EVACUATION OF CONCENTRATION CAMPS-PART 1/2PROLOGUE
Near the end of the war, when Germany's military force was collapsing, the Allied armies closed in on the Nazi concentration camps. The Soviets approached from the east, and the British, French, and Americans from the west. The Germans began frantically to move the prisoners out of the camps near the front and take them to be used as forced labourers in camps inside Germany. Prisoners were first taken by train and then by foot on "death marches," as they became known.
THE INITIAL PHASE
Several of the people in charge of the Auschwitz sub-camps, realized that it was essential to continue and preserve the prisoners. On January 14 or 15, 1945 three or four days before the evacuation, the Jewish kitchen workers in the Janinagrube sub-camp adjacent to the Polish town of Libiaz made a particular effort to bake loves for the prisoners in anticipation of the evacuation. In some cases the prisoners were given general instructions on the day of evacuation and were briefed to a certain extent. A group of prisoners in the Sosnowiec II camp were assembled on the day of evacuation, January 17, and the "block elder"(Blockälteste) reassured them, "No don't be afraid! We are not going to be shot. They are taking us with them. They have brought carts, but they haven't yet managed to find horses. It looks as if we have to push them." At Gliwice on January 20, 1945, several prisoners awaiting trains due to transport them westward heard SS soldiers discussing the fate awaiting prisoners. They said that the Germans needed these prisoners to serve as security belt against the Russian onslaught that was driving them westward.
Whereas inmates of the camps evacuated in summer-fall 1944 had received prior information, the hasty evacuation of Auschwitz caught some of the prisoners unready for what was to come. They were aware that the camp was about to be liquidated because the Germans were destroying documents and office equipment and loading vital equipment onto trucks. But the actual exodus from the camp was unexpected and was carried out hastily and in an atmosphere of pandemonium. It was obvious that the guards had not been properly prepared for this move.
|Evacuation route from Auschwitz|
The testimony of the survivors confirms the assumption that confusion and disorder reigned on the day before the evacuation and that organization was haphazard. Although some prisoners knew what was happening and prepared for the journey, others knew almost nothing and did not have time to make preparations whatsoever before leaving. Those who were in the know or among the groups prepared for the first departures succeeded in laying their hands on a few items of clothing or sturdier shoes. Some prisoners took advantage of the turmoil to conceal loaves of bread stolen from the camp storehouse in their bundles. A few of the guards were ordered to execute any prisoners who collapsed or tried to escape, while others briefed the prisoners and conveyed a reassuring message. But all this was instantly forgotten once the prisoners set out on their trek. Along snow-laden roads of Silesia a very different reality emerged.
From the moment the prisoners walked through the gate of the camp and began their march westward or south-westward, they added to the human roads that were already densely packed with long convoys of retreating soldiers and civilians.
Although the prisoners evacuated from Auschwitz and its sub-camps spent only a few weeks in Groß-Rosen, it was indelibly stamped on their memories as a hell on earth:
"The entire camp stank of burned flesh and the smoke rose and rose. We were concentrated in huts without anything, only walls, no beds, nothing. We were jammed in one on top of the other, there was no room to sit, everyone had to stand."
There were piles of corpses everywhere so that there was no room for new arrivals in the densely crammed barracks, and it was hard to distinguish between the dead and the living. A Jew from Hungary who had arrived in Groß-Rosen with the Auschwitz evacuees wrote to his brother in 1946 that "Dante's Hell was a paradise compared to that."
|Grave and Monument 44 Casualties of the Auschwitz-Loslau Death March in january 1945. Sand Mountain in Wodzislaw Slask|
On February 6, the office of Richard Glücks in Oranienburg dispatched an order to camp command, informing them that Schmauser, who was in charge of evacuating Auschwitz, would be responsible for evacuating Groß-Rosen as well and that the prisoners were to be transported to Buchenwald, Mittelbau-Dora, and Flossenbürg. To a certain extent this was a repetition of Pohl's order, sent to camps in Ostland two and a half weeks earlier. It reiterated what should have already been known to those in charge of the camps since summer 1944. The additional detail that Glücks mentions is the names of the camps to which prisoners should preferable be sent. He was probably more up to date on this matter than Pohl.
