Death marches (Holocaust)
Death marches (Todesmärsche in German) refers to the forcible movements of prisoners of Nazi Germany between Nazi camps during World War II. They occurred at various points during the Holocaust, including 1939 in the Lublin province of Poland, in 1942 in Reichskommissariat Ukraine and across the General Government, and between Autumn 1944 and late April 1945 near the Soviet front, from the Nazi concentration camps and prisoner of war camps situated in the new Reichsgaue, to camps inside Germany proper, away from reach of the Allied forces. The purpose was to remove evidence of crimes against humanity committed inside the camps and to prevent the liberation of German-held prisoners of war.
Towards the end of World War II in 1945, Nazi Germany had evacuated an estimated 10 to 15 million people, mostly from East Prussia and occupied Eastern and Central Europe. While the Allied forces advanced from the West, and the Red Army advanced from the East, trapped in the middle, the German SS divisions abandoned all Nazi concentration camps, moving or destroying evidence of the atrocities they had committed. Thousands of prisoners were killed in the camps before the marches commenced. These executions were deemed crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg trials.
Although most of the prisoners were already very weak or ill after enduring the routine violence, overwork, and starvation of concentration camp or prison camp life, they were marched for kilometres in the snow to railway stations, then transported for days at a time without food, water, or shelter in freight carriages originally designed for cattle. On arrival at their destination, they were then forced to march again to new camps. Prisoners who were unable to keep up due to fatigue or illness were usually executed by gunshot.
The SS killed large numbers of prisoners by starvation before the marches, and shot many more dead both during and after for not being able to keep pace. Seven hundred prisoners were killed during one ten-day march of 7,000 Jews, including 6,000 women, who were being moved from camps in the Danzig region. Those still alive when the marchers reached the coast were forced into the Baltic Sea and shot.
Chełm to Hrubieszów, Sokal and Belz
In December 1939, male Jews from Chełm, Poland aged between 16 and 60, were forced on a death march to the nearby town of Hrubieszów. There, Jews were rounded up and forced to join the Chełm Jews. They were split into two groups on separate marches to Sokal and Belz, both across the modern border between Poland and Ukraine. In all, an estimated 2,000 Jews were murdered on this death march. There were only a handful of survivors.
Lublin to Biała Podlaska and Parczew
In January 1940, the Germans deported a group of prisoners from the Lipowa 7 prisoner of war camp to Biała Podlaska and then to Parczew. They rushed them on foot among snowstorms and temperatures below −20 °C (−4 °F). Those POWs who did not follow orders were killed by the German guards. The inhabitants of the nearby villages were forced to collect and bury the bodies in mass graves. Only a small group of prisoners survived this march of death. A few were able to escape into the woods and join the partisans.
Belz to Hrubieszow
In early June 1942, Jews concentrated in Belz were driven in a 60-kilometre (37 mi) death march to Hrubieszow. Those who could not continue on the way were shot by the SS guards. All death march survivors were deported along with about 3,000 Jews from Hrubieszow to Sobibor.
Auschwitz to Loslau
The largest and the most notorious of the death marches took place in mid-January 1945. On January 12, the Soviet army began its Vistula-Oder Offensive, advancing on occupied Poland. By January 17, orders were given to vacate the Auschwitz concentration camp and its subcamps. Between the 17th and 21st, the SS began marching approximately 56,000 prisoners out of the Auschwitz camps mostly to west to Loslau (Polish: Wodzisław Śląski)63 km (39 mi) away, but also some to northwest to Gleiwitz (Polish: Gliwice) 55 km (34 mi) away and others. Temperatures of −20 °C (−4 °F) and lower were recorded at the time of these marches. Some residents of Upper Silesia tried to help the marching prisoners. Some of the prisoners themselves managed to escape the death marches to freedom. At least 3,000 prisoners died on the Gleiwitz route alone. Approximately 9,000-15,000 prisoners in total died on death marches out of Auschwitz's camps, and those who did survive were then put on freight trains and shipped to other camps deeper in German held territory.
