On Jan. 18, 1945—just 10 days before the Red Army liberated Auschwitz—the SS sent 56,000 prisoners on a series of death marches. The evacuations became part of a cascading mudslide of mayhem and murder that killed as many as 250,000 concentration camp inmates and POWS in the last four months of the war. Unlike the Nazi extermination program itself, this outcome was not planned or premeditated. Rather, it was largely the result of murderous inertia, bureaucratic bungling, and confusion. The Auschwitz prisoners followed a number of routes, all of them through one of Europe’s severest winters ever recorded. This is the story of one march by one camp: Blechhammer, the largest exclusively Jewish slave labor camp in the Auschwitz system, and the second largest subcamp overall. All quotes are from published testimonials, memoirs, news reports, and personal interviews.
This much the nearly 4,000 Haflinge, “detainees,” of Blechhammer knew: The Red Army’s winter offensive was crushing the German defenders along the entire 558-mile front.
Now rumors ricocheted like shrapnel throughout the camp … that the Germans were panicked and packing and would abandon the camp and its prisoners to the Russians … or, yes, the Germans were indeed packing, but the SS had wired the barracks with dynamite, intending to blow everyone up before they quit … or, no, trains were being readied to evacuate everyone to labor camps deeper into Germany.
A withdrawal on foot was largely discounted because it was winter, snowing heavily with temperatures sinking to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. To walk any distance in this weather would be insane. “After all,” this thinking went, “they still need us.”
Haftling 179020 knew better. Sigmund Walder worked as an electrician alongside British POWs at the Blechhammer North refinery’s central control station. They had warned him their officers were preparing for just such a forced march, distributing extra winter clothing and food rations, courtesy of the Canadian Red Cross.
Sigmund told me he had “organized” several pairs of new combat boots from his POW contacts and had distributed some to friends. Haftling 178489, Walter Spitzer, told me he had been a recipient of Walder’s largesse.
I saw people look straight into the eyes of their executioner as they waited for death.
What neither Walder or Spitzer knew was that the previous June, Heinrich Himmler had issued orders that in the event of a general retreat, all POWs and concentration camp prisoners were to be evacuated deeper into Germany. Indeed, between June and January the population of Auschwitz had been reduced by about half—some 60,000 Haflinge.
Problem was, in the following months, little was done by way of the detailed logistical planning necessary to move hundreds of thousands of prisoners, from scores of camps, across hundreds of miles. When the Red Army’s offensive hit on January 12, senior SS officials were left scrambling, improvising as events unraveled with startling speed.
Himmler’s orders had also said no POW or prisoner was to fall alive into the hands of the Red Army. Senior concentration camp commanders received conflicting answers when they asked what this vague statement meant. Interpretation was essentially left to the SS guards who would accompany the prisoners. They weren’t called the Death’s Head Division for nothing.
As the Russians took Warsaw on January 17, Berlin ordered the gas chambers at Auschwitz blown up and all records of its activities destroyed. That morning, the last roll call was recorded for Auschwitz and its subcamps: 66,020. This included 3,959 Haflinge in Blechhammer, about 35 miles northwest of the main Auschwitz camp.
Four days later, some 2,500 inmates from the Gleiwitz subcamps arrived in Blechhammer overnight. Exhausted, hungry, and cold, they told of a three-day forced march through heavy snow and subfreezing temperatures. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was shot.
The camp’s loudspeakers made it official later that morning. Blechhammer was being evacuated to a safer area, with better working conditions, in the west. Prisoners would receive double food rations for the trip. They could bring their food tins, spoons, blankets, and personal possessions. Only those too ill to walk could remain behind.
No one believed this. It was a given the SS would shoot anyone left behind.
The pandemonium that erupted indicates how surprised many were to learn they were being sent on a forced march. Prisoners broke into the food lockers and clothing warehouse, grabbing whatever food and warm clothing they could before the kapos arrived with their clubs and whips to restore order. The Germans really were panic-packing and stayed outside the wire.
On the food lines, kapos distributed the promised double ration: about a pound of black camp bread, a double portion of artificial honey, a dab of margarine, and a slice of horsemeat sausage.