|Gross-Rosen entrance gate with the phrase Arbeit macht frei'|
Albert Lückmeyer was commander of the Rise camps, which were established in spring 1944 and operated independently even though they were part of the extended network of Groß-Rosen. The inmates of these camps in the Owl Mountains laboured on a megalomaniac and clandestine project (never completed), which was to include the Führer's headquarters. In summer 1944 there were 13,000 Jews there who had been transferred from Auschwitz. When the evacuation of these labour camps began on February 16, 1945, Lückmeyer did not know exactly what to do with the sick prisoners under his command. He decided to leave them behind, and they were subsequently liberated by the Red Army. Several hundred of them were hospitalized after the liberation in grave physical condition, but most survived.
One of the camps in the Rise network was Lärche, which developed as an external commando of Kaltwasser. Quite a few Jews from Auschwitz, including some who had been deported from the Lodz ghetto, reached Lärche in fall 1944. This camp, like others in the system, was evacuated on February 11, 1945. The prisoners walked for six days to the Czech town of Gradlitz Choustnikow, receiving en route only a little soup and a hunk of bread. From there they marched on to Trautenau, where thousands of prisoners who had been evacuated from a series of sub-camps of Groß-Rosen were loaded onto freight cars and transported through Prag to Flossenbürg. Each railway carriage held about 120 prisoners, and their only sustenance was one small sack of bread per carriage. Among the 3,000 prisoners who travelled this route, including the Lärche inmates, only about 1,000 reached Flossenbürg alive.
WAVE OF VIOLENCE
About 900 prisoners arrived at Gradlitz on February 19. Amanda Heinrich, who lived in the town, remembered the groups of prisoners, who were gaunt and could scarcely stand. On the night they spent there, at least nine of them perished. When they left the town with their guards, 78 corpses of prisoners who had been murdered or died remained behind. Two local inhabitants dug a mass grave, and the victims were buried there. The mass graves of victims of the death march in the Trutnov region were exhumed after the war. Physicians who examined the corpses noted, as in other cases, the horrendous physical condition of the victims, some of whom had not been shot but simply collapsed where they stood and been left to die at the roadside.
|Clandestine photograph, taken by a German civilian, of Dachau concentration camp prisoners on a death march south through a village on the way to Wolfratshausen. Germany, between April 26 and 30, 1945|
Hassebroek testified after the war that the personal in charge of the sub camps did not receive orders to kill the weak prisoners and that the order was to bring them to the nearest police station. If we examine events at several sub-camps, it becomes difficult to accept Hassebroek's statement at face value, particularly since he was clearly trying to absolve himself of responsibility for the deaths that occurred during the evacuation. It is also at odds with Schmauser's unequivocal instruction that no prisoners were to be left alive in the camps after the exodus. But there is no way of ascertaining whether such an order was transmitted to the sub camps during the evacuation. Mathias Heßhaus, the commandant of Halbau sub-camp, who was in charge of the column of evacuated prisoners that eventually reached Bergen-Belsen, testified in court after the war, that Hassebroek's order clearly specified that exhausted prisoners were to be shot. This appears to be another case of an expanded interpretation of orders issued in the camp before the evacuation. In September 1944, apparently while the prisoners were being transferred to other camps, Hassebroek sent out a directive, based on instructions received from Office D, to the effect that any prisoner who attempted to escape was to be shot. In mid December 1944, a few weeks before the evacuation of Silesian concentration camps, Glücks ordered Groß-Rosen commandant to shoot Soviet security prisoners for fear that they would create problems at the time of evacuation. It was only a short distance from these orders to the conclusion arrived at, in sub camps during February 1945 evacuation, that any flagging prisoner who created problems or hampered progress was to be eliminated.
