Holocaust Memorial Day marks the liberation, on January 27th 1945, of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi death camp in Poland, by the Russian 60th Army. While most people have heard of Auschwitz and the horror perpetrated there, many would reasonably believe that liberation put an end to the inmates suffering, that they were rescued and returned to their homes and families.
Not so simple. Firstly, most of the survivors had no families to go home to. Think on that for a moment.
With the present virus ‘holocaust’, some of us will know how losing your family feels. I have been haunted for years by the sad eyes of my high-school professor, a gentle white-haired Jew from Poland, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. All of them.
Secondly, many didn’t make it home for more than a year. Some were taken east by Russian troops and housed in work and transit camps that must have felt horribly like the camps from which they’d been liberated. Some evaded the Russians and made their way back to their own countries on foot, journeys taking many months through the turmoil of war-torn Europe and a bitter winter.
And some, the men, women, and children who survived Auschwitz and were fit enough to walk, were evacuated by the Nazis before liberation. Those too sick were abandoned, left alive contrary to Nazi intentions to silence them, their lives saved by the German’s panic to flee west before the Russian troops arrived. That many died before the troops entered Auschwitz is fact, given they had little or no water or food and probably no one left to care for them. I can only imagine the sight that greeted the Russians more than a week later. The dead, the frozen, the sick, the emaciated. That man could do this to man is something I shall never understand.
But what of those that were evacuated? How many people have heard of the March of Death across Poland in the winter of 1945?
News of the approaching Russian troops struck fear into the hearts of the Nazis. There was a frantic period of burning records, and demolishing gas chambers and incinerators to try to hide the scale of the war crimes. The camp commandant and men like Mengele, fled for their lives, and unable to kill all the prisoners, the officers left decided to take them with them. Was this to silence them? As forced labour back in Germany? To hold as hostages?
It was on January 18th 1945 when the Nazis began to march some 60,000 prisoners, men, women, and children, out of Auschwitz towards Wodzislaw, some 35 miles away, in the western part of Upper Silesia. The temperature that January was -20c or below, the coldest month of the 20th century, there was snow on the ground, and the prisoners were ill-dressed; some didn’t even have shoes. They had no food or water, only snow to eat, and were already in an emaciated state.
Any who couldn’t keep up, be they prisoner or guard, were shot and left by the roadside. They slept in barns or on the ground, and many who laid down their heads at night didn’t raise them again in the morning. It’s estimated that 15,000 souls died on the march. Those who survived were put on open frieght cars and taken by train to concentration camps inside Germany, particularly to Flossenbuerg, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen.
For these, ‘liberation’ took them from one hell into another.
I touch upon the March of Death in my novel, Touching the Wire, a story of the women and children of Auschwitz inspired by first-hand accounts and a television program about Nazi war criminals escaping justice post-war. This is an excerpt, and it still reduces me to tears:
Walt shivered and turned his back on the white flakes floating past the window. January 1985, another New Year, forty years on. He pulled his chair closer to the fire and threw on a log. It responded with a guttering flame, and fireflies flew up the chimney. He tugged his jacket collar closer. He hated snow.
In January 1945, there had been blizzards. Minus twenty-five centigrade, he’d read afterwards, and still the coldest month of the twentieth century. In the chaos, the Nazis had abandoned the seven thousand sick to fend for themselves.
His vision misted, and he shook his head but failed to dispel the memory of the March of Death; so many had survived the camps only to die of exposure and starvation on the long, forced march west through Poland’s bitter winter. He closed his eyes and let his mind take him to a place he’d never truly left.
A pall of frozen breath hung over the endless shuffling column behind and ahead of him. It was one of many dark millipedes, each with hundreds of pairs of tired legs, crawling across white desolation in the wretched dawn. His fingers, toes, and cheeks were numb, and his socks stuck to his feet inside his boots. Aaron Schaeler stumbled along at his side, his words of encouragement to others stilled as his fight for his own survival demanded all his effort. SS officers watched the stragglers and shot any too slow or caught trying to escape the column be they German or internee.
