The Holocaust comprised millions of horrors. Each victim of Nazi barbarity had a story of almost unimaginable suffering. And Germany inflicted a final series of humiliating, painful and deadly acts in the final years of World War Two, even as peace was finally approaching.
In the summer of 1944, the Soviet army won a series of battles on the Eastern front and pushed back the Germans forces. As they retreated, the Germans began to evacuate their concentration camps and forcing prisoners to march long distances toward territory in the interior of the Reich under German control.
By winter of 1944-45, the Germans faced defeat. They continued to evacuate the concentration camps in Poland. These forced marches towards Germany frequently took place in unbearable conditions, with despicable brutality along the route. The prisoners who had to endure them called them death marches, a term so apposite that it is now what historians employ.
Death marches lived down to their name. The majority of those forced on them—people who had already been interned in concentration camps—perished en route, either due to the insufferable conditions or at the hands of German murders. But a minority survived. The survivors’ testimony cited here comes from interviews they gave to the USC Shoa Foundation and Yad Vashem.
Although it is painful to hear what they and others had to endure, it is our history—a painful episode of Jewish history and European history. There were many death marches. In the final ten months of the war, about 250,000 people were killed on death marches.
This is the story of just one death march, which involved more than 1,300 Jewish women over the course of over 550 miles and 106 days and nights.
On January 20, 1945, the Germans evacuated around 1,000 female Jewish prisoners from a camp at Schlesiersee in Western Poland.
“It was bitterly cold in Schlesiersee,” survivor Zisla Heidt testified to a US intelligence officer. “And since we were very poorly dressed some of us women took the one blanket they possessed and wore it out to work. A check was made three or four times of all the woman returning from work, and all those found wearing their blankets were given as punishment 25 whip strokes…The girls were whipped until they were bloody.”
The women and girls had been sent there from Auschwitz-Birkenau a few months earlier, in order to dig anti-tank trenches to slow the Red Army’s advance. “We used to be beaten also for having our clothes a little wet or dirty,” Heidt recalled. “It was practically impossible to avoid this since our work consisted of digging anti-tank ditches in the snow.”
After enduring Auschwitz and this forced labor Schlesiersee, Zisla Heidt and a thousand others now had to march southwest toward Germany. As they passed more camps, such the one at Grünberg, more women had to join the death march.
Anny Keller, a prisoner at Grünberg, recalled the arrival of the death march. “A group of some 1,000 women arrived at our camp. We didn’t know that such things existed. Girls without hair, wearing wooden shoes without socks, wrapped in rags.” Even to a concentration camp inmate it was a shocking sight. “They arrived after a grueling march. It was winter and they had been sleeping outdoors. We looked at them and we couldn’t believe that human beings could look like that,” she recalled. “Little did we know that the same fate would befall us.”
After the addition of about 300 inmates from Grünberg, on January 29th 1945 approximately 1,350 women set off for a 106-day-long march. For trying to escape or simply stumbling they could be, and were, murdered at any time in the course of those three months. Any prisoners who could no longer walk, the SS guards leading the march killed. “If someone escaped,” remembered Herta Zauberman, “then they made a row and shot every other one.”
“We kept going. We kept going,” Bronia Landau remembered. “Every time fewer of us.” Eventually they became hardened to the inhumanity. She recalled there were “beatings, and we were indifferent. Nothing moved us. We walked like crazy animals.” Their treatment was certainly beastly. “Day in and day out, every day there were girls shot,” testified Herta Zauberman. “If they couldn’t follow or if they needed to stop for bodily functions or just if they…maybe the SS was next to him and they talked to each other or…just for any reason, they were shot or killed or hit with the butt.”
The women had no choice but to continue the march, or to die. “So we walked from village to village, from city to city,” recalled one survivor. “Each day we walked 25 kilometers.” One of the women asked a guard, “Where are you taking us?” His response was as chilling as the snow-covered winter fields. “He said that we have no goal; the goal is that everyone should die along the way.”
“It was just a killing field, just a killing field,” described Herta Zauberman. “Walking and walking, walking and crying and then stop crying,” she continued, “and freezing and starving.” They would never eat more than once a day. For Herta, the lack of food was perhaps the hardest challenge. “I mean hunger, there is no bigger punishment,” she said. “No killing and no hitting and no beating is as painful as hunger.”
The women marched without shoes, with just wooden clogs. There were bitter winter winds and heavy snow. “We didn’t have the strength to put one foot in front of the other,” recalled one survivor. “And every day the group was getting smaller and smaller.” Day after day, the women suffered. “We saw the same thing every day,” said Tema Weinstock. “Dead bodies, killings and beatings.”
Although the penalty for trying was death, “we began toying with the idea of escape,” recalled Gerda Weissmann Klein. “Several girls had already slipped away under cover of darkness.” Just as she dreamed her getaway, the Germans broke her reverie.
“‘All assemble!’ the voice of the SS rang out. For some moments we stood ready. Then we heard screams and frightened begging from the forest. Three SS men had rounded up fourteen girls in the forest. Now they lined them up in front of us. The commandant took out his pistol. The girls screamed. The commandant fired again and again and the girls fell, one on top of the other,” she testified. “At that moment I vowed that I would never try to escape, never take our lives into my hands, never step off the path that was leading us to death.”
One woman, Herta Goldman, did manage to escape. “I knew that tomorrow or the next day, it would be over. That was my fate. And I started thinking about escaping,” she said. “We saw girls escaping. We saw a big field with snow. And in the distance, on the horizon, we saw a forest with trees. Snow too, but trees. It required a great deal of courage to cross the field so that the German guard wouldn’t see us escape. So I said to Ruth that I didn’t want to see how they would shoot me. I said, ‘Ruth, we are not going to look back. We’ll run ahead until we reach the forest.’” About 30 women escaped under a hail of German bullets, while five were killed. “That night, I was lucky,” Goldman recalled. “It was 4 February 1945, and I was reborn.”
By March 6, 1945, the 1,350 women had been reduced to 621. The remaining prisoners arrived at the Helmbrechts camp in Germany. They were forced into a hut with just two buckets for waste between them. When the hut became dirty, they were whipped. The women received almost no food, and no medical treatment. They were forced to spend hours standing under the roof of the hut while water slowly dripped onto their exposed heads. When one young woman, Frania Reifer, was found with photos of her murdered family, she was forced to spend the whole day standing barefoot in the freezing snow.
But hellish as Helmbrechts was, it was merely the halfway point. The women were forced onwards, until those who were still standing made it to Volary in Czechoslovakia on the 5th of May 1945. There, American forces liberated the women. Of the 1,350 forced on the death march, only 118 were still living. Those who were alive were in terrible conditions; although the Americans took them to an improvised hospital, twenty-six died within days.
“My first glance at these individuals was one of extreme shock not ever believing that a human being can be degraded, can be starved, can be so skinny and even live under such circumstances,” recalled Major Aaron S. Cahan, a US medical officer. “When I entered the room I thought that we had a group of old men lying… at that time judged their ages ranged between fifty and sixty years. I was surprised and shocked when I asked one of these girls how old she was and she said seventeen, when to me she appeared to be no less than fifty.”
The women were in dire condition, suffering from malnutrition, dysentery, frostbite, injuries to their feet, and riddled with lice. Yet some survived and it is thanks to them and their testimony that we know the horrors that they and the many more who perished were forced to suffer. It is thanks to them that we know the horrific truth of the death marches.