- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007


World War II is near its end. The Nazi empire is crumbling inward as Soviet and Allied forces ad- vance. Millions of Jews, Gypsies and political enemies of the Third Reich have been exterminated. Hundreds of thousands are still in death camps praying for rescue.

Then the Germans empty camps about to be liberated and move their inmates to the German heartland. The final nightmare is about to begin: death marches.

“A handover is out of the question. The camp must be evacuated immediately. No prisoner must be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy alive,” says a handwritten note, apparently referring to Dachau concentration camp. It is signed by Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler and dated April 14, 1945.

After the war, a copy of Himmler’s extraordinary order was delivered from the Dachau archive to the International Tracing Service, a unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross that manages a vast repository of wartime and postwar German records in the small resort town of Bad Arolsen.

Last week this storehouse of Nazi papers, sealed from public view for 60 years, was the focus of intense diplomacy among the 11 nations governing the Tracing Service as they met at The Hague to discuss how to open them to researchers. The Associated Press was given access to the files on the condition that victims not be fully identified.

Eyewitnesses to history

Although much has been written about the death marches, the Bad Arolsen collection reveals a weakened, confused SS; a mass of prisoners marching onto packed trains, moving for up to three days at a time on no more than a piece of stale bread; shocked villagers witnessing — perhaps for the first time — their rulers’ inhumanity.

Across the Polish, Czech and German landscape, dozens of columns of emaciated men and women in striped prison garb straggled through towns and villages. Dogs snapped at their heels, and SS guards shot or beat to death those who couldn’t keep up.

Among the rarely seen papers are hundreds of questionnaires to mayors of German towns asking whether marchers passed through their precincts and how many prisoners died there. Also in the files are statements by survivors and onlookers, their accounts searingly fresh.

“A prisoner stuck out a cup and begged with his eyes for water,” one woman said in a statement filed in the archive. When she brought him a drink, “a guard took it from me and threw it in my face. … I went on my way because I could no longer watch what was happening.”

Stored in six buildings at Bad Arolsen are about 17.5 million names of people who were caught up in the machinery of persecution, forced labor, displacement and death. Last year, the governing states agreed for the first time to allow researchers to comb through the 30 million to 50 million pages, so far used mainly to track missing persons, reunite families and substantiate compensation claims. The lengthy ratification process frustrates aging Holocaust survivors seeking to know more of their own histories.

The death march documents, bound with string and kept in nondescript cardboard filers, illustrate the kind of raw material waiting to be refined into historical narratives. Besides originals, the archive has assembled duplicated records from museums and municipal libraries scattered across Europe and from the United States National Archives and Records Administration, an independent agency of the U.S. government charged with preserving and documenting government and historical records.

Himmler’s quandary

Himmler ordered the abandonment of Dachau three days after U.S. forces liberated Buchenwald, one of the largest camps. Prisoners had broken into houses in the nearby town of Weimar. “The prisoners have behaved horribly to the civilian population of Buchenwald,” Himmler’s document said.

A week earlier, a telegram marked “urgent” from Richard Glucks, chief of the SS Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, ordered 20,000 prisoners transferred from Buchenwald to Dachau and Flossenburg, noting that the other camps were “overcrowded.” The bottom margin and the back are scribbled with figures — apparently a Gestapo officer trying to do the math of the logistics.

By the time Dachau was ordered evacuated, however, most routes were blocked, and only about 7,000 prisoners departed, leaving more than 30,000 in the camp when it fell April 29.

Death marches — a term used by concentration camp inmates and picked up by Holocaust historians — were known as early as 1941 when hundreds of thousands of captured Soviet soldiers were moved from camp to camp.

In the 1944-45 winter, the Nazis began emptying the concentration camps and destroying their records, partly to cover up their crimes, said Daniel Blatman of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who will publish the results of nine years of research on the death marches.

Still hoping to fend off total defeat or to negotiate a deal with the Allies, the Nazis also wanted to preserve a pool of slave labor and to keep the prisoners off the streets. “It was ideological. These prisoners were considered subhuman and not fit for integrating into society,” Mr. Blatman said.

Dwindling numbers

In one of the largest evacuations, an estimated 60,000 prisoners were herded in groups, several thousand at a time, from the Auschwitz extermination camp in January.

The Bad Arolsen archive has three volumes of tables and maps retracing the routes of 74 marches, recording the distances between each village. They laconically note the bombardment of prisoners or the bombing of transport trains, without mentioning whether by German or Allied troops.

One chart follows the departure of 3,000 prisoners — Jews from Hungary, France, Poland and Germany — from Birkenau on Jan. 18, 1945. They trekked by foot and train 310 miles through 20 named towns to Geppersdorf in what is now the Czech Republic. At Mikolai, 35 miles from Birkenau, 300 to 400 prisoners were “probably killed,” the chart records, without specifying how. By the time the column reached Ratibor on Jan. 21, their numbers had decreased by half.

Nearly three months later, only 280 of the 3,000 prisoners reached their destination.

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which has 1950s microfilms of some Bad Arolsen documents on death marches, estimates that 200,000 to 250,000 prisoners were slain or died of starvation, exposure and disease on the forced marches during the last 10 months, which continued until the day the Germans surrendered on May 8, 1945.

Helpless bystanders

From the Bad Arolsen files, an event can take shape from the accounts of different narrators:

In the village of Gauting, Lisl Oppermann, 35, witnessed one march of Dachau prisoners. Townspeople wanted to help two prisoners lying in the street, she said, but SS guards threatened to shoot them if they tried.

“On the next corner a prisoner was being kicked,” she told Allied investigators seven months later. “One guard was particularly cruel. I would recognize him immediately. He was tall, slim, a real SS type. He had a brutal look on his face.” An SS officer on a motorcycle vowed to kill his own men if any prisoner received food or drink from the townspeople, she said.

Allied authorities distributed hundreds of 16-point questionnaires to the mayors of towns near the camps, trying to pick up the trail of what happened. Among questionnaires reviewed by the AP, most mayors claimed to have seen nothing.

The mayor of Wolfratshausen, near Gauting, reported two groups from Dachau passed through his town by foot and rail April 27 and 28. Seven bodies were unloaded from the train and buried in the town cemetery, but they had no identification papers, said the unidentified official who signed the questionnaire only with his stamp of office.

In the same file is a crude death certificate written in red pencil on lined notebook paper, recording that Otto S., Dachau prisoner No. 146529, had died in the town on May 22. The cause of death was not mentioned.

Rupert S. a political prisoner from Wattens, Austria, was on one forced march that passed through Gauting and Wolfratshausen that originated in Allach, a subcamp of Dachau on the edge of greater Munich, where BMW used slave labor to make cars.

“Many of the sick were left by the wayside. They were executed with a shot to the back of the head or killed with a rifle butt,” the Austrian prisoner said in a three-page, single-spaced, typed account given two weeks after he was liberated in May.

Prisoners fought among themselves for scant rations, he said. Whenever they stopped, they built crude shelters of tree branches against the constant rain and snow.

“Many died. They were all thrown together in heaps,” he recounted.

After a night in which the guards grew more brutal, “we realized in the morning we were to be liquidated. Suddenly, the order came to keep marching. Later we learned that a certain Hauptmann [captain] had saved us from certain death. … Capt. Longin had threatened to shoot any SS guard who killed a prisoner.”

Then one night, the SS “disappeared. About 3 a.m. I heard a loud noise and the cry went up. The Americans are coming.”

As for Himmler, British forces arrested him on May 22 in north Germany, and he killed himself the next day by swallowing cyanide.

• AP researcher Randy Herschaft contributed to this article from Jerusalem.

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