By the winter of 1944 to 1945, German defeat in World War II was all but certain. Soviet forces were approaching from the east, pushing through Poland toward Berlin, while American and British soldiers had liberated Paris and Brussels in late summer 1944 and were advancing toward the Rhine River in western Germany. Although Nazi leaders and the German population were increasingly aware that the war was lost, the disintegrating Reich continued to murder its victims, including hundreds of thousands of Jews.
As Allied soldiers approached Auschwitz and other concentration and labor camps in the early months of 1945, German authorities feverishly worked to cover up the evidence of their mass killings of Europe’s Jews by burning documents, buildings, and corpses. The Nazis moved thousands of prisoners, both Jews and non-Jews, from near the eastern battlefront to camps inside the Reich, away from the advancing enemy troops, where the healthier prisoners could continue to be used as slave labor for the German war effort.
The Germans called this process “forced evacuations.” To the victims, they became known as death marches. Forced into open rail cars or marched by foot through mud and snow, sick and exhausted prisoners were moved from camp to camp, exposed to the elements and the violent behavior of SS guards, and shot if they fell behind. One survivor recalled:
No food had touched my lips all the day before. Others “snatched” whatever they could—grass, snails, potatoes left in the fields—but my throat was blocked, although my stomach was growling with hunger. I had nothing else, so I ate snow. My whole body shook with cold. . . .
The march went on for days and nights and nobody knew where we were being taken. If they want to mow us down somewhere with machine guns, why don’t they do it immediately? Or, perhaps there are special installations for that? Perhaps they are taking us again to some new installations for killing by gas? But it seemed that there was no need for any of that; at least two-thirds of the prisoners were already lying lifeless by the roadside. In a few days all of us would suffer the same fate.
The prisoner evacuations were chaotic. Once they left a camp, the columns of prisoners were under the total control of the German guards, but the guards themselves were often disorganized and gave confusing directions to prisoners about where to go. Also, the guards brought with them little food or supplies for the sick, wounded, and starving men and women as they walked through towns and villages on their way back to labor camps in Germany. Historian Daniel Blatman writes, “This state of havoc generated the conditions that transformed the evacuations into gruesome death marches. The aimless wandering that often characterized the evacuation gradually took on an absurd and threatening aspect.”
Often, faced with the chaos of the end of the war and the approach of the Allied forces, SS guards simply murdered all of their prisoners. Local Germans, coming face to face with “enemies” they hated and feared at a time when their world was crumbling around them, joined in massacres of Jews and other prisoners being marched through their towns and villages.
In all, some 250,000 prisoners of the concentration camp system were killed on death marches.
One of those prisoners was Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti. Radnóti wrote poems during his imprisonment and evacuation from a forced labor camp in Yugoslavia. He was shot to death during a death march in November 1944 and buried in a mass grave. When the grave was exhumed months later, several poems were discovered in his clothing, including one now known as “Forced March.”
A fool he is who, collapsed, rises and walks again,
Ankles and knees moving alone, like wandering pain,
Yet he, as if wings uplifted him, sets out on his way,
And in vain the ditch calls him back, who dare not stay.
And if asked why not, he might answer — without leaving his path —
That his wife was awaiting him, and a saner, more beautiful death.
Poor fool! He's out of his mind: now, for a long time,
Only scorched winds have whirled over the houses at home,
The wall has been laid low, the plum-tree is broken there,
The night of our native hearth flutters, thick with fear.
Oh if only I could believe that everything of worth
Were not just in my heart — that I still had home on earth;
If only I had! As before, jam made fresh from the plum
Would cool on the old verandah, in peace the bee would hum
And an end-of summer stillness would bask in the drowsy garden,
Naked among the leaves would sway the fruit-trees' burden,
And Fanni would be waiting, blonde, by russet hedgerow,
As the slow morning painted slow shadow over shadow —
Could it perhaps still be? The moon tonight's so round!
Don't leave me friend, shout at me: I'll get up off the ground!
- Experiences like those described in this reading are disturbing and painful to encounter. They prompt us to ask questions, many of which may be unanswerable. What questions do these events raise for you about history and human behavior?
- Why did the Nazis decide to evacuate the camps in the east and move prisoners west to camps inside Germany? What conditions made these evacuations especially brutal?
- How does Miklós Radnóti’s poem add to your understanding of this history?
- How might the death marches have changed who was a participant in or bystander to Nazi brutality and killing?