MOSCOW (AP) — On Jan. 27, 1945, Yakov Vinnichenko walked through the gates of Auschwitz into a netherworld of ghostly, emaciated women huddled together in dark barracks to prop one another up. “Some tried to kiss us, but it was uncomfortable — you didn’t want to get infected,” the one-time Soviet infantryman recalls.
Vinnichenko was among the first outsiders to glimpse the horror of the concentration camp in southern Poland as the troops of the Soviet 322nd infantry division cut the surrounding barbed wire and swept through.
This week, he and a handful of comrades-in-arms return to Auschwitz to join Vice President Dick Cheney, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders in honoring the 60th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. It will be his second trip to Auschwitz since the liberation; he traveled there in 2000 to mark the 55th anniversary.
Up to 1.5 million prisoners, most of them Jews, perished in gas chambers or died of starvation and disease at Auschwitz. In all, some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
By the time Vinnichenko’s unit arrived, most of the prisoners had been evacuated by the Nazis on death marches as they fled toward Germany. About 7,000 were left — “those who couldn’t move,” as Vinnichenko put it.
“They were skin and bones, could hardly stand on their feet. … It’s impossible to describe,” he said.
“They were holding each other up, they couldn’t walk. The Germans just left them behind. They didn’t have time to burn them up, to shoot them.”
He said his regiment was rushing to the next battle and spent only a few hours in the camp, but he did duck into one barracks.
“There was filth, and blood. It was a women’s barracks,” he said, recalling the sight of hard, three-level bunks covered with straw mattresses.
Of the inmates he said, “Some were crying, some were laughing.”
Vinnichenko, a trim-looking man in a tweed jacket decorated with military medals, acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that his recollections are cloudy; one of the clearest memories is leaving the camp and picking up two bottles of port wine found abandoned in a basement.
“Sixty years have passed, you forget a lot — and for 30 years, no one showed interest or cared to ask,” he said.
Under communist rule, the Soviet narrative of World War II avoided mention of the Holocaust — a theme that could raise questions about the state’s demonizing of Jews at home and its hostile relations with Israel.
Only in the years since the Soviet Union broke up has the destruction of European Jewry won widespread acknowledgment in Russia.
Vinnichenko had seen persecution and cruelty in his own prewar life: In 1933, when he was 7, his father starved to death in the state-induced famine in his native Ukraine that killed up to 10 million people. Three of his uncles were sent to Soviet labor camps; his mother fled to a village near Moscow, leaving him with his grandparents.
“They took the grain away from the peasants. There was nothing to eat. They took the horses, the cows,” Vinnichenko said. “Life was hard until the war.”
He joined the Soviet Army in 1941, at age 15, after the Germans invaded his homeland; there was no other choice.
“Whether you wanted to go or not, they picked you up. No one asked. It was the same on the front; you don’t want to fight, you’re shot dead by your own men,” he said. “The commander’s behind, you’re in front — it’s only in movies that the commander is in front.”
Four thin ribbons on his chest, above his medals, signify the four wounds he sustained during the war — which he credits for saving his life since he was taken out of combat for long bouts in hospitals.