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January 12, 2024

79 Years Ago, Just Before Liberation, Began the Tragic Death Marches From Auschwitz - Nazi Genocide Under the Guise of Evacuation

The term 'Death Marches' refers to the horrifying forced evacuation of prisoners from German concentration camps as the Soviet Army's offensive approached towards the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945. Facing the impending attack of the Allies, the Nazi authorities initiated the so-called 'evacuation' of prisoners from various German concentration camps, including those in Poland. The prisoners, severely weakened from surviving the brutal conditions of the camps and exhausting forced labor, were forced to embark on difficult journeys in extreme winter conditions to other camps in Germany. The prisoners were forced to march inhumane distances without adequate food, clothing, or rest.

The conditions during these death marches were terrifying. Hundreds of prisoners died on the way, poorly prepared for the harsh winter weather, often dressed in torn clothes that did not protect against the cold. Their meager food rations consisted of a small piece of bread and a bit of canned food, barely enough for the forced marches. The death toll among the marchers was tragically high due to the poor condition of the prisoners, lack of supplies, adverse weather conditions, and mass executions carried out during the march. Escape was nearly impossible as those attempting it were often machine gunned down by guards. Many of those who were still alive when the marchers reached their destination later died in camps inside Germany.

Some of the most brutal death marches took place from concentration camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Gross-Rosen, Stutthof, and Majdanek, with the latter being the first camp on Polish soil to experience such marches. Their harrowing goal was to reach other camps in Germany, where the inhumanity continued.

January 1945: Auschwitz-Birkenau: Death March from the Largest Nazi Concentration Camp

The death march from Auschwitz-Birkenau, a notorious Nazi camp, is one of the most well-known. On January 17, 1945, as Soviet forces approached the camp, about 56,000 prisoners were ordered by SS guards to depart from the concentration camp and its subcamps. The winter was exceptionally cold and snowy, and the prisoners, many dressed in rags that did not protect against the cold, were ill-prepared for the journey. They had to cover about 60 kilometers to reach Wodzisław Śląski, from where they were to be put on freight trains and transported deeper into the Third Reich. Along this route alone, about 600 prisoners' bodies were found, and even more were shot by SS guards during mass executions and buried in mass graves. The death toll rose even further when prisoners were locked in open coal cars, where they had to endure freezing temperatures on the way to other concentration camps. At least 9,000 prisoners from Auschwitz concentration camp died during the Death Marches, and some researchers believe the number could even reach 15,000

Prisoners Who Remained in the Camp: 27 January 1945 Liberation of  Auschwitz-Birkenau

In mid-January 1945, the Germans began the final liquidation of the Auschwitz extermination camp. From January 17 to 21 of that year, about 56,000 people were evacuated from Auschwitz and its subcamps. Officially, prisoners able to work were selected, but many of them, aware of the inevitable execution, desperately tried to qualify for the Death March. Thousands died in the process, succumbing to the harsh conditions or being executed.

On January 20, 1945, the SS blew up crematoria II and III, and on January 26 - just one day before Allied forces arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex - crematorium V, which had been fully operational until then, was also destroyed. On January 23, the barrack complex known as 'Kanada II,' where the property taken from victims was stored, was set on fire. In this uncertain situation, about 9,000 remaining prisoners, mainly sick and exhausted, were left in the main camp Auschwitz I, Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and in the subcamps. Due to their health condition, they were not suitable for foot evacuation, so the SS sought to annihilate them. Thankfully, most of them avoided annihilation due to a confluence of circumstances. 

Between the departure of the last evacuation columns and the arrival of the Soviet army, the SS committed massacres in the camp, especially in the subcamps: "Fürstengrube" in Wesoła, "Tschechowitz-Vacuum" in Czechowice, and "Blechhammer" in Blachownia Śląska, resulting in the death of about 700 prisoners, mostly jews.

On January 27, 1945, hope of regaining freedom became a reality as Soviet troops liberated approximately 7,000 surviving prisoners. Prisoners in better physical condition left the camp and returned to their families, but many of them still needed medical help, which, unfortunately, was not always sufficient.

Searching the area, Soviet soldiers came across the bodies of prisoners shot by the SS during the retreat from the Auschwitz camp, as well as individuals who had starved to death or succumbed to exhaustion. These were not the only traces of crimes they discovered, only the tip of the iceberg hidden behind the walls of the extermination camps. In memory of these events, every year on January 27th, the Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum and Memorial commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day, annually attended by Holocaust survivors, former prisoners out of Auschwitz and state delegations from around the world.

Memory About Holocaust

Death marches have left an indelible mark on history, symbolizing the extreme cruelty of the Nazi regime and the suffering of its victims. These events contributed to the massive number of Holocaust victims and serve as a grim reminder of the atrocities that took place during Second World War.

In addition to the approaching anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there is also another opportunity to commemorate the victims - the March of the Living, which has been organized since 1988. This is an annual educational program that attracts students from around the world to Poland, where they learn about the Holocaust. The culmination of this program is the ceremonies in Oświęcim. The marches traditionally take place according to the Jewish calendar on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which always falls on the 27th day of the month of Nisan (corresponding to March-April in the Gregorian calendar). On this day, thousands of participants march in silence from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

Young people participating in the March of the Living want to pay tribute to the memory of all those who were murdered in the concentration camps. The name "March of the Living" is a paraphrase of the "death marches." Unlike the death marches, which symbolize oppression and annihilation, the March of the Living aims to demonstrate the ongoing existence of the Jewish Nation, despite attempts at its extermination by the Nazis.

The Death Marches represent a chilling chapter in history, showing the extreme cruelty of the Nazi regime during World War II. These tragic events, in which thousands of prisoners were forced into inhumane marches in extreme winter conditions, often leading to death from exhaustion, starvation, and execution. On the occasion of the upcoming anniversary, it is worth reflecting on this history to honor the memory of the victims of those crimes against humanity and prevent forgetting these terrifying events

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