Stutthof to Lauenburg
The evacuation of the about 50,000 prisoners from the Stutthof camp system in northern Poland began in January 1945. About 5,000 prisoners from Stutthof subcamps were marched to the Baltic Sea coast, forced into the water, and machine gunned. The rest of the prisoners were marched in the direction of Lauenburg in eastern Germany. They were cut off by the advancing Soviet forces. The Germans forced the surviving prisoners back to Stutthof. Marching in severe winter conditions and treated brutally by SS guards, thousands died during the march.
In late April 1945, the remaining prisoners were removed from Stutthof by sea, since it was completely encircled by Soviet forces. Again, hundreds of prisoners were forced into the sea and shot. Over 4,000 were sent by small boat to Germany, some to the Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, and some to camps along the Baltic coast. Many drowned along the way. Shortly before the German surrender, some prisoners were transferred to Malmö, Sweden, and released to the care of that neutral country. It has been estimated that over 25,000 prisoners, around half, died during the evacuation from Stutthof and its subcamps. One hundred prisoners were liberated from Stutthof on May 9, 1945.
Buchenwald to Dachau, Flossenbürg and Theresienstadt
In early 1945, Buchenwald had received numerous prisoners moved from camps further east in territory lost to the Soviets, and camp authorities began to close the outlying camps of Buchenwald (such as those in Apolda and Altenburg) to concentrate prisoners in the main camp. In April 1945, about 28,000 prisoners were marched from Buchenwald on a journey of over 300 kilometers through Jena, Eisenberg, Bad Köstritz, and Gera with the intended destination of Dachau, Flossenbürg, and Theresienstadt. The remaining 21,000 prisoners in Buchenwald were liberated by the U.S. Third Army on April 11, 1945.
Dachau to the Austrian border
On April 24, 1945, the satellite labor camps around Dachau were being cleared out by the Nazis ahead of the advancing Allied troops, and some 15,000 prisoners were first marched to the Dachau camp, only to be sent southwards on a death march towards the Austrian border, the path for which generally headed southwards, partly along the eastern shore of the Starnberger See, taking a left turn to the east in the town of Eurasburg and heading towards the Tegernsee. By the timeframe of the second of May 1945, only some of the 6,000 prisoners sent on the death march were still alive, as those in failing health were being shot dead as they fell along the route. On that day, as the eastwards-marching prisoners had passed through Bad Tölz and were nearing Waakirchen, nearly sixty kilometers (37 miles) south of Dachau, several hundred of them were lying on the open ground in ill health, and among them were some who had already died from ill health and exposure to the elements, nearly all covered in freshly-fallen snow. These prisoners were spotted by advance scouts of the U.S. Army's 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, the only segregated Japanese American-manned military unit in Germany at the time — who had, only days before, liberated the Kaufering IV Hurlach satellite slave labor camp of the Dachau main camp's "system", and many of whose own relatives were themselves interned during the war on American soil — with the American troops doing what they could in attempts to save those left alive, for at least two days before dedicated medical personnel could take over. A memorial to the rescue by the 522nd exists at 47°46′6.15″N 11°38′55.30″E, just under two kilometers west of the Waakirchen town centre.
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Jewish prisoners from the outer Dachau camps were marched to Dachau, and then 70 miles south. Many of the Jewish marchers weighed less than 80 pounds. Shivering in their tattered striped uniforms, the "skeletons" marched 10 to 15 hours a day, passing more than a dozen Bavarian towns. If they stopped or fell behind, the SS guards shot them and left their corpses along the road.
- "Search Results". www.ushmm.org. Retrieved 5 April 2018.
- [As found on Google Earth https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/p/AF1QipNWPUhYWq785H_gux8qw1uAr7axokLXjXaaR44n=w720-h720-pd , with two photos of it taken by Ellen Haider]
- Goldhagen, Daniel (1997). Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-679-77268-2.
- Death Marches of Prisoners Map (from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)
- Iwo Cyprian Pogonowski, A map of the Death March of Brandenburg.
- Todesmarsch Dachau: Death marches from Dachau, Kaufering, Mühldorf and Allach (in German)
- USHMM Photos page of Waakirchen and 522nd FA BN Nisei soldiers
- Memorial to the Death March Victims: Chelm and Hrubieszow, Poland
- The Death March to Volary, at Yad Vashem website