DEATH MARCHES, name given by prison inmates and retained by historians to the forced evacuations on foot of concentration and slave labor camps in the winter of 1944–45. With the onset of winter and Allied armies closing in on the Nazi concentration camps – the Soviets from the East and the British and Americans from the West – desperate SS officials attempted to evacuate the camps both to remove the eyewitnesses and to conceal the crimes that had been committed. Prisoners were moved westward in the dead of winter, forced to march toward the heartland of Germany, where their presence
would be less incriminating. Daniel Goldhagen has called the death marches, "the ambulatory equivalent of the cattle car." Yet this time the prisoners were not being removed from Germany but moved back into Germany, perhaps to serve as labor, perhaps also to be used as fodder for a last stand.
On January 18, 1945, just days before the Red Army arrived at Auschwitz, 66,000 prisoners were marched to Wodzislaw, where they were put on freight trains to the Gross-Rosen,
concentration camps. Almost one in four died en route. On January 20, 7,000 Jews, 6,000 of them women, were marched from Stutthof 's satellite camps in the Danzig region. In the course of a 10-day march, 700 were murdered. Those who remained alive when the marchers reached the shores of the Baltic Sea were driven into the sea and shot. There were only 13 known survivors.
Death marches had been used before. In 1941, hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war had been herded along the highways of the Ukraine and Belorussia from one camp to another. They too were often walked to death. By 1942, with the pressures of a long war ahead of them, Soviet POWs were preserved as laborers. In 1942 Jews in Poland were marched from smaller ghettos to larger ones. Within a year many were deported by train to death camps. Elsewhere Romanians joined the Germans as Jews from Bessarabia and Bukovina were marched to Transnistria. Thousands died en route. On November 8, 1944, Adolf Eichmann initiated a death march of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Budapest to the Austrian border. Impatient to deport Hungarian Jews, he could not wait for trains to arrive in Budapest. The march lasted a month. Those fortunate enough to survive were sent to Dachau and Mauthausen.
Characteristic of these death marches were that they occurred in the dead of winter, with few provisions for food or shelter and little opportunity to rest. Many died en route from starvation, cold, and exhaustion. For the Germans they were a means of moving a population from one place to another at a time of great scarcity and when entire systems were breaking down. They also were a way of literally walking the prisoners to death. Those who fell behind or who were too weak to continue were killed on the spot; their bodies were often left on the side of the road. Those fortunate enough to continue were shipped to concentration camps that were unable to handle them when they arrived; they had broken down from the sheer numbers of inmates and an infrastructure inadequate to the task. For the prisoners, the death marches were an unending marathon testing their endurance and will to live and pushing them beyond exhaustion. Most prisoners succumbed; the death rate was often more than 50 percent and sometimes only one in ten survived.
There were 59 different marches from Nazi concentration camps during the final winter of German domination, some covering hundreds of miles. Some had a specific destination; others were continued until liberation or death.
We worked in a labor camp called Christianstadt near Auschwitz in an ammunition factory. In the beginning of February 1945, we were told the commandant wanted us to get all our things together and leave. We are going to walk. The Russians are behind us and we have to get away from them…. We had no idea where we were going. The commandant said, "How many there will be at the end is not my responsibility. I am just supposed to bring you." Some were shot on this walk. They couldn't walk anymore and some tried to run away and were shot and others got away.
We had civilian winter coats and we had a little square striped piece on the back of the coat. A square hole was made into the coat and it was sewn into the coat. But most of us had – for some reason – scissors and a needle and thread in the camp, so when we had a little free time, we put a piece of material from our coat underneath that hole and then sewed the striped piece back on. It just seemed like somebody had the idea and we all copied it.
As we marched my girlfriend and I were talking. There were so many women you couldn't keep track of who is missing. We made the plans at night if there was an opportunity the next day to run off, what our names would be and what we would say to people. So as we gathered again in rows of five, the two of us ran. Nobody saw us. We took our scissors and we cut off these pieces of striped material. We threw them in the brook and we sang songs. We got stopped by a policeman and he said, "Aren't you two girls from the Jewish group that went by?" and we made the attempt to look very surprised. How could he think that we would be two Jewish girls? After that we stayed with some people overnight. We told everybody that we were cousins, and we changed our names. So we went on our way and we joined a troop of German refugees and we went to the Sudetenland in Germany. Our German helped us and there we took jobs with some families.
From the testimony of Eva Gestl Burns, Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive
Death march of Dachau prisoners, April 1945. Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.