David Dushman, the last surviving member of the tank regiment that liberated Auschwitz Nazi death camp in January 1945, has died aged 98. A decorated veteran, he went on to become a sporting legend despite his heavy injuries.
Dushman died in Munich, Germany, where he had lived for the last two decades, on Saturday.
While he was celebrated internationally as one of the soldiers who liberated the notorious death camp, the veteran himself downplayed his role in the operation.
In one of his interviews Dushman said that he does not see himself as the Auschwitz liberator since he was not with the First Ukranian Front of the Soviet Army that entered the camp on 27 January 1945.
Instead, Dushman 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, believed to be at the imminent risk of extermination.
“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,” Dushamn recalled in one of his interviews.
Right after the barbed-wire fence gave way under his tank’s tires, Dushman 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 recalled.
Around 7,000 people were still in the Auschwitz camp when the Soviets arrived, with the 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 on him being sent to the frontline despite the 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 the war, having fought in several key WWII 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 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.