Once outside the 16-foot walls, the SS shunted the prisoners to side roads. The main ones were reserved for military traffic and hundreds of thousands of German civilians, many hauling carts laden with furniture and household possessions, all fleeing west, away from the approaching thunder of Russian artillery.
Wind cut like razor wire. For some protection any prisoners wore “camp undershirts,” fashioned from paper sacks used for cement under their striped uniforms. The sacks were constructed of several layers of brown industrial paper. The innermost layer, the one most impregnated with cement dust, was stripped out. Holes were cut for the arms and head.
Relatively few Haftlinge had scored proper footwear like Sigmund Walder and Walter Spitzer. Most wore standard concentration camp issue “Dutch” clogs—cloth uppers tacked to unyielding wood soles.
Snow stuck to the soles of these wooden shoes. To move forward, Haftlinge had to lift their legs high like quarter horses, stopping every few steps to knock off the accumulating snow. But on whom could you lean on for support? Fabric uppers would tear from the tacks holding them to the wood soles. Prisoners then walked with only rags around their feet. Caking snow weighed down blankets the prisoners had wrapped around their heads and shoulders. Many discarded them, too.
The great terror was knowing that, despite your exhaustion, you had to stay on your feet and keep walking.
The flat, echoing crack of a gunshot ruptured the silence every few minutes.
“The great terror was knowing that, despite your exhaustion, you had to stay on your feet and keep walking,” Haftling A-5714, Robert Wiederman, recalled. “If you sat down to rest or were too weak to go on, you were shot. On the march, we heard constant rifle and pistol shots.” (After the war, Wiederman would change his name to Clary and become the actor best known for his role as LeBeau in the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.)
Any pretensions of order soon dissolved. Those at the head of the column had to forge a path through the fresh snow. Those in the back risked being shot by the rear guard for falling behind. Those with the presence of mind tried to stay in middle.
Occasionally, the Haftlinge crossed paths with POWs outfitted in layers of woolen winter khakis, heavy coats, hats, and leather boots. Before starting out, they had each received a four-day ration of tinned meat, bread, margarine, sugar, and cigarettes. Nevertheless, the POWs did not escape unscathed. Between 2,200 and 3,500 American and British POWs were shot or died from exposure, disease, or starvation in the months of the death marches.
Eddie Hyde-Clark, a POW from Suffolk, England, was just settling down to eat when he looked up and “coming towards us I see what can only be described as a shuffling collection of living skeletons. Never have I witnessed such utter despair on the faces of human beings with such hollow faces and protruding bones, all dressed in filthy uniforms that looked like gray-striped pajamas.”
At night, the guards crammed prisoners into abandoned barns or warehouses. Food was haphazardly distributed, the rations from Blechhammer long gone.
On the fourth day of the march, Haftling 178610, Abraham Schaufeld limped from the barn where he had spent the night jammed against hundreds of fellow prisoners.
A German guard spotted him. “Du kannst nicht aufen, you can’t walk?”
“Ja natürlich, Mir geht es gut. Yes, of course, I’m fine.”
The guard ordered him to one of three horse-drawn carts, the last filled with SS men and machine guns. At dusk, the carts pulled up to a fresh ditch dug against a low brick wall of a village cemetery.
“They said, ‘remove your clothing,’” Schaufeld recalled. “People started shouting and screaming because they could see the ditch and people against the wall, people crying in all sorts of languages.”
Amid the pushing, shouting, and tumult, “I went over the wall, into the cemetery. I lay down near a gravestone, near the wall. By now it’s dark. I could hear the shooting. The screams and the shooting, the full massacre. And then it was quiet.”
Schaufeld lay as silent as the gravestones. “I gave it some time. This was winter. Sodden fields. I walked through these fields. In this mud, in this field, I lost my wood shoes. I walked barefoot. No overcoat. Nothing.”
Schaufeld made for the vague lights of a village, fell into the hay of open barn, and passed out.
Awakened suddenly by a barking dog and a lantern’s dancing light, Schaufeld saw a German farmer standing over him with a pitchfork, and the farmer’s wife shouting. The local village policeman soon arrived. “I told them my father was an officer in the Polish army. They gave me something to eat, some coffee.”
The policeman handcuffed Schaufeld and walked him back to the main column, “telling me that he was sorry, that the SS would probably shoot me.”
