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First help

Soviet army medics and orderlies gave the first organized help to liberated Auschwitz prisoners. Two Soviet field hospitals, commanded by doctors with the rank of colonel, Veykov and Melay, soon arrived and began caring for the ex-prisoners.

Numerous Polish volunteers from Oświęcim and the vicinity, as well as other parts of the country, also arrived to help. Most of them belonged to the Polish Red Cross (PRC). Dr. Józef Bellert of Warsaw opened the Polish Red Cross Camp Hospital at the beginning of February and took responsibility for running it. More than 4,500 ex-prisoners from more than 20 countries, most of them Jews, became patients at the Soviet field hospitals and the PRC Camp Hospital. The majority of them were bedridden. They included over 400 children, some of whom were Jewish twins who until recently had been used as experimental subjects by SS physician Josef Mengele.

Hundreds of bedridden patients were pulled from bunks covered in filth and excrement, and taken to clean wards. They had to be introduced gradually to normal eating. They received their meals in small doses (for instance, one tablespoon of mashed potato soup three times a day at first, with this being increased to several spoonfuls at a time afterwards). Many weeks after liberation, nurses were still finding bread hidden under the patients’ mattresses. Some of the ex-prisoners hoarded bread in this way because they could not bring themselves to believe that they would receive more the next day.

Liberated prisoners who were in relatively good physical condition left Auschwitz immediately after the Soviet army arrived there. Most of the patients in the hospital did the same within three to four months.

Some set off for home on their own, and others in a variety of organized transports (several hundred Jewish ex-prisoners from western and south-eastern Europe by way of the USSR; others went by train to Odessa and from there to Marseille; others still passed through transit camps, a variety of DP camp, in Slutsk, Byelorussia, and Chernivtsi, in the Ukraine).