The inmates of Halbau, a not particularly large camp where some 1,200 inmates were housed in six or seven barracks, set out on their trek on February 10, 1945. Most of the prisoners were Poles, but there were also Czechs, Russians and Frenchmen among them. Shortly before the evacuation, a group of about 100 Jewish prisoners arrived and joined them. During the hurried preparations, the guard told the prisoners explicitly that the sick were to remain in their barracks and not prepare for departure. Between 70 and 120 sick prisoners were left behind, namely, some 10 percent of the inmates, and a considerable proportion of them survived.
In any event Heßhaus's testimony does not clarify whether an order was given to liquidate debilitated prisoners, nor can one draw conclusions with regard to those prisoners left behind. Heßhaus, like Reischenbeck at Auschwitz, who claimed that Baer had ordered the killing of prisoners unable to continue the march, was directly responsible for the killing of prisoners in the transport under his command. According to testimony of the prisoners, such killings occurred on at least 20 occasions, with seven to nine prisoners at a time being murdered. All in all, some 700 prisoners reached Bergen-Belsen out of more than 1,000 Halbau inmates who set out on the death march. Because about 30 percent of the prisoners under his authority had been murdered, it was only natural for Heßhaus to try to shift responsibility to Hassebroek.
The evacuation of the Gassen sub-camp near the Polish town of Jaisen reinforces the assumption that commanders of the more remote camps received patchy directives, although the general tone was clear. This camp, which was not very large, had been established in September 1944 and in the few weeks before evacuation, it housed 700-800 prisoners, most of them Poles and Russians and the rest of them French, Czech, Croatian, Rumanian, Belgian, Italian, and German. The commandant was 32-year-old SS-Hauptscharführer (Company Sergeant-Major) Walter Karl-Heinrich Knop, a veteran camp man who had been serving in the concentration camp network in various positions since the mid-1930's.
Knop claimed at his trial that early February 1945, he had received a written directive from the main camp to the effect that the camp was to be organized for evacuation to Leibzig-Thelka, one of Buchenwald's sub-camps.
The first stage involved preparations for evacuating the camp (Räumungsvorbereitungen), during which prisoners were transferred from the sub-camps to the main camp, equipment and food prepared, routes were checked, and so on. The second stage was the departure (Abmarsch). The prisoners were assembled on the parade ground, divided into groups, and then left the camp, generally on foot, to an evacuation point where they were loaded onto trains. The third stage was the "clean-up" (Nachlese), as prisoners, mainly the sick, who had been left behind were liquidated, buildings were blown up, the camp archive was destroyed or transferred, and traces of the horrors that had been taken place were obliterated. The last stage was the transport, namely, the final evacuation of the prisoners to their destination. It will be recalled that this planning did not stand the test of the situation during the months of evacuation and panic-stricken retreat from Poland, where conditions dictated a different kind of evacuation. On the other hand, in Mittelbau-Dora, an attempt was made to conduct the move in an orderly fashion.
|The blocked entrance to Tunnel A, destroyed by the Soviets in 1948. A V2 rocket engine assembly can be seen on the bottom right|
In view of the conditions at the front and the United States' total domination of German airspace, it was difficult, almost impossible, to evacuate the vast armaments industry built up in the mountain areas in fall 1943. Approximately one quarter of a million human beings were involved in producing weapons systems in the great complex at Mittelwerk, which, at the end of 1944, produced 22,384 -Fi 103- flying bombs and 3,170 -A4- rockets. However, Hitler's explicit order that, under no circumstances, was equipment or means of assisting the enemy in their war against Germany be permitted to fall into enemy hands, together with Kammler's single-minded determination to continue producing at least part of the sophisticated weaponry at a site that the fighting had not yet reached, motivated the large-scale evacuation of Mittlebau-Dora.
