BY THE TIME the Soviet Army reached Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945 -- 60 years ago this week -- my father was no longer there. Ten days earlier, the Nazis had evacuated about 67,000 of the death camp's inmates, dispatching them on brutal forced marches to the west. My father, then 19, was in a group sent into Austria. He ended up at the concentration camp in Ebensee, near Mauthausen. Liberation there didn't come until May 9, with the arrival of US soldiers from the 80th Infantry Division.
My father had entered Auschwitz the previous spring, together with his parents, his two brothers, and two of his three sisters. They, too, were gone by the time the camp was liberated. Unlike my father, they didn't leave on foot. They "left" through the chimney. For the overwhelming majority of the more than 1.1 million Jews who were sent to Auschwitz, there was no other exit.
Jews were not the only victims. Nearly 75,000 Poles, more than 20,000 Gypsies, 15,000 Soviets, and 10,000 members of other nationalities were murdered at Auschwitz as well. The Nazis first used the camp, in fact, as a prison for Polish dissidents, and Birkenau, the huge 1941 addition that became the main Auschwitz killing center, was originally designed to hold Soviet POWs.
But beginning in the spring of 1942, Auschwitz became first and foremost a slaughterhouse for Jews. From every corner of Europe, Jews were sent there . . .