Infantryman Returns to Auschwitz
January 23, 2005
MOSCOW -- 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
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
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
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
"There was filth,
and blood. It was a women's barracks," he said, recalling
the sight of hard, three-level bunks covered with straw
Of the inmates he
said, "Some were crying, some were laughing."
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
"Sixty years have
passed, you forget a lot - and for 30 years, no one
showed interest or cared to ask," he said.
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
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