|Rusty V2-rocket engine in the underground production facilities of the camp (2012)'|
|Plan of the Mittelwerk Tunnels"|
The evacuation of Mittelbau-Dora was supervised by Richard Baer, the last commandant of Auschwitz. Baer came to Mittelbau-Dora in February 1945, replacing Otto Förschner, who was appointed commandant of the Kaufering camps in Bavaria. Baer and the additional SS-Officers from Auschwitz who had been posted to Mittelbau-Dora brought with them the experience they had gained during the evacuation of Auschwitz. They began by separating the healthy prisoners who were still capable of production work from those who were of no further economic value. In accordance with Himmler's agreement with the president of the Red Cross, the Swede Folke Bernadotte, Norwegian and Danish prisoners were removed from the camp and sent to Neuengamme to be treated by the Swedish Red Cross. On March 8, 2,250 sick prisoners were rounded up at Mittelbau-Dora and the sub-camps, and sent on a special transport north to Bergen-Belsen. As was the case in other concentration camps before evacuation, the transfer of prisoners from sub-camps to the main camp was begun concurrently, and the sick and feeble were assembled separately.
In March 1945 a new unprecedented situation arose in the Mittelbau-Dora camps. Some 16,000 prisoners from camps in the East, 10,000 of them from Groß-Rosen, had been added to the population all at once. The death rate in the camp in the last month of existence was very high: 5,000 prisoners perished in the weeks before evacuation, apart from those evacuated to Bergen-Belsen, who were in such poor condition that their prospects of survival were close to nil. The overcrowding at Mittelbau-Dora had terrifying proportions, the camp had a capacity of 14,000, but in early spring 1945 it housed nearly 21,000 human beings. Similar horrendous conditions prevailed in the sub-camps. Hundreds of prisoners from Groß-Rosen were brought to Ellrich, one of the largest of Mittelbau-Dora's sub-camps. "It was a terrible camp. It was a camp where they worked in the quarries and there were many Russian and Ukrainians, and there was a terrible smell because...they dug a pit and put the corpses there and threw wood...and set it alight...and the smell drove us crazy," recalled one of the prisoner of the camp. But the catastrophic situation in the camp in the weeks before the evacuation is most vividly illustrated by the events in Boelcke-Kaserne, a local version of the combined planned-spontaneous extermination installations that functioned in all camps at the time.
Boelcke was a Luftwaffe camp, built close to Nordhausen. In 1943 it was converted into a slave labour camp, whose inmates worked in the Junkers Engine Factory. In summer 1944, 6,000 slave labourers were employed there, and it had become part of the Mittelbau-Dora complex. Concentration camp prisoners had not been sent there until then, and the first of them arrived only in fall 1944, when Mittelbau-Dora was becoming an independent concentration camp.
From the beginning of January 1945, sick and incapacitated prisoners were sent to Boelcke once the supervisors of the labour units decided that they were no longer of any use as workers. On arrival of the transport from Auschwitz and Groß-Rosen, which included hundreds of sick and exhausted prisoners, quite a few of them Jews, the camp administration converted Boelcke into the "central camp for the sick and dead of the Mittelbau complex" (Zentrales Kranken und Sterbelager des Mittelbau-Komplexes). The dying prisoners prisoners were concentrated in Blocks 6 and 7 in the camp. Boelcke slowly evolved into a death camp for 3,000 prisoners packed tightly into its barracks. These structures could not absorb the thousands of incoming prisoners, and hundreds lay inert on the floors and between bunks. The dying received almost no food and very little to drink. In the final weeks, approximately 100 prisoners died daily.
THE BOELCKE BARRCKS' Rows of bodies of dead inmates fill yard of Lager Nordhausen, a Gestapo concentration camp near Nordhausen, Germany. The photograph, according to cameraman, shows less than half of the bodies of the several hundred inmates who died of starvation or were shot by Gestapo men at the camp. The concentration camp, according to G-2, 104th Infantry Division 1st U.S. Army, had from 3.000 to 4.000 inmates, including French, Polish, Belgian, a few Russian and several German political prisoners. Several hundred inmates died of starvation or where shot by Gestapo men, and all of the prisoners were maltreated, beaten and starved.' Source Wikipedia. [This statement could not be verified,sic]
CONTINUED UNDER PART 2