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Death March from the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp

Transports of prisoners in open freight cars, winter 1945'© Fritz Bauer Institute (APMO Collection / Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)
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Transports of prisoners in open freight cars, winter 1945
© Fritz Bauer Institute (APMO Collection / Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)

 a  Willy Berler describes the march: “After about 15 kilometers, it becomes more and more difficult to advance; the march becomes more and more painful. The cold is tremendous. It must be minus 20 C. Legs and feet are slowly transformed into ice blocks and no feeling remains. The tramping of thousands of men in front of us has turned the snow into ice, and we keep slipping and falling.”

(Willy Berler: Journey through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald (London/Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), pp. 126–127.)


 b  “After only a couple of hours, we were worn out, hungry and sleepy. By this time we were used to hunger and thirst, but being deprived of sleep was a new and painful experience. Herman had an extra-burden to carry – literally. An armed guard ordered him to carry his backpack. Herman and I took turns carrying the backbreaking load, but finally our strength was about to give out. We realized that we would never make it the whole way carrying the pack, but we couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. Finally we just mixed in with the long line of staggering inmates and put the backpack down in the snow at the side of the road. We never saw the guard again.”

(Benny Grünfeld: A teenager in Hitler’s death camps, in collaboration with Magnus Henrekson and Olle Häger (Dallas: Benbella Books, 2007), p. 55.)


 c  “There followed days and nights of traveling. Occasionally, we would pass through German towns. Usually, very early in the morning. German laborers were going to work. They would stop and look at us without surprise. One day when we had come to a stop, a worker took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought desperately over a few crumbs. The workers watched the spectacle with great interest.”

(Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 100.)

 d  John Fink, a survivor, says: “This terrible transport made its way – as we understood later on – through Czechoslovakia to a place that was called Mauthausen which was up there towards Austria and where we were supposed to be unloaded. This camp it seems to be was overcrowded already and the Germans let the train go again over Germany. […] Later on – on the 28th of January 1945 (I’ll never forget. It’s my father’s birthday) we drove into the city of Berlin. […] And the train took us out to the suburbs and since I was familiar with that I knew that we were going to go through the death camp there. One of the oldest – Oranienburg – which was near Berlin.”

(John Fink, testimony, 1981 (interview transcription). Yad Vashem Archives, Tapes Nos. 116 and 116a, p. 24.)


 e  “At Bergen-Belsen, there were two-storey buildings made of red brick, as at Auschwitz I. Here also. I was with Sam Pinhas, the fellow I became friends with at Gleiwitz. We berthed in the corner of a room on the second floor of one of the buildings; there was no need to fight for space here, as not too many people were left. We fixed up a place to sleep and went out looking for something to eat. Since leaving Dora, and during our time in Ehrlich, and until arriving in Bergen-Belsen, we had not eaten a crumb of food. We both began to turn into musselmen. Tap water there was. Food there wasn’t. Neither was there any registration or supervision. They just brought us to the camp, where we were guarded by Germans in watchtowers, and that was that. We went back to our berths and lay down.”

(Ya’acov Handeli: A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers (New York: Herzl, 1993), p. 88.)


 f  “We found ourselves on the platform of the train station at Buchenwald. In rows of five, at a run, down the avenue leading to the camp. Those around me were as hard to kill as I was, with their souls bolted to their bodies, able to withstand the worst. A few fell, got up, kept going. I don’t know if we ran three hundred yards or two thousand; one of these days I’ll have to go see. We reached an open space inside the camp. Later we learned it was the Little Camp. [...] My ragged bandages were sagging down over my shoes. I was dizzy, keeling over—and it was then, only then, for the first and last time, that I stopped hanging on. I accepted my death. I lay down on a patch of grass, clutched my sad clown’s coat around me, and closed my eyes. Snow began to sprinkle me with white flowers. A few companions looked at me and shook their heads. Someone, I don’t know who, maybe a man I'd helped out in our previous life, in Auschwitz, maybe even a friend from the time when I had friends, leaned down and shook me. ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘don’t do that, you mustn’t.’ And at that moment an inmate of Buchenwald, a political, a red triangle, came over and said, ‘Aufstehen, stand up, we’re going to bring you inside where it’s warm and give you something to eat.’”

