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'Exhaustion wasn't enough; they attacked with machine guns'

London exhibition focuses on ‘overlooked and understudied’ Nazi death marches

Wiener Holocaust Library highlights early postwar efforts to investigate ‘mobile concentration camps’ and the identity of their victims

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

An undated clandestine image of a Nazi-led forced march. (Courtesy US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
An undated clandestine image of a Nazi-led forced march. (Courtesy US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

LONDON — It has been described as the “last murderous eruption” of the Third Reich. In the closing months and weeks of World War II, the SS evacuated its vast network of concentration camps, forcing hundreds of thousands of prisoners onto death marches.

The exact number of those who perished is impossible to quantify. Many died by the sides of roads from exhaustion on routes which sometimes snaked for hundreds of miles across the ever-shrinking territory of Hitler’s Germany. Others were picked off and shot by guards as they fell behind or were murdered in apparently random acts of killing.

But, as a new exhibition at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library details, this final act of Nazi savagery has often been an “overlooked and understudied” aspect of the Holocaust.

The exhibition, which runs until August 27, contains survivor testimonies which have been translated into English for the first time. It outlines early postwar efforts to investigate the death marches and the identity of their victims.

It also graphically challenges the notion that the Nazis kept German civilians entirely insulated from their darkest crimes.

“As the marches crossed through communities throughout Germany, these ‘mobile concentration camps’ entered into their lives,” write Prof. Dan Stone and Dr. Christine Schmidt, the exhibition curators, in an accompanying guide. “No one could fail to observe the emaciated, weakened inmates, the dead bodies that littered the road, and the brutality of the guards.”

Dr. Christine Schmidt, deputy director and head of research at the Wiener Holocaust Library. (Toby Simpson/ Adam Soller Photography)

The exhibition also highlights how the vast majority of those responsible for the death marches went unpunished.

The death marches occurred in three stages as Hitler’s armies retreated in the face of the Allied advance. In the first, commencing in the summer of 1944, camps in eastern Poland and the Baltic states were evacuated. In January 1945, a new stage began involving prisoners in large camps, including Auschwitz, in occupied Poland. For many inmates, their final destination — if they reached it — was Bergen-Belsen.

Prof. Dan Stone of the Royal Holloway University of London and co-curator of the Wiener Holocaust Library’s ‘Death Marches: Evidence and Memory.’ (Courtesy)

Two months later, a final stage saw camps in Germany itself evacuated. By the time of the German surrender, at least 35 percent of the more than 715,000 inmates still held in concentration camps in January 1945 were dead. Those forced to participate in the death marches included every nationality from across Europe. Jews, who were murdered in disproportionately large numbers, were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

The first accounts of the death marches were provided shortly after the end of the war by survivors to relief workers in displaced persons camps and to agencies attempting to trace missing people. Investigators compiling evidence for war crimes trials and historical commissions also collected valuable testimony. Today, the Wiener Holocaust Library holds 45 eyewitness accounts of death marches which have been translated into English, digitized and made available online for the first time.

As the exhibit makes clear, survivors’ accounts are often fragmentary — reflecting the arbitrary violence and chaotic nature of the death marches — and can be difficult to interpret. Nonetheless, they provide historically vital evidence about the appalling conditions on the marches and about how some prisoners managed to survive them.

‘Death Marches: Evidence and Memory,’ a new exhibition at the Wiener Holocaust Library in London. (Courtesy)

Hungarian survivor István Klauber, for instance, provided a graphic account in August 1945 of the “indescribable ordeals” faced by those on a death march to Dachau in the final days of the war.

“The real suffering started then,” he told Hungary’s National Committee for Attending Deportees. “After three days of marching we arrived in Gleiwitz. The next day we were taken to Buchenwald. It took us 11 days to get there… We traveled in open freight cars in a wild blizzard, we were wearing ragged summer clothes, we had no blankets and we had no food or water… The guards were not satisfied with hundreds of people dying of fatal exhaustion, so they used more radical methods: they attacked with machine guns.”

Out of the 10,000 prisoners leaving with the transport, Klauber recounted, only 2,000 arrived in Dachau on April 27, 1945. “All of us were close to death,” his account concluded.

