On Holocaust Remembrance Day, we revisit the story of Anatoly Shapiro.

Major Anatoly Shapiro was a Jewish officer in the Red Army who led his troupes to liberate Auschwitz concentration camp on January 27, 1945.  He enlisted in the Red Army at the onset of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, was wounded in Kursk in 1943, but it’s what he saw 71 years ago at Auschwitz that left the most indelible mark.

Shapiro recalled additional details of the day of the liberation in this remarkable interview given shortly before his death in 2005 at the age of 94 to an Israeli radio host Tovia Singer.  This was during the second intifada, and Shapiro spoke to that too:

His story is an incredible one:

Anatoly Shapiro, 92, has never forgotten what he saw at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. That was the day Shapiro, who says he is the first Russian officer to enter the infamous concentration camp, led his battalion to liberate it.

In an interview Saturday in his apartment in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, where he sits alongside his wife, Vita, his tall, thin form is upright and his eyes are clear as he describes, through a translator, the things he says he still sees in nightmares 60 years later.

“We saw German soldiers, and when we opened the gate, we saw one barrack, then the next, on and on for a hundred barracks,” he recalled.

“When I saw the people, it was skin and bones. They had no shoes, and it was freezing. They couldn’t even turn their heads, they stood like dead people.”

“I told them, ‘The Russian army liberates you!’ They couldn’t understand. Some few who could touched our arms and said, ‘Is it true? Is it real?’ “

As a commanding officer, his task was to direct his men. Half his battalion — originally 900 men — had died in battle. But nothing they had endured had prepared them for what they found inside Auschwitz.

His men pleaded with him to let them leave.

“The general told me, ‘Have the soldiers go from barrack to barrack. Let them see what happened to the people,’ ” he recalled.

He ordered them to accompany him, and they went from barrack to barrack. He remembers, “In German, it said, ‘damas,’ — women. When I opened the barrack, I saw blood, dead people, and in between them, women still alive and naked.

“It stank; you couldn’t stay a second. No one took the dead to a grave. It was unbelievable. The soldiers from my battalion asked me, ‘Let us go. We can’t stay. This is unbelievable.’

“We went to the barracks for men; it was the same as the barracks for the women.

“People in the barracks were naked, or [had] just thin clothes, no shoes, in the freezing cold; it was January. Only a few people could talk; they didn’t have energy. But a few people were able to talk, so slowly. [They told us] once a day they got a little water, no bread, no anything. If someone died, they took the clothes, to get a little warmth, anywhere. They died from hunger and cold.

“I was shocked, devastated.”

Shapiro remembers two barracks for children.

“Outside it said, ‘kinder.’ Inside one, 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!’ “

It turned out that they really were Jewish children and were afraid they were about to be taken to the gas chambers.

He remembers the Russian Red Cross trying to feed the people. “Immediately they started cooking chicken soup, vegetable soup, but the people couldn’t eat because their stomachs were like” — instead of using words, he shows his clenched fist.

Soviet writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Alexey Tolstoy toured Auschwitz immediately after liberation. They put together a testimony later used in Nuremberg Trial, but their discoveries weren’t widely publicized in the Soviet Union.  Only a brief note about the concentration camp appeared the following day in Pravda.

The Holocaust wasn’t a part of history lessons when I attended Soviet school in the 80’s — I learned about it from my family.  Anatoly Shapiro, the man who lead his troupes to storm the gates of Auschwitz, learned about the scope of the Holocaust when, already in his 80’s, he came to the US.

Because of the repression of Judaism in the former Soviet Union, Shapiro says he did not know how many Jews the Nazis had killed until he learned that the figure was 6 million when he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1992.

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Anatoly Shapiro and his wife Vita in their New York apartment

About 500,000 Jews fought in the Red Army in World War II, 40% did not come home, either killed in action or murdered in POW camps.  150 were designated the highest honor “Hero of the Soviet Union”.

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The author writes the blog Sitting on the Edge of the Sandbox, Biting My Tongue and occasionally posts at Legal Insurrection. She is an American citizen and a native of Kharkov, a Russian-speaking city in what was, when she was growing up, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.