(Paul Steinberg: Speak You Also: A Survivor's Reckoning (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), pp. 142–143.)

 g  “Late in the afternoon of April 18, just as it was getting dark, the three of us slowly walked a few steps into the woods, and pulled down our pants as if we were following the call of nature. We weren’t the only ones. Others were doing the same thing. The difference was that we kept going, slowly sneaking deeper and deeper into the woods. My heart pounded so loudly, I thought I could hear it. I was scarcely able to breathe. Honzo was 30 feet to my left; Felix was ahead of me, about the same distance to my right. We moved further into the woods, putting a considerable distance between ourselves and the group. Faintly, we heard the Nazi order the columns to march. We ran through the trees. I looked around and couldn’t see anyone but Honzo and Felix. Totally out of breath, I fell in the middle of the forest, tears streaming down my cheeks. I was free. Free! Free!”

(Ernest W. Michel: Promises to Keep. One Man’s Journey against Incredible Odds (New York: Barricade Books, 1993), pp. 93–94.)

In the area around Auschwitz, it was apparent in late 1944 that the front lines were getting closer: The roar of guns could be heard more and more distinctly, the Allied airstrikes increased in number, and other signs of the war’s progress, too, heralded the defeat of the German Reich.


Since fall 1944, the SS senior post officer and commandant of Auschwitz I, Richard Baer, had been preparing for the evacuation of Auschwitz. In mid-January Heinrich Himmler ordered the evacuation of the concentrations camps in the east. Rumors of possible mass killings of the prisoners prior to evacuation had been spreading in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp since fall 1944, when survivors from the Majdanek concentration camp reported the killings there. Resistance groups in the camp began forthwith to plan for a mass escape, which was thwarted, however, by difficulties in contacting the Polish resistance: without outside help, the venture was impossible. On January 12, 1945, the Red Army launched its Vistula-Oder Offensive. In the main camp, the SS senior post officer, Richard Baer, gave the SS column leaders the order to evacuate the main camp, Birkenau, and the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp.


Inside the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, the inmate physicians in the prisoner infirmary were ordered on January 17, 1945, to release from the hospital all prisoners who were “fit to march.” Only prisoners “not fit to march” and a few prisoner physicians were to remain behind. The next day, January 18, 1945, the inmates were given double bread rations. In the evening, all 10,000 inmates of the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp were required to gather in the roll-call square and form columns of 1,000 prisoners. Most of the men possessed little more than the thin prisoner uniform, a food bowl, and wooden clogs held on by cloth straps. That night and the following one, SS men drove the emaciated inmates through deep snow and stormy weather  a , and some had to carry the SS men’s belongings in addition  b  or push them along in pushcarts. Anyone who lagged behind or collapsed at the side of the road was shot by the SS. During the second night, the survivors’ trek reached the Gleiwitz concentration camp, about 80 km (50 miles) from Buna/Monowitz. Here the prisoners were given a loaf of bread and, after one or two days, starting on January 21, they were divided into various “transports”—that is, crammed into open cattle cars and moved across Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria, often traveling for days at a time. Survivors of the transports report that helpful people in Czechoslovakia tossed food into the cars; however, Elie Wiesel says that German civilians made a game of throwing only a small piece of bread to the hungry prisoners, to see them fight over it.  c 


These journeys frequently were followed by forced labor performed under increasingly poor conditions, until the transport continued on its way. Anyone who survived the march “was once again used for forced labor in the concentration camps of the Old Empire.”[1] When liberation came, most survivors were in a camp, utterly exhausted; only a few succeeded in escaping from one of the death marches and making their way through to the Allies. Some, like John Fink, passed through the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, where they were turned away because of the camp’s overcrowding, and ended up in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp  d , where they were lodged on the grounds of the Heinkel aircraft plant in Oranienburg. Many of them were transported again in March, to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.


After rejection of the transport at Mauthausen due to overcrowding there, it was rerouted to Nordhausen, to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, which about 3,500 of 4,000 prisoners reached alive on January 28. Two days later, another 600 prisoners were dead. The prisoners were forced to perform slave labor in the underground camp, making aircraft and rockets under inhuman conditions. Many of them, like Benjamin Grünfeld and Ya’akov Handeli, were transported again, in March reaching the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where conditions were horrendous.  e 


Other prisoners, including Julius Paltiel, Paul Steinberg, and Heinz Kahn  f , were transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp in late January 1945. From there, some were sent as forced laborers to smaller camps in the surrounding area, such as Altenburg, where the U.S. Army freed them in April 1945. Only a small number of Jewish prisoners saw liberation in the Buchenwald concentration camp, because the SS forced all the Jews to set out on a further journey on April 4. Julius Paltiel was saved from this transport by German Communists.


