human” by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Two weeks after their escape, Walter and Alfred reach their homeland, Slovakia. From there, they report the horrors taking place inside Auschwitz to Allied intelligence. Their evidence will be part of what is called the Auschwitz Protocols, and it will be the first time the Allied leaders of WWII realize the full extent of the Nazis’ atrocities. The report estimates that 1.75 million Jews have already been murdered at Auschwitz alone.
The Allied forces continue to press their attack. But even as Hitler’s forces falter, the mass extermination of Jews at Auschwitz and other death camps will accelerate. Millions more will perish at the hands of the Nazi regime, before the Soviet Army reaches southern Poland, and liberates Auschwitz on January 27th, 1945.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 27th, 1945: The Liberation of Auschwitz.
Act One: The Final Days
It’s November 1944, seven months after Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler escaped.
From inside his office, Rudolf Höss is on the telephone. He listens carefully for several moments, and then says: “Ja, mein Reichsführer,” and puts the telephone down.
Höss is an SS officer, and Commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Quiet and mild-mannered, Höss is more reminiscent of a grocery store clerk than a high-ranking Nazi.
But during his tenure as commandant of Auschwitz, Höss has become one of the main architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, the name given to the Nazi’s efforts to exterminate the entirety of Europe’s Jewish population. It was Höss who, in 1941, introduced the use of Zyklon-B in the camp’s gas chambers – a deadly poison that can kill 2,000 victims in less than an hour.
By murdering prisoners with Zyklon-B, Höss turned this camp into the largest and deadliest of all Nazi concentration camps, and earned himself the nickname: “the Devil of Auschwitz.”
Höss gets up from his work and strides up to the office window and peers outside. He absentmindedly fondles his wedding ring, twisting it back and forth around his finger – an old habit. Beyond the window, row upon row of wooden and brick barracks fade into the distance. Tall watchtowers and barbed wire fences loom through the winter fog.
Auschwitz is divided into one main camp and around thirty sub-camps. The largest sub-camp is Auschwitz-II, or Birkenau, the extermination facility. It’s at Birkenau that the majority of the killings take place within the Auschwitz complex. Here, along the barracks and outbuildings, concrete crematoriums incinerate the bodies of those murdered in the gas chambers.
Höss surveys all this with cold, unfeeling eyes. Since 1940, the commandant has presided over the daily operations of Auschwitz. Now, after speaking on the telephone with his boss – head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler – Höss has been ordered to destroy everything he has built.
Victory in WWII is looking increasingly unlikely for Nazi Germany. The Allied forces of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union are sweeping across Europe from all directions, forcing the Nazis into a hasty retreat. With the prospect of defeat looming, the once tightly disciplined Nazi regime teeters on the brink of chaos.
Hitler’s response to his impending downfall is to accelerate the mass murder of Jews. Between May and July of 1944, after the successful Allied invasion of Western Europe, the Nazi-controlled nation of Hungary sent 420,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Three-quarters of them were killed on arrival.
But other Nazi officials, Himmler included, see the direction the war is taking and have decided to attempt to put a halt to the genocide. It’s unlikely that Himmler, who designed the infrastructure that enabled the Holocaust, has suddenly developed a guilty conscience. Rather, it's an act of cowardice. By going against Hitler’s order and putting an end to the extermination of prisoners at Auschwitz, Himmler is perhaps hoping the conquering Allies will look upon him more favorably after the war.
This is not the first time the Nazi high command has exhibited self-awareness of the scale of their monstrosities. Since 1942, when the “Final Solution” was first put into motion, there have been consistent attempts to obfuscate the death toll. Millions of bodies have been burned in crematoriums, leaving the sky above Auschwitz permanently choked with an acrid black smog.
But following Himmler’s command, Rudolf Höss has been ordered to halt the systematic slaughter of the camp’s inmates, and to physically dismantle all evidence that it ever took place.
But the Nazi guards do not perform this intensely laborious work. Rather, it’s the prisoners who are tasked with deconstructing the very machines in which their own families were murdered. Brick by brick, the inmates dismantle the crematoriums and gas chambers. Others exhume mass graves and burn the bodies, before burying the ashes.
By December, German intelligence is reporting that the Soviet Union’s Red Army has assembled two million men along the frontier of Eastern Europe. With the bulk of Hitler’s army occupied on the Western Front, fewer than half a million Nazi soldiers remain in the East.
When news of the Red Army’s advance reaches Auschwitz, panic breaks out among the Nazi ranks. On January 17th, the camp’s officials are given the order to flee. Rudolf Höss himself, fearing retribution if the Allies discover his true identity, disguises himself as a sailor, and joins the German Navy under a false name.
Among the fleeing Auschwitz officials is one of the most notorious of the Nazi criminals: the angel of death - Dr. Josef Mengele.
From a laboratory within the camp, Mengele carried out horrifying human experiments on the prisoners, developing Nazi ideology’s grotesque fascination with eugenics and racial purity. Because his medical notes were destroyed, it’s not easy to separate fact from rumor when it comes to Mengele. But it's indisputable that his particular brand of evil was unleashed on the prisoners of Auschwitz with sadistic and unrestrained brutality.
But Mengele is in retreat now as he and the rest of the Auschwitz officials flee back into Germany, the question arises of what to do with the remaining inmates. The Red Army is now only days away from the camp. The war is already lost, and yet Hitler refuses to release hundreds of thousands of prisoners. The solution he comes up with will cost the lives of over a quarter of a million people.
Act Two: Death March / Liberation
It’s January 18th, 1945, nine days before the liberation of Auschwitz.
