OSWIECIM, Poland — On the morning of Jan. 27, 1945, white-clad Soviet reconnaisance troops of the First Ukrainian Front moved down out of the snowy hills west of Krakow in southern Poland to a marshy bend on the frozen Vistula River.
Scattered remnants of the collapsing German army put up token resistance, but with the appearance of Soviet tanks, the Germans fled. By mid-afternoon, battle-weary soldiers of the Red Army stood at the gates of a vast barbed-wire compound where an iron sign overhead declared in German, "Arbeit Macht Frei"-- Work Makes You Free.
This was Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps, the single bloodiest killing ground in recorded history, where as many as 4 million people--the vast majority of them Jews--were systematically exterminated through forced labor, starvation, disease, shooting, lethal injection and gassing, their bodies to be burned in industrial-scale crematoria.
Forty years ago Sunday, the few thousand half-starved survivors abandoned by their SS guards were free at last. The image of this moment is burned in the minds of those among them who still live, and who still suffer, as permanently as the identity numbers tattooed on their skin.
"I remember as much as a 4-year-old can," Lydia Maximowicz, one of about 200 children liberated that day, recalls.
The figures of her identity number, 7072, are oddly enlarged. They were small when tattooed on the right forearm of a toddler. The numbers grew as she did.
"I see it as still pictures in my mind: It was cold, then soldiers came in uniforms I had never seen before, and I felt very happy that they were friendly," said Maximowicz, a tall, blonde woman who now lives near Oswiecim, the town whose name the Germans rendered as Auschwitz.
"I remember the piles of corpses, but I didn't react to death anymore, I had seen so much of it. A dead or dying man was a normal sight to me. I was a little animal. I did not know what a toy was. The only language I spoke was camp jargon."
"Most of all, I remember the food they gave us that day," she said. "It was bread with margarine and coffee. I will never forget the taste of that food."
Auschwitz, the largest of six such extermination camps in Poland, still stands. The wooden watch towers and the encircling barbed wire once charged with 6,000 volts, the barracks, the underground torture cells, the gas chambers and the crematoria remain virtually as the Germans left them 40 years ago. Poland has preserved it all as a heart-rending monument to a calculated catastrophe.
This year, as every year, Polish officials marked the anniversary of the camp's liberation with a quiet ceremony. Wreaths were laid, there were speeches declaring that Auschwitz and what it stood for should never be forgotten. Two Soviet colonels and a general put in a brief appearance Saturday to commemorate the deaths of perhaps 300,000 Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz.
But the pilgrimages to Auschwitz by former prisoners are far more poignant than any formal ceremony could be.
About 150 Polish inmates came during the weekend, some as part of a yearly ritual of personal self-renewal and tribute to the 99% who perished. Others came for the first time in 40 years or more, in a brave, not always successful attempt to confront the latent terror that has dogged them through the years.
Most walked in silence down the orderly, poplar-lined streets, past the red-brick barracks to "Block 11," the Gestapo's torture house where, as one man said, "the only way out was through the side door to the execution wall" where 20,000 people were marched out naked in the course of four years and shot in the back of the head.
The silent ones, some with identity numbers pinned to their lapels, placed flowers by the wall, lit a candle and left. By walking through those gates again, another survivor explained, it was possible to relive the rush of joy one felt at the moment of liberation.
Others seemed to have succumbed to obsession. Like old war veterans, they traded tales of atrocities and argued over the dates of ghastly beatings and mass executions, of times when blood literally ran in the streets of Auschwitz.
Still others, paradoxically, seemed drawn back to Auschwitz and its much larger satellite work camp of Birkenau, three miles away, in search of emotional relief, as if to look Satan in the eye and find him only human.
"I returned to Auschwitz last year for the first time in 39 years," said Elzbieta Bogucka, a retired economist from Warsaw.
She was 13 years old in 1944, captured after the Warsaw uprising when the Germans reduced the city to rubble, transported in a freight car to Auschwitz, freed when the camp was liberated.
Can't Erase Memories
"Coming back was a very hard experience," Bogucka said in a voice that began to tremble. "I thought that all my experiences had been erased from my mind, but it wasn't true. I developed two ulcers and had to seek psychiatric help."