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Auschwitz liberator: Prisoners saved from hell

By Mike Sefanov, CNN
  • Ivan Martynushkin recalls his role in history -- liberating Auschwitz death camp
  • He said: We were doing a good deed freeing these people from this hell
  • Martynushkin was a 21-year-old lieutenant in Soviet Army
  • Now he says people are forgetting the point of war

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- Ivan Martynushkin is a rare surviving witness to the horrors of the Holocaust, and only one of a handful still living who liberated the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

But the 86-year-old remembers the events of January 27, 1945 with great clarity. As the former lieutenant in the Soviet army told me about the atrocities he witnessed, it was clear how precious his memories were.

"We saw emaciated, tortured, impoverished people," he recalled. "Those were the people I first encountered... We could tell from their eyes that they were happy to be saved from this hell. Happy that now they weren't threatened by death in a crematorium. Happy to be freed. And we had the feeling of doing a good deed -- liberating these people from this hell."

As the Soviets approached the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, in occupied Poland, in mid-January 1945, Nazi SS officers forced nearly 60,000 prisoners to march west.

About 7,000 too weak or sick to move stayed behind. In total, historians say more than 1 million Jews, Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war and Poles were murdered there.

Video: Liberating Auschwitz
Video: Auschwitz: 65 years later

Russian Federal Security Services archives place the figure even higher, saying Nazis killed more than 4 million at Auschwitz.

Despite the hardships and horrors he experienced, Martynushkin was matter of fact as he spoke.

He said he got used to it. Auschwitz was just one of many prison camps he liberated as the Soviet army marched through Ukraine and Poland, pushing back Nazi forces.

Martynushkin was just focused on fighting the war. "No matter how miserable and tragic it all was, we are a fighting military troop. I am a soldier! I can't give in to feelings every single time," he said, emphatically.

"But what did I feel when I saw these people in the camp? I felt compassion and pity understanding how these people's fate unfolded. Because I could have ended up in the same situation. I fought in the Soviet army. I could have been taken prisoner and they could have also thrown me into the camp."

About 15,000 Soviet army POWs were murdered at Auschwitz, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Martynushkin says in the days leading up to the liberation, several hundred of his comrades died.

In all, about 600,000 Soviet soldiers died liberating Poland from the Nazis, according to Kremlin figures.

Recently in Russia, officials including President Dmitry Medvedev have defended the Soviet Union's role in World War II after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed a resolution that, in Medvedev's words, "grouped together Germany and the Soviet Union, pronouncing them to be equally responsible for World War II."

We had the feeling of doing a good deed -- liberating these people from this hell.
--Ivan Martynushkin

Martynushkin believes these types of discussions have led people to forget the point of the war.

He believes the main point was "the life of entire peoples were put at stake. They (the Nazis) were supposed to wipe out Jews, Slavs, the Russian civilization -- their culture and everything. This was what encompassed the Nazi New Order. And the camp at Auschwitz is a sinister symbol that reminds people what awaited mankind. This is what the victory of the Soviet Red Army with its allies over fascism means."

During an event in Krakow, Poland, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the then-Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Martynushkin with a special medal for his role in history.

Addressing Martynushkin and other veterans at the ceremony, Putin emphasized how harrowing the experience was for those who fought. "While some people today may have the impression that Soviet troops got here quite easily, opened the gates and said 'hello,' it was not like this at all.

"Life was completely different. At every kilometer, at every meter our troops faced fierce resistance from the enemy, and lost their comrades -- they lost them to save the lives of other people. And thousands of Russians and Ukrainians, (and) thousands of Jews who were saved by you, I am simply certain, will never forget this. Just as we, the generations that came after you, will not forget."

But Martynushkin doesn't consider himself a hero. He says he was just doing his job.