MOSCOW (AP) _ When Soviet troops advanced on the town of Oswiecim in southern Poland 50 years ago, they were on the verge of a ghastly discovery.
Josef Stalin and his inner circle in Moscow knew there was a huge German concentration camp where Jews were being slaughtered in the town _ which the Nazis called Auschwitz. But they didn’t tell Soviet commanders.
Vasily Petrenko, 83, remembers the horrifying discovery vividly.
``I first learned about the camp from the commander of the 100th division, who told me they had found a ghastly place, where thousands of people had been murdered,″ the retired general told The Associated Press.
Petrenko, a young colonel in charge of an infantry division at the time, thought he was immune to the outrages of war.
``I had seen a lot of terrible scenes while fighting on the front lines. I saw my comrades dying, I saw signs of German atrocities in the territories we freed _ dozens of people hanged by the Germans, women and children shot to death,″ Petrenko said, shuddering at the memory.
``What I saw in the camp was beyond any comparison.″
What Petrenko encountered on Jan. 28, 1945, the day after the liberation of Auschwitz, would nauseate even the most hardened soldier.
``I saw 82 children, from three to 14 years old, wracked by criminal medical experiments.
``I saw women and children who resembled skeletons, who couldn’t even smile in a human manner. They had tears in their eyes, but they couldn’t even sob.
``I saw bags filled with women’s hair. They told me there were seven tons of hair there.
``How many women did they have to kill to get such an amount of hair?″ Petrenko asked, still shaken by what he saw.
Petrenko said 27,000 people were still in the camp as the Soviets approached on Jan. 24, and the Nazis tried to kill them all to silence witnesses to their atrocities.
``When our troops moved in, the Nazis saw they did not have time to gas the remaining prisoners. So they started shooting them, spraying the barracks with machine gun fire,″ he said. ``When I came there, I saw thousands of dead bodies. The barracks were flooded with blood.″
Only 7,000 to 10,000 inmates survived the slaughter.
Petrenko said the liberation of Auschwitz was not the goal of the campaign in southern Poland, and planners in Moscow did not bother to inform generals in the field of its existence.
``Neither Stalin, nor the top military commanders mentioned the camp,″ said Petrenko, who has researched the operation in military archives. ``I was a colonel of a rifle division. I did not know anything about any camp and neither did Marshal (Ivan) Konev,″ one of the officers in charge of the operation.
He said the archives showed Stalin had learned of the camp’s existence from intelligence sources as well as from President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain.
``Stalin and his inner circle were not eager to to protest the killing of Jews because they were anti-Semites,″ Petrenko said. Soviet prisoners of war were also in Auschwitz and they were considered traitors for being captured.
``That is why the Soviet leadership paid no attention to the camps,″ Petrenko said. Their goal was to take Katowice, an industrial city about 25 miles to the northwest.
Auschwitz was just a town to take along the way, they thought.
``It had no military or economic value from a military viewpoint. No interest at all,″ Petrenko remembered. ``The people who planned the military operation ignored the fact of the camp.″
When the Soviet troops learned of the camp’s existence from Germans taken prisoner on Jan. 26, they immediately ordered artillery attacks on the retreating Nazis halted to avoid shelling the camp.
``When they became aware of the camp, they did everything necessary to liberate the camp and not allow prisoners to die,″ Petrenko said.
Petrenko still has a military bearing, and proudly wears the gold star of a Hero of the Soviet Union above eight rows of campaign ribbons.
He wants the world to remember Auschwitz, and he traveled to Israel this month for a reunion of survivors of the camp, wearing his medals on his suit jacket.
``I’m just an old soldier,″ he said. ``But as one of the few remaining participants alive, I want to establish an international day of commemoration for those who became victims of Nazi prison camps or gave their lives to liberate them.″