Three days they’d ground their way west towards Wodzislaw Śląski, near the German-Polish border, where the survivors were to be loaded into open boxcars and taken to Germany. Was it an attempt to hide the scale of the atrocity? Forced labour? Hostages? Whichever the reason, the rate of attrition would be appalling.
Three days, or was it four? Every morning, fewer souls struggled to their feet than had laid their heads to rest the previous night. Miriam, too, could be dying, and every step took him and the precious sulfa farther from her. Aaron’s strength was failing, and the rabbi knew it. He slowed his pace to the rabbi’s, trying to keep him from lagging behind too much. An SS officer jabbed a stumbling German soldier in the kidneys with the butt of his semi-automatic rifle and then raised the weapon, swinging it as he aimed.
He threw himself into a drift at the side of the road as staccato cracks shattered the frozen air. The tin box hidden beneath his coat dug into his stomach and knocked the breath from his lungs. The weight of a body landing on top of him took the next breath. He gasped and inhaled a mouthful of snow; icy air caught at his throat, but he lay motionless, the slow tramp of feet thudding in his ears.
Unable to feel the snow on his face, he fought to keep his breaths shallow, his limbs limp, and his hands still as the weight of the dead body crushed him. He strained to hear the slightest sound: the muffled squeak of feet on compacted snow, the creak of boots, the swish of fabric, and the laboured breaths and curses. No one paid him any heed hidden beneath a corpse: he was one more silenced and fallen by the wayside for the snow to cover with its virginal caress. If they knew what he’d stolen…
He didn’t move until long after the millipede’s feet fell silent. Pushing the body away with an effort, he raised himself on one elbow. In both directions, the dark shapes of prisoners and guards too sick or exhausted to keep up littered the bruised ground. Hunger gnawed at his belly, his hands, face, and feet were numb, and his head spun.
A guard dying at his feet had a thick coat that should fit over his own. If he took it, Allied soldiers would shoot him as a German: a warmer death, but he had a promise to keep, and Miriam was waiting. He had to believe she was waiting.
He swallowed a mouthful of snow that didn’t quench his thirst and turned the guard’s body. The face was familiar despite the bullet hole that showed mutilated brain; he’d been at the last zählappell, callous as ever, and had fallen behind on the march. Someone had taken his rifle, but he still had a revolver, ammunition, and fur-lined leather gloves.
Only yards away, a prisoner lay on his back, eyes staring to a godless sky. The man had a scarf. His coat was thinner than the guard’s, but he’d been a big fellow once, and it was safer than wearing the German officer’s coat. He wrenched unyielding arms from the fabric before it froze solid. It was about survival now; he had no compassion left to spare for the dead.
His war had always been about survival, but at what cost? He shrugged the filthy coat over his own, and numb fingers fumbled with buttons. Needing to get his bearings, he took in the surrounding scene.
‘Aaron. Aaron…’ He slumped to the ground beside his friend and fingered beneath the frozen beard for a pulse, hoping his hands weren’t too frozen to detect one. A red stain bordered the dark hole in Aaron’s chest: the bullet Aaron had taken for him. In death, Aaron’s body had covered his, hidden him, and helped him as he’d helped him steadfastly in life. He raised a fist to heaven and yelled his anger to Aaron’s god. ‘God of Moses and Israel, damn you. Why?’ He laid his friend by the side of the road and covered his body with snow. Aaron Schaeler had found his good day to die; he’d make sure the rabbi’s sacrifice was not for nothing.
The low sun in the east brought no warmth. He faced into the wind. How far west had they come? How far to the port of Gdansk and freedom? Could he and Miriam make it?
They could if he could get back to her with the sulfa, if the Soviets and Germans hadn’t stripped the land bare of food, if they could avoid the Soviet invasion front and their transit and work camps: if they didn’t freeze to death. Gdansk, Scandinavia and then to England and, with luck, the only passports they’d need were the six-figure numbers tattooed on their left forearms.