Efforts at escape were, other survivors recalled, perilous and the guards exacted a high price on those who tried and failed.

Items on display at the Wiener Holocaust Library’s new exhibition, ‘Death Marches: Evidence and Memory.’ (Courtesy)

“What prevented so many prisoners from attempting to escape was the thought of months of having to wander around in the woods with the constant fear of being captured,” Flossenbürg concentration camp survivor Leon Unger said in 1959.

“As long as you still had strength and you could march, you clung too much to life in order to endanger it by an escape attempt so close to the end of the war. And when you lost the physical strength, the will and the moral decisiveness for escape went also,” he said.

Moreover, Unger noted, although the prisoners assumed that the war was going to finish quickly, “we had no idea that the American soldiers were so close on our heels.”

The sense of hopelessness felt by some of those who survived is illustrated by the words of Iby Knill, who was liberated on a death march towards Bergen-Belsen.

“Time seemed unimportant now,” she recalled. “Contrary to friends, I felt no desire to go back home; I felt certain that there was nobody waiting for me. I felt that it did not matter where I was or what was to happen to me. There was no euphoria — no joy.”

The story of Eugene Black, a Jewish teenager who survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and a forced march in March 1945 from the Mittelbau-Dora camps to Nordhausen, offers a rare slim shard of light in an otherwise bleak tale. He then spent seven days on a train — “the train would pull up, the doors would open, and we had to throw the dead bodies out” — before a further march to Bergen-Belsen. The camp, he recalled, was “a hellhole.”

Eugene Black at Paderborn. (Courtesy of the Black family)

On liberation, the 17-year-old, who discovered that he had lost most of his family, worked as an interpreter for the British army. There he met his future wife, Annie, with whom he went to live in England in 1949.

On occasion, as the exhibition shows, the hopes and fears of those who did not survive the marches were captured and preserved. The last poem written by famed Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, who was murdered on a march from Bor (now in Serbia) toward Austria, was found in his notebook. It was retrieved when Radnóti’s body was exhumed from a mass grave after the war.

Another poignant message was found on a scrap of a letter retrieved among the personal belongings of one of the 140 victims of a death march exhumed near Neunburg vorm Wald on the Czech border. “Now I know that I will never and nowhere feel so happy as when I am with you,” it reads.

Those exhumations were part of a massive postwar Allied effort, undertaken by what would become the International Tracing Service (ITS), to identify the victims of the death marches. Local mayors were ordered by the Allies to provide cemetery maps and drawings indicating where “united nationals” were buried.

Fieldworkers attempted to retrace the route of the death marches, locate where those who had perished might have been buried, and, with the permission of military authorities, exhume bodies. But what the exhibition describes as “gruesome” forensic processes only rarely revealed the identities of victims.

Police photographer, forensic investigators and workers carrying out an exhumation in Neuenkirchen 1949. (ITS Digital Archive Wiener Holocaust Library Collections)

The evacuation of the Flossenbürg camp in mid-April 1945 was the first death march to be investigated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration’s (UNRAA) Bureau of Documents and Tracing, a forerunner of the ITS.

Over several days, most of the camp’s more than 45,000 prisoners had been forced from the camp in multiple directions. The UNRRA probe, intended as model for future efforts to trace death marches, eventually produced three volumes of research and an archive including maps, forensic evidence and photographs. It also succeeded in identifying the sites of atrocities and graves along the entire route to the Bavarian city of Cham. The primary focus of the investigation, an ITS review made clear, was “to identify the victims, rather than to count the graves or to indict the Nazis responsible for these mass murders.”

Iby Knill endured a death march at the end of World War II. (Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association)

The ITS was not, though, without its own prejudices. In 1959, Lina Exel contacted the tracing service to enquire if her father, Karl Franz, might still be alive. He had been deported to Auschwitz and later transferred to Buchenwald. A report compiled after the Neunburg vorm Wald exhumation detailed a wallet, containing photographs of his children and wife, found on Franz’s body at the site. However, in an indication of the poor treatment which Roma-Sinti sometimes received from the ITS at this time, Exel was not informed of her father’s fate and place of burial.

Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the death marches detailed by the exhibition is the manner in which they challenge the notion of the Holocaust as an “industrial genocide.”

