The Jewish Red Army Major Who Led the Liberation of Auschwitz

Photo Credit: 1. AFP / Getty Images 2. GB77 / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0

The German Army committed unspeakable atrocities against Europe’s Jewish population during World War II, including imprisoning them in concentration camps. They tried to destroy any evidence of these camps when the conflict began to shift toward an Allied victory, leaving behind carnage and horror for those who liberated them. 

Anatoly Shapiro: engineer-turned Soviet soldier

Anatoly Shapiro was born to Jewish parents in Konstantinograd, Ukraine (now Krasnohrad) on January 18, 1913. He attended the Zaporizhia State Engineering Academy, graduating with a diploma as an engineer-technologist.

Anatoly Shapiro as an elderly man
Anatoly Shapiro, 2011. (Photo Credit: GB77 / Wikimedia Commons CC0 1.0)

In 1935, Shapiro enlisted for national service in the Red Army. After studying in Kharkiv, he was appointed to the rank of lieutenant. When his three years were complete, he remained with the Army as a volunteer while working as a civilian engineer in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro) and Zaporizhia.

Military service following Operation Barbarossa

The German invasion of the Soviet Union – better known as Operation Barbarossa – prompted Shapiro to re-enlist with the Red Army in October 1941. He was assigned the command of a demolition and explosives unit and immediately sent to the Eastern Front.

Throughout the offensive, Shapiro slowed German movements by destroying bridges.

German infantrymen walking through the snow
German infantrymen following a tank towards Moscow in the snow, Russia, 1941. (Photo Credit: Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images)

As a result of his success, Shapiro was promoted to Deputy Commander – and within a month, Commander – of his infantry battalion. He led his soldiers during the Battle of the Caucasus, assuming a defensive position, and helped liberate the towns of Rostov-on-Don and Tuapse. His men also fought along the Mius River in 1942.

Shapiro was injured during the Battle of Kursk in 1943 and spent time recovering in a hospital. While he was recuperating, his battalion was disbanded, and upon his release, he was sent to the Irkutsk Division Commander and assigned to the 100th Rifle Division, 106th Rifle Corps.

By this time, the Germans were retreating, allowing for the liberation of Poland and Ukraine.

Liberation of Auschwitz

Shapiro led his unit – the 1085th ‘Tarnopol’ Rifle Regiment – across Poland, suffering heavy losses as they proceeded toward Auschwitz. After days of fighting, on January 27, 1945, they reached the mine-laden roads surrounding the camp

After crossing the Sola River, he ordered his men to enter the camp. To do so, they shot off the locks with their submachine guns.

Children standing behind barbed wire at Auschwitz
A group of child survivors behind a barbed wire fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the day of the camp’s liberation by the Red Army. (Photo Credit: Alexander Vorontsov / Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images)

Shapiro was not prepared for what he saw once he entered Auschwitz. Before leaving and forcing those prisoners who could walk on a Death March to Germany, the SS officers had killed many of those who had not already perished from malnutrition and disease.

“We told them we were the Red Army and had come to free them,” he said at a commemoration event 60 years later. “They began to feel our uniforms as if they didn’t believe us. We washed and clothed them and began to feed them.”

Auschwitz survivors walking through its front gates after their liberation
Survivors of Auschwitz leaving the camp, February 1945. (Photo Credit: Galerie Bilderwelt / Getty Images)

Birkenau was liberated by the infantry division led by Colonel Vasily Petrenko. In total, the Soviet troops found at least 1,200 survivors in Auschwitz and another 5,800 in Birkenau.

Of the liberation, Shapiro said one of the most difficult things he witnessed was when the Russian Red Cross tried to feed those who’d been imprisoned, only to find out they couldn’t eat because of malnutrition.

Post-war life

For his actions during the war, Shapiro was awarded two Orders of the Patriotic War of the 1st Class (and one of the 2nd Class), as well as two Orders of the Red Star. In September 2006, he was posthumously given the title of “Hero of Ukraine” by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko.

Anatoly Shapiro's gravestone
Shapiro’s gravestone at Beth Moses Cemetery in Long Island. (Photo Credit: GB77 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

He remained in Ukraine until the fall of the Soviet Union, emigrating to the United States in 1992. It was then he discovered the total lives lost during the Holocaust, prompting him to write several books about his experiences during the war.

Shapiro passed away on December 8, 2005. He is buried at Beth Moses Cemetery in Suffolk County, Long Island, New York.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

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