David Dushman, Soviet Soldier Who Helped Liberate Auschwitz, Dies at 98

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BERLIN — David Dushman, who as a soldier for the Soviet Union drove his tank through the electric fence surrounding the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, and is believed to have been the last surviving liberator of the camp, died in Munich on Saturday. He was 98.

Mr. Dushman’s death was confirmed in a statement on Sunday by the Munich Jewish community organization. No cause of death was given.

“Every witness to history who leaves us is a loss, but parting with David Dushman is particularly painful,” Charlotte Knobloch, president of the organization, said in the statement.

Mr. Dushman was a 21-year-old Red Army soldier when he drove his T-34 into the high, electric barbed-wire fence surrounding the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Approaching the camp, he recalled peering through the viewing slit of his tank and, even after years of bloody fighting, being shocked by what he witnessed.

“Everywhere there were skeletons. They stumbled from the barracks, sat and lay among the dead,” he told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2015. “It was horrifying. We threw all of our canned food at them and drove on quickly, to keep chasing the fascists.”

By the time Mr. Dushman reached Auschwitz, he had already survived two of the war’s bloodiest battles on the eastern front, at Stalingrad and Kursk. By war’s end he had been wounded three times. He said he was one of only 69 men from the 12,000 in his division to survive.

It was only after the war, however, that he began to comprehend what he had witnessed at the death camp.

“To be honest, we knew hardly anything about Auschwitz,” he recalled.

More than 1.1 million men, women and children were murdered in the camp, which was set up in 1940 in the suburbs of Oswiecim, a Polish town that was annexed by the Nazis. More than 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

A Russian Jew, Mr. Dushman and his family were familiar with anti-Semitism and state-sanctioned discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Dushman’s birth certificate said that he was born in Minsk on April 1, 1923, but he maintained that his true place of birth was the port city of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland. He said his mother, Bonislava, changed the location for political reasons.

His father, Alexander, a doctor in the Soviet military and hero of the Revolution, fell out of favor with Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, and was banished in 1938 to a gulag in Siberia. He died there in 1949.

After the war Mr. Dushman studied medicine in Moscow, out of love for his mother, a pediatrician who wanted her son to carry on the family’s tradition of doctoring.

But his passion was fencing, and after his studies, Mr. Dushman dedicated himself to the sport.

He became the top-ranked fencer in the Soviet Union in 1951 and went on to become a coach at the elite Spartak Moscow sports club from 1952 to 1988. He also coached the women’s national team of the Soviet Union in fencing. Well into his 90s, Mr. Dushman would take the subway to a Munich sports club three times a week to fence.

He was married to his wife Zoja for 60 years, and since the couple never had children, he said he came to consider the young people he coached as family.

Zoja died in 2011 at their home in Munich, where they had emigrated in 1996. No information on survivors was immediately available.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, his team won two golds, two silvers and three bronze medals. But the victories were overshadowed by the attack on the Israeli team, who were housed across from the Soviets in the Olympic Village.

“We heard shots and the buzz of helicopters above us,” he later recalled. “We and all of the other athletes were outraged.”

A decade later, during the fencing world championship, the foil of a German fencer broke, fatally stabbing his Soviet opponent in the eye. When the German athlete, Matthias Behr, broke down in sobs of horror, it was Mr. Dushman who rushed to his side with words of comfort.

“It is not your fault,” he told Mr. Behr. “An accident like this was planned by God.”

When Thomas Bach, now president of the International Olympic Committee, was himself a junior fencer for West Germany in the 1970s, he recalled Mr. Dushman befriending him and offering him pointers, which he recalled in a statement as “a deep human gesture that I will never ever forget.”

In 2015 Mr. Bach invited the former coach to the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Mr. Dushman made an appeal to the committee to promote sport as a path to peace.

“My biggest dream and hope for future generations is to live in a world where there is no war,” Mr. Dushman said during his visit. “I urge Thomas Bach and the IOC to do everything they can to use sport as a way to spread peace and reconciliation around the world. War is something that should never happen again.”

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