And others again were transported from Gleiwitz in cattle cars to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, where Willy Berler arrived on January 21: He described their situation as one of “raw horror, for the simple reason that the camp is run by murderers. […] We constantly fear for our lives.”[2] Shortly thereafter, exhausted by days of travel, Berler was taken to the Buchenwald  concentration camp. But he managed to save himself by hiding in a tunnel of the sewage system before the Judenblock (Jews’ block)was evacuated.


A few prisoners succeeded in escaping along the route, in the chaos of the war’s final days, leaving the column of one of the death marches and making their own way through Germany toward the approaching liberators: Among them were Peter Wolff, Sigmund Kalinski, and the two friends Norbert Wollheim and Albert Kimmelstiel. Wollheim and Kimmelstiel had been forced to march to Gleiwitz, but then they were taken in cattle cars via Prague and Mauthausen to Sachsenhausen. There the SS once again drove them on a death march as the Red Army approached Berlin, but they were able to escape near Schwerin in early May. Ernest W. Michel, with two friends, had already managed to escape during the march from Buchenwald on April 18.  g 


The few remaining prisoners in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp were freed by the Red Army on January 27. In spring 1945, Allied troops also reached the concentration camps in “reichsdeutsch” territory: Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops on April 15, and on April 11 the U.S. Army reached Buchenwald, where prisoners had taken over the concentration camp before the end of the fighting. The Red Army liberated Sachsenhausen on April 22.

(SP; transl. KL)


John Fink, testimony, 1981 (interview transcription). Yad Vashem Archives, Tapes Nos. 116 and 116a.

Marcel Ginzig, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 25–26, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Siegmund Kalinski, oral history interview [Ger.], September 11, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Albert Kimmelstiel, oral history interview [Eng.], June 25, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Ya’acov Silberstein, oral history interview [Hebr.], July 29–30, 2007. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Norbert Wollheim Memorial.

Arnest Tauber, affidavit, May 3, 1947, NI-4829. Archive of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, Case VI, PDB 75 (e), pp. 111–115.

Norbert Wollheim, First Interview [Eng.], May 10, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.

Norbert Wollheim, Second Interview [Eng.], May 17, 1991. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, transcript.



Berler, Willy: Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald. Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004.

Czech, Danuta: Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

Grünfeld, Benny: A teenager in Hitler’s death camps. In cooperation with Magnus Henrekson and Olle Häger. Dallas: Benbella Books, 2007.

Handeli, Ya’acov: A Greek Jew from Salonica Remembers. New York: Herzl, 1993.

Kahn, Dr. Heinz: “Erlebnisse eines jungen deutschen Juden in Hermeskeil, Trier, Auschwitz und Buchenwald in den Jahren 1933 bis 1945.” In: Johannes Mötsch, ed.: Ein Eifler für Rheinland-Pfalz. Festschrift für Franz-Josef Heyen. Mainz: Gesellschaft für mittelrheinische Kirchengeschichte, 2003, pp. 641–659.

Keller, Stefan: Die Rückkehr. Joseph Springs Geschichte. Zurich: Rotpunkt, 2000.

Komissar, Vera: På Tross av Alt. Julius Paltiel – norsk Jøde i Auschwitz [1995]. Trondheim: Communicatio, 2004.

Michel, Ernest W.: Promises to keep. One man’s Journey against incredible odds. New York: Barricade Books, 1993.

Stern, Klaus: My Legacy: Blessings, Love and Courage. A Memoir.Seattle: Washington State Holocaust Education Center, 2007.

Wagner, Bernd C.: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945.Munich: Saur, 2000.

Wiesel, Elie: Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

Wohl, Tibor: Arbeit macht tot. Eine Jugend in Auschwitz. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1990.

Wolff, Peter: Ein Überleben. Ein deutscher Jude im 20. Jahrhundert. Saarbrücken: ConteVerlag, 2008.

[1] Bernd C. Wagner: IG Auschwitz. Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung von Häftlingen des Lagers Monowitz 1941–1945 (Munich: Saur, 2000), p. 283. (Translated by KL)

[2] Willy Berler: Journey Through Darkness: Monowitz, Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald (London and Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2004), p. 134.