The SS guards, “immediately start smacking me around, kicking me. Luckily some women came around and said, ‘Why are you hitting that boy’ and they stopped. They said, ‘take him to the barn, we will deal with him later.’”
It’s a terrifying spectacle to see the dead carried by the half dead.
Schaufeld avoided the SS by mingling with the hundreds of prisoners leaving the barn and rejoined the column.
Days merged into a nightmare of hunger and exhaustion and gunshots. Unable to walk, more and more prisoners fell to the side of the road.
“Not being able to go on, they resigned themselves to certain death,” Walter Spitzer recalled. “I saw people look straight into the eyes of their executioner as they waited for death.”
Peter Black, a POW from Scotland, said, “The Jewish columns were ahead of us. Most were in a pitiful state and if they didn’t keep up, they were shot and their bodies left by the road.”
POWs weren’t the only witnesses to the carnage.
Rudolf Hoss, promoted from Auschwitz Kommandant to a headquarters job, was dispatched to the Eastern Front for a firsthand look after communications were cut off by the Soviet advance.
“There was no food. In most cases, the [German officers] who were leading this parade of walking dead had no idea which direction they were supposed to go,” Hoss recalled from his prison cell awaiting execution for crimes against humanity. “It was easy to follow the route of this ordeal of suffering because every few hundred meters lay bodies of prisoners who had collapsed or been shot.”
By the time the columns reached the Gross-Rosen concentration camp 13 days and 180 miles later, about 800 of the roughly 6,000 Blechhammer and Gleiwitz Haftlinge who began the death march on January 21 had been shot or otherwise died and left lying in the snow and mud.
The ordeal was to become worse.
Three months before the Soviet offensive, the Kommandant of Gross-Rosen received instructions from Berlin advising that his camp would be the destination for thousands of prisoners should there be a general evacuation of camps from the east. Little, however, was done to prepare. When Soviets launched their attack, the camp was unprepared for the arrivals from Blechhammer and elsewhere. Gross-Rosen swelled to more than 97,000 prisoners.
Many guards and kapos were Ukrainian nationals working for the SS. “They were totally dehumanized, filled with hate and anger,” recalled Haftling 178488, Edward Gastfriend. The kapos “beat our heads with whips and sticks. There was no way to escape the gauntlet. We pushed forward and in our panic trampled over other unfortunates who did not have the strength to run.”
Walter Spitzer remembered the corpses, stacks of them. “This incredible sight that has haunted me for many years since: a constant line of prisoners, pulling corpses, or skeletons more precisely, holding them by the tendons and the skin … The white of the bodies stand out against the gray and dark brown of the muddy earth. In the total silence, the only thing we can hear is the dull sound of the skulls and the open mouths scraping on the ground …”
“It’s a terrifying spectacle to see the dead carried by the half dead.”
Robert Clary was also haunted by his memories. “Oh I have tasted hell on Earth and I know what it is,” Clary recalled. “They did not know what to do with us. They shoved us into unfinished barracks, no windows, no doors, no bunks, no straw on the floor, just cold cement and it’s freezing and muddy outside.”
Roll calls were held in a newly plowed field on plateau above the main camp, exposed to the winter winds. Prisoners stood in slush for hours. Many sank into the mud and died there.
After three days of this frozen hell, thousands of prisoners were loaded into open coal railcars and shipped 300 miles west to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar.
The words above the gate—Jeden das Seine, To Each His Own—were prophetic. The loose brotherhood of Blechhammer prisoners disintegrated as each man had to make his own way in this new camp.
Buchenwald was liberated on April 11, 1945, by Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. By then, more than 5,000 prisoners had died, most of starvation, dysentery, though hundreds were also shot. For tens of thousands more in camps across the shrinking Reich, successive death marches continued for nearly a month more, until the Nazi regime itself was declared dead.
This article was adapted from the author’s investigative memoir, What They Didn’t Burn, which tracks down a Nazi paper trail that uncovers his father’s Holocaust secrets.
Mel Laytner, a former foreign correspondent for NBC News and UPI, is the author of What They Didn’t Burn: How Hidden Nazi Documents Proved a Survivor’s Holocaust Stories.