A large group of prisoners have been told to line up in the central courtyard. While snow drifts slowly down, an SS officer tells the prisoners that they are being transferred to a different concentration camp. Not by train – but on foot.
Among the assembled prisoners is 23-year-old Filip Muller. Some nine months ago, Filip helped two of his friends escape from Auschwitz: Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler. Filip supplied Walter and Alfred with details of the Nazi crematoriums. He gained this information from working as a Sonderkommando, a prisoner forced to assist with the disposal of gas chamber victims.
One source of solace for conducting this horrific work was that Walter and Alfred might pass on the information to Allied intelligence – and that Auschwitz might be liberated.
But since their escape, no news has come, and Filip, having lost hope, voluntarily entered a gas chamber. But a young girl recognized Filip and urged him not to take his own life, in order that he might live to tell their story. Filip agreed. So now, he trudges through thick snow and driving wind on a mission to survive and bear witness.
Filip Muller and 60,000 other Auschwitz prisoners march hundreds of miles through freezing conditions as the Red Army forces the Nazis back to their deepest lines. The procession becomes known as the Death March.
As prisoners are shot for lagging behind or even just stopping to catch their breath, others die from exhaustion or starvation. And of the total number of prisoners forced on Death Marches from Nazi concentration camps, over 250,000 perish.
It’s the morning of January 27th, 1945, just nine days after the Death March set off from Auschwitz.
Ivan Martynushkin, a twenty-one-year-old lieutenant in the Red Army’s 332nd Rifle Division, wakes up in a Nazi garrison where he and his fellow Russian soldiers spent the night.
For the last two weeks, Ivan’s division has been sweeping south through Poland as part of the Red Army’s Vistula-Oder Offensive. After liberating the cities of Warsaw and Krakow from the Nazis, they pushed the enemy back across the Vistula River and continued south for a few miles, before settling down inside this abandoned garrison for the night. It was so dark when they arrived that they could barely see, and so cold that they didn’t linger outside for long.
But when Ivan and his fellow soldiers step outside the next morning, they are confounded by what they see in the morning light: A towering barbed-wire fence.
Ivan and his fellow soldiers slowly approach the barbed wire, with rifles raised, their boots crunching over the freshly-fallen snow. Above the locked iron gates, darkly silhouetted against the pale winter sky, is the German phrase: “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work will set you free.”
Ivan observes that the ground beyond the wire is covered with what looks like bundles of sticks and rags. Then he notices the smell. It’s a noxious scent, unlike anything he’s ever experienced. He lifts his forearm to his mouth. Some of his comrades begin to retch.
But then, there’s movement.
There are people behind the wire. Ivan raises his rifle. But it quickly becomes clear that these are not enemy combatants. Slowly, cautiously, they emerge from wooden outhouses, their thin arms held aloft, their faces slate-gray and filled with fear.
It dawns on the Soviet soldiers what they’ve discovered. For the past several months, following the publication of a report about a concentration camp called Auschwitz, rumors have been circulating about Nazi abuses, including acts of genocide. Many were dismissive of the rumors; they were simply too horrifying to be true.
Ivan lowers his weapon. He realizes that the bundles of sticks and rags are corpses – the few bodies the Nazis didn’t manage to burn before they abandoned the camp.
Soon, a Soviet T-34 tank bursts from the ranks and crashes through the barbed wire fence. Ivan and his comrades follow after. When the prisoners realize that these are Soviet soldiers, their fear subsides, and they rush forward to greet their liberators, overwhelmed with relief.
Only around 9,000 prisoners are left in Auschwitz when the Red Army arrives. Following their liberation, a medical tent is set up to attend to the survivors’ dire health. Still, many will die of disease in the days that follow. And for the rest, once they have regained their strength, they will have to find their own way home.
Approximately 1.3 million people were killed in Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945. Soon, word of this horrific statistic will make its way back to the leaders of the Allied forces, who, in the months and years following the war, will set their sights on tracking down those involved and bringing them to justice.
Act Three: Chasing the Devil
It’s March 11th, 1946, over a year since the liberation of Auschwitz.
In a rural German village, twenty-five British soldiers quietly approach an isolated farmhouse. Their commander, Hanns Alexander – a Berlin-born Jew – knocks on the wooden door. Moments later, it opens, revealing a haggard-looking man in stained work clothes. He claims to be a local farmer.
Alexander smiles and asks to come inside. Reluctantly, the old man agrees.
While sitting around the man’s kitchen table, Alexander tells him they’re looking for someone named Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz. Then, Alexander explains that they have received intelligence suggesting Höss is hiding in the area.
The man shrugs, claiming he’s never heard of Höss. Alexander notices the man fiddling with his wedding ring, twisting it back and forth around his finger. An old habit, the man explains, nervously.
Alexander asks to see the man’s wedding ring. At first, he refuses, but when one of Alexander’s lieutenants offers to cut his finger off, the man agrees. Inscribed on the inside of the band is the man’s name: Rudolf Höss.
Höss will be arrested, and later executed, for crimes against humanity. At his trial, he confesses to the murder of 2.5 million people. Official estimates put the Auschwitz death toll lower than this, but the true number can never be known as many prisoners’ deaths went undocumented.
Today, Auschwitz is visited by millions of people every year. But the site where the camp once stood is no longer a symbol of suffering or fear. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum now stands as a stark reminder that the greatest respect one can pay to the dead, is to constantly strive to educate, to learn, and to remember the horror that was fully exposed when the camp was liberated on January 27th, 1945.
Next on History Daily.January 30th, 1661. On the 12th anniversary of the beheading of King Charles I, the controversial politician Oliver Cromwell faces the same grisly fate, even though he’s already been dead for two and a half years.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.