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1945: Liberation and Rebuilding
 pg. 586 
Death Marches

By the summer of 1944, the Allies were closing in on the Third Reich, which still held 750,000 persons in its huge but increasingly vulnerable concentration-camp network. Fierce fighting would continue until Germany's surrender in May 1945. But in early November 1944, deteriorating military circumstances led the Nazis to stop gassing operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau and attempt to cover up the mass murder they had committed there. As for the prisoners who remained in the concentration camps, the Nazis knew that this labor source--and also the devastating testimony these men and women could deliver--would fall into the Allies' hands if the prisoners were not evacuated.

Earlier the Nazis had transported Jews and other prisoners in trucks and railroad cars, but forced marches also took place throughout the war. Especially during 1944 and 1945, with other forms of transport scarcer than ever, the Nazis ordered marches over long distances to keep concentration-camp prisoners beyond the Allies' reach and to relocate them for labor purposes. As the weeks and months passed, these Todesmärsche (death marches) became increasingly brutal, deadly, and senseless. Starved, ill, wounded, and exposed to bitter winter weather, the tormented marching prisoners were kept under guard, shot if they faltered, or left to die where they lay if felled by exhaustion. In the war's final months, when it was clear that Hitler's Germany was doomed, the Nazis continued to march the hapless prisoners aimlessly and mercilessly from one place to another.

Beginning in mid-January 1945, as the Soviet Army liberated Warsaw and Kraków, Poland, about 66,000 prisoners were evacuated on foot from Auschwitz. More than 15,000 died on the way to Gleiwitz and Wlodzislaw, Poland, where those who remained alive were jammed onto uncovered railroad cars. Without food or water, many more perished during the long and frigid journey that took the prisoners west to such concentration camps as Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Mauthausen.

In late January 1945, another 50,000 Jews were evacuated on foot from the Stutthof camp system, which was situated along the Baltic Sea near Danzig. About 5000 of them trudged to the Baltic shore, where they were forced into the water and shot. The remainder headed for Lauenburg in eastern Germany; but when advancing Soviet units cut off the route, the prisoners were marched back to Stutthof. By late April 1945 Soviet ground forces surrounded Stutthof. Once again the prisoners were marched to the sea, where hundreds more were shot. Sea evacuation sent about 4000 prisoners to Germany, though many drowned on the way. About 25,000 prisoners died during the Stutthof death marches.

All told, between 250,000 and 375,000 prisoners, most of them Jewish, perished during the death marches ordered by Nazi Germany during the throes of its defeat.

 January 16, 1945: Soviet troops enter Czestochowa, Poland, shortly after the last slave laborers have been evacuated.
 January 17, 1945: The Red Army enters Warsaw, Poland, as well as Pest, Hungary.
 January 17, 1945: Final roll call is taken at Auschwitz: 11,102 Jews remain at Birkenau; 10,381 women in the Birkenau women's camp; 10,030 at the Auschwitz main camp; 10,233 at the Monowitz satellite camp; and about 22,800 in the remaining factories in the surrounding region; See January 18-March 1945.
 January 17, 1945: In Budapest, 119,000 Jews are freed by Soviet troops.
 January 17, 1945: The Soviets arrest Raoul Wallenberg, whom they cynically suspect is using his humanitarian efforts for the Jews to cover his collaboration with the Germans or the Western Allies (the War Refugee Board was sponsoring him); See 1947.
1945: Liberation and Rebuilding
 pg. 586 
The Holocaust Chronicle
© 2009 Publications International, Ltd.