Holocaust Survivors' Network
Auschwitz liberator honored by Poland
1st Soviet to lead troops into death camp


March 6, 2005


The 92-year-old man in the wheelchair says he has had enough honors and could do very well without all the attention he has been receiving in recent months.



Anatoly Shapiro and his wife, Vita, in their Coney Island apartment. The first Soviet officer to lead troops into Auschwitz to liberate it 60 years ago, the 92-year-old man is determined to help the world remember that day in 1945.

But Anatoly Shapiro was the first Soviet officer to lead his troops into Auschwitz when it was liberated just over 60 years ago, so he continues to seize every opportunity to speak out about his experiences on that long-ago day, Jan. 27, 1945.

"There is no one besides me to tell this story," he says.

"The truth is that I feel exhausted from all of this. I have a severe headache and am in frail health. Yet I feel strongly about sharing my testimony so that people will know the truth about what happened in Auschwitz," he told the Daily News recently in the Coney Island apartment he shares with his wife, Vita.

He recently was presented with Poland's Official Cross of Merit, one of that country's highest honors, by Agnieszka Miszewska, the consul general of Poland in New York.

Shapiro had been invited to Crakow to speak at the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz after the president of Poland, but he was unable to make the trip because of his health.

So instead, Miszewska came to Coney Island to demonstrate her country's gratitude to Shapiro.

Handing him the medal, she said, "On behalf of the president of Poland, I want to express our thankfulness to you for liberating the Auschwitz death camp 60 years ago."

Vividly recalling the scene he confronted after he led his Red Army battalion of about 500 men into the death camp, Shapiro said: "The first thing I saw was a group of people standing outside in the snow who looked like skeletons, wearing striped clothing and rags on their feet instead of shoes.

"They were so weak they could not turn their heads. We told them, 'The Red Army has come to free you.' They couldn't believe us at first. They would come up to us and touch us to see if it was true."

Shapiro saw greater horrors when he was assigned by his commander to have his troops check out some of the barracks.

He recalled, "On the first barrack it was written, 'For Women.' We opened the gates and immediately were confronted by skeletal naked bodies, blood and excrement. Some were alive and others were dead."

"The barracks smelled so foul because of the decomposing bodies that it was impossible to stay inside for more than five minutes."

Shapiro and his contingent encountered similarly grisly scenes when they opened the men's and children's barracks.

"In the last barrack, which was for children, there were only two children left alive, and they began yelling, 'We are not Jews, we are not Jews!'" he recalled. "It turned out that they were Jews, but were afraid they were going to be taken to the gas chambers. Our medical workers took them out of the barracks to be washed and fed."

Asked how he felt as a Jew to be in the vanguard of the liberation of Jews in the Nazis' most horrific death camp, Shapiro responded, "I was very proud of being in the vanguard of the liberators, not so much because I was a Jew liberating the camp, but because we, the Red Army, liberated it."

Gesturing to the medals on his jacket, Shapiro said sadly, "The Soviet Union has disappeared, but these medals remain. I am very sorry the Soviet Union no longer exists. I lived the majority of my life there, and it was my home."