Gunfire sounded away to the south, and an explosion lit the sky. To the north, a pall of smoke hung in the freezing air. He had sulfa and the box of documents: that was all he had strength to carry. He huddled into his new coat and squinted into the sun as he trudged east towards Krakow and the camp. A flurry of fresh snow brushed his lips: clean, not like ash with the taste of the dead. His breath froze in icicles on his eyebrows as tears froze on his cheeks. He pulled the dead man’s scarf over his head and face and stumbled on hour after painful hour.
The distant sound of trucks forced him from the road, and ahead, a farm ghosted through trees. Exhausted, he watched and waited, and as darkness fell, he shouldered open a barn door and ate grain from a chicken feeder. The foot-thick chicken manure kept him warm as vehicles ground past in the sleepless night.
Cockcrow: fitful light shone through a knothole in the barn wall onto beady eyes and fluffing feathers. He removed a warm egg from beneath a hen, broke it into his mouth, swallowed, and felt beneath another warm sitter. She clucked noisily, and he withdrew his hand. He stole two more eggs, wiped a smelly coat sleeve across his mouth, and pressed his eye to the knot-hole.
The farmhouse windows shone with yellow light: it was time to go. The blizzard stung his face and buried the footprints of the millipede now striped with the frozen ruts of heavy vehicles. He tramped on, death behind him and death before him. Cold slowed his mind and dragged at his legs; too late, he heard the snow-muted tread of boots. There was no hiding place, and he hadn’t strength left to run. He sank to the snow as dark uniforms morphed out of the blizzard, and a bristle of rifles hedgehogged around him. He tugged at his sleeve and pointed to his tattoo. ‘Prisoner of war.’
The rifles lowered. A soldier spat on the snow, reached in his greatcoat pocket, drew out a packet of Russian cigarettes, and offered him one. The soldier lit it for him and nodded. ‘Ya.’ He motioned west and jabbered in Russian.
He shook his head, not understanding, and pointed to where he thought Krakow lay. If they forced him to march with them, Miriam was lost. The officer shrugged, shouted a command to his men, and hurried them forward.
He drew on the rank tobacco, the smoke warming his lungs as the column of Red Army soldiers marched past. Hunching onward, and no longer sure if he headed east, he came upon a road sign that pointed drunkenly to the right towards a vast expanse of white: a name was scrawled in Russian.
He stumbled on in the direction it pointed, sure he’d wandered too far to the north. If the name in Russian was a town, someone would point him towards the camp. Snow-crowned tree stumps bore mute witness to the ravages of the Nazi war machine, but as the forest thickened, oak and birch rimed with frost cut the wind.
Head down, he placed one foot in front of the other: Miriam needed him. Suppose the Soviets had liberated the camp. She’d get treatment and food, surely, but suppose they moved the sick east by train? How would he ever find her again? His feet dragged onward. Left, right, move or die, left, right, move or die, left…
The snow in front of him was smeared and spattered with blood and confused by prints. He followed the trail; there were other than human predators in the forest, and it could be a still-warm kill he could scavenge. Black wings flapped in his face: carrion crows rising towards the tree tops. What remained of the body, by the clothing a woman, had its guts spilt across the snow. Not far off, a wolf howled and was joined by others. A grey shape rose in front of him and shook off its white shroud. He pulled the pistol and aimed, trigger finger squeezing.
‘Don’t shoot.’ The man raised his hands. ‘British. Albert… Albert Carr.’ The man waved a hand in what he’d guessed was the rough direction of the camp. ‘Prisoner of war. Buna-Monowitz.’
He lowered the weapon with a sigh and held out a hand in greeting, his cheeks cracking a frozen smile. ‘British.’ His mother’s green eyes smiled in his mind as she spat on her hankie. Come here, Chuck, and let me rub the grime off those knees. Miriam’s generous mouth formed a brief kiss as she pronounced his pet name with her Hungarian accent. ‘Call me Chuck.’ It was who he was now.
Royalties during January go to ushmm.org to support Holocaust education.
Please download it at http://mybook.to/TouchingtheWire and help educate people about the Holocaust. This must never be forgotten or allowed to happen again. Free with Kindle Unlimited or always at a bargain price. IAN Book of the Year 2019, Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal 2019.