On 27th January, 1945, soldiers of the Soviet 322nd Rifle Division entered the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, they found 7,500 sick and weak prisoners and 600 corpses, left behind by the Germans who had earlier evacuated the stronger, fitter prisoners and force-marched them towards Wodzislaw Slaski.
It was not the first camp to be discovered by the advancing Soviet Army and it would not be the last, with similar discoveries also being made by the British and American armies advancing from the west. The camps marked the discovery of a horrible secret the Germans had been keeping, the mass extermination of Jews, Soviet prisoners, Romanii, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. It was the largest genocide ever embarked upon, state sponsored and industrial in its efficiency. Eleven million men, women and children were ultimately killed by this “machine”.
Seventy years on, we have not forgotten the impact that the Holocaust had on the world. Denial of it is punishable with prison time, but we also celebrate the victories won in its shadow, like Sir Nicholas Winton’s operation to rescue Czechoslovakian children or Frank Foley’s provision of passports and visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis.
Since those fateful discoveries at the closing of the Second World War, the UK Armed Forces have fought hard against many other attempted genocides. In the 1990s British troops entered Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo in part to prevent the genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Republic of Srpska and Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic.
More recently, British forces have been training personnel to combat the growing status of groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State, which have shown that, if given the opportunity to commit mass murder, is not beyond them to do so for something as trivial as a person being Christian or homosexual.
Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, are currently helping to train the Nigerian military in infantry combat, counter explosive-device operations and emergency medical care. The UK also supports a Nigerian intelligence and analysis cell, which helps them to combat Boko Haram, the group responsible for more than 20,000 killings in Nigeria and the displacement of over 2 million people. As the Holocaust Memorial Day website shows, the path to genocide is short and begins with disrespecting those who are different than us. It easy to stop in the early stages, but like a runaway freight train, the hatred picks up speed until it is impossible to stop.
Let us hope that we never again have to see such frightfully high numbers as 11 million dead to satisfy the whims of a crazed megalomaniac. Thanks to the efforts of the UK Armed Forces and many other militaries and governments around the world, this is a realistic and achievable goal.
Forces War Records are pleased to announce we have exclusively transcribed the British Jewry Book of Honour.
The book lists over 50,000 Jewish servicemen who paid the ultimate sacrifice in WW1 by giving their lives.
The 'Big Blue Book' as it came to be known, is a unique research resource for those with Jewish ancestors from WW1