“In the final stages of the war, killing took place face-to-face in public, in a brutal way and on a huge scale,” the curators state. This is illustrated by clandestine images taken by Maria Seidenberger of a forced march from Buchenwald to Dachau as it passed near her family’s home in Herbertshausen, north of Munich.

Seidenberger’s mother gave potatoes to the prisoners, reflecting the manner in which some Germans attempted to provide inmates with food and water. This action was itself not without risk, as those who came to the aid of the prisoners were threatened by guards. Indeed, some German civilians even helped inmates by offering them shelter in their homes — an act of resistance that could have brought severe consequences.

An undated clandestine image of a forced march by Nazis. (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

But such resistance was all too rare. Some civilians refused pleas for food from those on the marches. Others shot inmates or assisted the SS in recapturing escaped prisoners who had gone into hiding. As Gabor Teller, a Jewish survivor who was on a march from Flossenbürg to Wetterfeld, recalled: “Nobody wanted to take us in. The mayors, from the city or from the villages, they told us they would not make the village dirty with the Jews.”

Predictably, few civilians who assisted in the persecution of prisoners paid any price for their actions. Only three were prosecuted after the war in West Germany, although the search for justice was hampered by the fact that survivors did not know, or couldn’t remember, the names of perpetrators.

More shocking, but no less surprising, was the manner in which those who organized the marches, or ordered or participated in the killing of prisoners, also escaped justice.

The arrow in this drawing of a cemetery indicates the burial of three non-German civilians. (ITS Digital Archive, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections)

In April 1945, for instance, Gerhard Thiele, a local Nazi Party boss, ordered the brutal murder near the town of Gardelegen of 1,000 slave laborers who had been evacuated from the Mittelbau-Dora and Hannover-Stöcken concentration camps. Despite Thiele’s efforts to cover his tracks by changing his name, he was subject to investigations in West Germany in the 1960s and 1980s. He was, however, never prosecuted and died peacefully in 1994.

But some German civilians were nonetheless made to face up to the consequences of the death marches. Barely 10 days after the massacre, by which time the town had fallen to the Allies, the American authorities ordered Gardelegen’s entire population to gather in its main square. Residents were then made to carry crosses to the local cemetery and plant them by the graves of the massacred slave laborers.

Civilians from Gardelegen assembled in town square by US military to march to nearby cemetery of massacre to plant crosses. (Stiftung Gedenkstätten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora National Archives Records Administration)

Elsewhere, as Allies forces came across massacre sites, they ordered local people to exhume bodies, build coffins and afford the victims a decent burial. Described by one historian as “forced confrontations,” these actions were also, the exhibition notes, “designed to humiliate and admonish the German people for crimes committed in their name.”

It is, argues Stone, hard to explain why the death marches have often been overlooked by historians. This may, he suggests, reflect the fact that the late stages of the war in general, not just the Holocaust, were neglected by scholars — apart from military historians — because they were “chaotic and confusing.”

“In some ways, it was easier to go from the period of mass killing to the liberation of the camps,” Stone writes. Nonetheless, he believes, “we learn a good deal about the nature of Nazism and the Third Reich in its final days” from the death marches.

As with any aspect of the Holocaust, it is impossible to understand why the death marches occurred and the exhibition purposefully leaves the question open. It emphasizes, however, that the power of life and death often lay in the hands of individual guards. It was, the historian Daniel Blatman has argued, “these local decisions that transformed the evacuations into murder routes.”

Perhaps, though, the words of Thomas Buergenthal, who was 10 years old when he was forced onto a march when Auschwitz was evacuated, offer the simplest explanation.

“In January 1945 Germany was fighting for its survival and yet the Nazi regime was willing to use its rapidly dwindling resources — rail facilities, fuel and troops — to move half-starved and dying prisoners from Poland to Germany,” Buergenthal said seven decades later. “Was it to keep us from falling into the hands of the Allies or to maintain Germany’s supply of slave labor? The insanity of it all is hard to fathom, unless one thinks of it as a game concocted by the inmates of an asylum for the criminally insane.”

“Death Marches: Evidence and Memory” is also on display until September 1 at the Holocaust Exhibition & Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield.

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