Startled by the speed of the Soviet advance the Nazis had finally abandoned Auschwitz on the 18th January. Before then most of the prisoners had been forced out into the freezing weather to endure one last murderous ordeal – most would die in the forced death march to other concentration camps in the west.
Left in the camp were still thousands of prisoners who were too ill to move. It is very likely that the SS intended to kill them all off, certainly that seemed to be the intention for the remaining Jews. But the last flight of the Germans had been very abrupt, they had not had time to complete their killings before they left in a panic.
Primo Levi, an inmate of Auschwitz for almost a year, was struck down by Scarlet Fever on 11th January, and had been moved to an isolation ‘ward’. He had watched the Germans disappear and then seen the long columns of German troops retreating westwards past the camp. Then as his strength gradually recovered he found himself caring for the other very sick men in his ward, then he began to gradually explore the unguarded camp:
If it is courageous to face a grave danger with a light heart, Charles and I were courageous that morning. We extended our explorations to the SS camp, immediately outside the electric wire-fence. The camp guards must have left in a great hurry.
On the tables we found plates half-full of a by-now frozen soup which we devoured with an intense pleasure, mugs full of beer, transformed into a yellowish ice, a chess board with an unfinished game. In the dormitories, piles of valuable things.
We loaded ourselves with a bottle of vodka, various medicines, newspapers and magazines and four first-rate eiderdowns, one of which is today in my house in Turin. Cheerful and irresponsible, we carried the fruits of our expedition back to the dormitory, leaving them in Arthur’s care.
Only that evening did we learn what happened perhaps only half an hour later. Some SS men, perhaps dispersed, but still armed, penetrated into the abandoned camp. They found that eighteen Frenchmen had settled in the dining-hall of the SS-Waffe.
They killed them all methodically, with a shot in the nape of the neck, lining up their twisted bodies in the snow on the road; then they left. The eighteen corpses remained exposed until the arrival of the Russians; nobody had the strength to bury them.
But by now there were beds in all the huts occupied by corpses as rigid as wood, whom nobody troubled to remove. The ground was too frozen to dig graves; many bodies were piled up in a trench, but already early on the heap showed out of the hole and was shamefully visible from our window.
Only a wooden wall separated us from the ward of the dysentery patients, where many were dying and many dead. The floor was covered by a layer of frozen excrement. None of the patients had strength enough to climb out of their blankets to search for food, and those who had done it at the beginning had not returned to help their comrades.
In one bed, clasping each other to resist the cold better, there were two Italians. I often heard them talking, but as I spoke only French, for a long time they were not aware of my presence. That day they heard my name by chance, pronounced with an Italian accent by Charles, and from then on they never ceased groaning and imploring.
Naturally I would have liked to have helped them, given the means and the strength, if for no other reason than to stop their crying. In the evening when all the work was finished, conquering my tiredness and disgust, I dragged myself gropingly along the dark, filthy corridor to their ward with a bowl of water and the remainder of our day’s soup.
The result was that from then on, through the thin wall, the whole diarrhoea ward shouted my name day and night with the accents of all the languages of Europe, accompanied by incomprehensible prayers, without my being able to do anything about it. I felt like crying, I could have cursed them.