David Dushman, the last surviving member of the Soviet tank regiment that liberated the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in January 1945, has died aged 98. A decorated veteran, he went on to become a sporting legend despite his injuries.
Dushman died in Munich, Germany, where he lived for the past two decades, on Saturday.
While he was celebrated internationally as one of the soldiers who liberated the notorious concentration camp, the veteran himself downplayed his role in the operation. In one of his interviews, Dushman said that he did not see himself as an Auschwitz liberator since he was not with the First Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army, which entered the camp on January 27, 1945.
Instead, he served in the First Belorussian Front, and was part of a small group of five tankmen who were ordered to make a detour and help the prisoners, who were believed to be at imminent risk of extermination.
The Soviet Union named its battle groups after the territory they were formed to liberate. For example, despite its name, the First Ukrainian Front was originally established in Voronezh, Russia. Its Belorussian equivalent was created from the Central Front, headquartered in Russia’s Lipetsk region.
“Five tanks, including mine, were sent a little south. When we arrived, we saw this fence and these unfortunate people. We mowed down the fence with the tanks,” Dushman said in one of his interviews.
Right after the barbed-wire fence gave way under his tank, he saw malnourished people in striped prison uniforms staring at him.
“The prisoners were standing and looking at us… It was terrible. All the food that we’d got, we gave them,” Dushman said.
Around 7,000 people were still in the Auschwitz camp when the Soviets arrived, with many other prisoners sent out on a death march. About 1.1 million people perished in the camp during the war, most of them Jews.
Dushman was a promising athlete when he joined the army immediately after the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941. Aged 18 at the time, he had just become a Moscow youth fencing champion and had to insist being sent to the frontline despite protests from the enlistment office.
“I made a big scandal there. Briefly speaking, I achieved what I wanted. I was enlisted practically on the second day after the start of the war,” the veteran told RT’s Ruptly video agency in an interview in 2019.
Dushman was injured three times during WWII, having fought in several key battles. He participated in the encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad, and took part in the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, among others. After the war ended, Dushman revived his sporting career. In 1951, he became the Soviet Union fencing champion, and then served as a coach of the USSR women’s fencing team for 36 years. His athletes went on to claim four Olympic gold medals, in addition to multiple world championships.
Commenting on his passing, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, and fellow fencer, Thomas Bach paid tribute to Dushman.
“When we met in 1970, he immediately offered me friendship and counsel, despite Mr Dushman’s personal experience with World War II and Auschwitz, and him being a man of Jewish origin,” Bach said.
“This was such a deep human gesture that I will never ever forget it,” the IOC chief said in a statement.
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