MOSCOW – The 75 years since Yevgeny Kovalev was a teenage prisoner in Auschwitz have been marked by tormented memories and a wonder that he's still alive.
“Remembering all that is always like torture for me, can you imagine that? I'm even wondering myself how I could survive those times,” the 92-year-old retired Russian factory worker told The Associated Press ahead of the 75th anniversary Monday of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army.
“We lived for minutes. We didn't hope that we would survive,” he said.
Kovalev's journey into the depths of the Nazi death-camp system began when he was arrested in 1943 at age 15 for helping partisans fight German forces occupying the Smolensk area in western Russia. He aided in sabotage attacks that blew up Nazi Germany's trains and equipment.
“They put me on a bench, tied up my feet and body and scourged me with whipping sticks. My shirt was wet through with blood," he said.
He was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the vast expanse of crude barracks and crematoria built by the Nazis in occupied Poland that was created to supplement the original Auschwitz camp, where the first victims to be fatally gassed and incinerated by the Nazis were Soviet war prisoners.
Auschwitz was the most notorious in a system of death and concentration camps that Nazi Germany operated on territory it occupied across Europe. In all, 1.1 million people were killed there, most of them Jews from across the continent.
At Birkenau, trains pulling boxcars crammed with prisoners pulled into the camp and the occupants were unloaded onto the platform.
“Those people were civilians. None of them knew they would be burned,” he recalled. “They went to decontamination, went into the wash house, were locked inside and Zyklon the gas came. In five to seven minutes, everyone was dead.”
Many of the arrivals were told they were being taken to showers for decontamination.
So many prisoners were killed that the crematoria on the edge of the camp couldn't incinerate all the bodies. Auschwitz's Sonderkommando prisoner work units threw many bodies into open pits and burned them there.
The crematoria worked around the clock. “Smoke came day and night and the smell was terrible,” he said.
Prisoners who were ill or feeble were culled from the new arrivals and executed quickly. Younger, healthier prisoners were kept alive in order to perform work, but even teenagers feared they could be chosen for elimination.
The infamous doctor Joseph Mengele came to the camp and conducted selections of “who should go to the crematorium and who should stay. I went through this procedure three times. It was horrible. We knew perfectly well that we could be burned,” Kovalev said.
At some point, teenagers such as Kovalev were sent to a subcamp that had previously been used for Roma prisoners.
“We opened one of the barracks and it was full of clothes, including children’s clothes, shoes, so many of them. That was terrible. They exterminated people, burned them and left the clothes,” he said.
He said another barracks had packs of human hair that the Nazis planned to use somewhere.
In late 1944, he and many other young Auschwitz prisoners were sent to northern Czechoslovakia as forced labor in a radio factory. Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, but Kovalev still had to work as a forced laborer at the factory until April of that year.
After the war's end, he joined the Soviet military, then got work in a plant manufacturing automobile parts, from which he retired in 1990.
He remains stunned by the twists of fate he endured as a youngster.
“It was just a coincidence” that he survived, Kovalev said. “We never hoped that we would survive, absolutely, no one had any hope. "