Soviet POW’s

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend.  (Arabic and Chinese proverbs.)
Beginning in 1941, the Germans put about 10,000 Soviet POWs in Auschwitz and then about 5,000 in Birkenau. According to international law, they were not supposed to be sent to concentration camps. But the Germans didn’t give a damn and ignored it. Then everyone tried to make money on them by killing them. Germans were free to make money by killing them.  But I was a witness. 

One day I was in charge of making the soup for the Russian POWs.  I knew they were suffering, so I tried to make it a little better for them.  I found some extra margarine and a few extra vegetables to put something nice in.  Along comes the SS officer in the kitchen inspecting every kettle of soup for the Russians.

“Let me taste!”  and he ladled up a sample. He spat it out. 
“Who made this soup?  This soup is no good.  Not enough salt.” 
Then he went to the salt barrel and he shoveled five or six pounds of salt into each kettle. I could do nothing but stand there and stir it in. Oh god, it was so salty you couldn’t even swallow it. 
Those soldiers had to eat that, with no water to drink. Thirst is awful – that’s why they drank anything they could find – urine, dew, snow in the streets. Anything. – Henry Zguda
As I have read more and more of Polish history, and I try to process all that happened to Poland during the Second World War, I realize there is a huge deficit of common information in the West– namely the role of Stalin’s Soviets, first as brutal co-conquerors with Hitler. Then Hitler reneged on the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 and invaded Russia in June 1941, savagely murdering Russian soldiers, taking Soviet prisoners of war. It has also been said that Hitler considered Russian Bolsheviks and communists to be comprised of many Jews – thus all the more reason to invade and kill the ‘communist Jews.’
The Americans were focused on fighting Hitler in Europe, and fighting Japan in the Pacific. You didn’t hear about the ‘evils of Stalin’ – because as I learned – Roosevelt and Churchill were actually negotiating with Stalin as early as 1943 at the Tehran Conference.  Hitler was the common enemy of all three nations, and many think the West realized they could not defeat Hitler alone. They could win the war without Poland, but not without Russia. I now find it ironic that after ‘cooperating’ with Stalin to fight Hitler, and dividing Europe as ‘spoils of war’, our country then became hugely anti-communist, and anti-Russian. 
Poland suffered greatly from both Stalin and Hitler – and thus has always felt betrayed. How could their allies – Britain, France and the United States – negotiate with their mortal enemy Stalin? The Russians had murdered over 20,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn Forest and committed many other atrocities against the Polish people. The full betrayal was not apparent to Poles until the end of the war as they kept assuming the West would come to their aid – when in fact they had secretly agreed Stalin could ‘have’ Poland.  

Soviet POW’s were at the bottom of prisoner hierarchy of Auschwitz as in other camps and were treated the harshest of all prisoners. They were tattooed – but on the left chest, not the wrist.  At Auschwitz the Germans used the Soviet POWs to build the wooden barracks at Birkenau – while they had no shelter themselves to live in. The Soviet POW’s were separated from other prisoners and, making it worse likely didn’t speak Polish or German.  According to our tour guide at Auschwitz, of the 15,000 Soviet POW’s deported to Auschwitz, only 96 survived.  The first experimental gassings were all conducted on Soviet POW’s.  If 15,000 sounds like a low number, it’s in great part due to the fact Germans didn’t take Soviet prisoners – they shot them, massacred them and in some cases burned them alive. Furthermore they were sent to many camps, not just Auschwitz.  There were other camps closer to the Russian border. According to the, by February 1942, 2,000,000 of the 3,300,000 Soviet soldiers in German custody up to that point had died from starvation, exposure, disease, or shooting.

(Note – the terms Russian and Soviet are used here inter-changeably – as history books refer to them both ways as well.)

As of evening roll call January 19, 1942, there were 10,142 prisoners at Auschwitz and 1,490 Soviet POWs.

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Tags: Auschwitz, Prisoners of Note