By 1945, you had spent several years in various labor and concentration camps. As the war neared its end, did you walk on the Death March?
On Friday, February 9, 1945, around eight in the morning, we were told we were going to be sent somewhere else. The sick inmates were to remain in the infirmary. The rumor was that after we left, the Germans were going to dynamite the camp, along with everyone still there. Miraculously, the Russians liberated that camp before the Germans could blow it up.
Whoever could not keep up with the march was shot on the spot. After an hour of wandering in the forest, we came to the main thoroughfare where we saw abandoned military vehicles and thousands of German civilians running. The Russians were just a few miles away. After a few hours, we heard an air-raid siren. The Germans pushed us into ditches and they ran to look for bunkers in which to hide. The air raid lasted about 15 minutes.
Then the Germans came back to find us. They counted us to make sure no one was missing. We walked all day. At night, we were allowed to rest in barns. When we came to a small village, the Germans sent one of us to go bake bread. The man they sent knew my family from Wadowice, and I had stayed close to him during the whole march. When he returned from the bakery, he woke me up and gave me a piece of bread. It was as if he had given me a new lease on life.
One night, as we were herded into a barn, we discovered bags of dried peels, meant for animal feed. We were so starved that we began tearing open the bags. Some men started pushing others in order to get to the bags and soon the noise alerted the Germans that something was going on. The German commander opened the door, shone his flashlight in and began shooting into the barn. I had been standing next to my friend from home, Pinchus Hollander. The bullet whizzed right by my ear, but it found my friend.
Another night, while we were lying in the barn, someone told me that it was the night of Purim and he started to recite by heart as much as he could remember of Megillas Esther.
One freezing morning in February, before we marched on, we were ordered to wash ourselves in a small pool of cold water. We were covered in lice and the Germans wanted us to delouse ourselves. Many of the men collapsed from the cold.
On the last day of Pesach, 1945, we reached Buchenwald. We had started out on the march as a group of 1,000 Jews and only 650 of us arrived in Buchenwald. We were herded into stalls and every couple of hours the SS guards came and pulled out more people. They said it was to put them on transports. In reality, they shot them in the woods. They managed to kill thousands of Jews who were being brought there from different camps around Germany. This was just days before the end of the war.
In addition, thousands of Jews were taken on open wagons and transported to the Czech border. On the way, many hundreds died from cold and hunger. Some transports reached Theresienstadt and were freed there by the Russians.
The last few weeks, the Germans couldn’t work the crematoria because they had no more coal for the fires. There were so many dead that the bodies were just piled up outside the blocks. The Germans didn’t really care anymore how it looked. A bachur I knew, Yaakov, and I decided to hide among the bodies — we had nothing to lose anymore.
That Sunday night, April 8, we went and lay down among the dead. We had no bread or water. We lay there all of Sunday night, and all day and night Monday and Tuesday until Wednesday. Wednesday, April 11, I noticed that the German guards were no longer in the watch towers. I saw people running. When I heard the American tanks cut through the electric wire fences, I understood that we were finally free. I tried to push away the bodies and get up, but my strength gave out and I fell. I don’t really know how long I lay there. The next thing that I remember is waking up in a clean bed. I heard a nurse speaking to me but I did not understand what she was staying. She called over a German girl who told me I was in a hospital that the Americans had set up in the former SS barracks and that I was now free.
To be continued.
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.