Liberation

This week we conclude our look at the Volary Death March, which began with 1,300 Jewish women being forced to walk hundreds of miles by the Nazis, and ended with only 300 alive. Yad Vashem brings the story to a close with the survivors’ liberation by the U.S. Army, and with the above story about how one of the women’s lives was not only saved, but changed forever:

On 3 May 1945, 325 Jewish prisoners and 25 German prisoners reached Volary. The group that had marched on foot arrived in the evening, and the sick women brought on wagons arrived later that night. The residents of Volary tried to give the women food, but the guards prevented them from doing so. One of the female guards beat the prisoners who stretched out their hands for food…

Not far from the granary, 3 guards caught 12 women from the group who were walking, stood them against a wall and shot them. Their bodies were left where they lay. The guards were eager to avenge the death of Ruth Schultz and the injuries of the other guards, and were angry that the Jewish women had not been hurt. It would seem that one of the guards was Schultz’s boyfriend, and the father of her unborn child.

The group of marchers continued via Pfefferschlag towards Prachatice. Close to Prachatice, a guard shot one of the women in the head. Her body was found after the Americans arrived, and she was buried in the cemetery in Prachatice.

The marching women reached Prachatice at night, and charge of them was transferred to the local home guard, the Heimwehr. The 25 German prisoners were released.

In the shack of a furniture factory in Volary, 140 women lay dying. The two guards that had been left in charge of them waited in vain for the vehicles to return from Prachatice and to collect them together with the prisoners. That night, the two guards left…

On 6 May 1945, the US Army’s 2nd Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division, entered Volary. After the residents reported that there was a group of young, sick Jewish women in the shack of the furniture factory, they sent some men to the shack. 20 women perished before the Americans arrived, and two more on the day that they came. There were 118 surviving women in the shack, most of them in dire condition. Gerda Weissmann Klein describes the day that the Americans entered Volary in her memoir “All But My Life”:

Liesel was lying on the littered floor. She knew we were free but did not seem elated. “Where is Suse?” I asked her… “She went out to get water and hasn’t returned. She has been gone a long time”… I went out to look for Suse. She was not at the pump. I found her off a way lying in the mud. Her eyes were glassy, unseeing, but for a moment I did not realized she was dead… “Suse, we are free!” I called to her. “We are free, the war is over!’… When I touched her, I knew the truth… I did not tell Liesel. It was too sad for liberation day.

Four days later, on 10 May, Liesel Stepper also perished in the hospital in Volary.

On 8 May 1945, two days after they had arrived at the shack in Volary, the Americans opened a comprehensive investigation in order to establish what these women had endured, and how they had come to be in the deplorable state in which they were found. During the investigation, testimonies were gathered from some of the survivors of the march, and from some of the SS women who had accompanied the march, and who were later caught. The investigation was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert F. Bates, of the 5th Infantry Division. As well as the testimonies, the resulting report contains shocking photographs of the survivors after their arrival in Volary, and details of their medical conditions…

The German military hospital in Volary was situated in a 4-storey school building. On 7 May 1945, the 118 women were transferred from the shack of the furniture factory in Volary to the first two floors of the hospital, after the wounded German soldiers there were evicted.

They were in dire condition. Most of them weighed between 30-40 kg. 111 of them were suffering from malnutrition and severe vitamin deficiency. Many had dysentery. Almost all were riddled with lice. The soles of their feet were swollen, scarred and ulcerated. Some 20 of them had frostbite.

Major Aaron S. Cahan, a US medical officer, was appointed to check on the women, to supervise their transfer to the hospital, and to oversee their care. He arrived at the shack of the furniture factory in Volary on the afternoon of 7 May. In the testimony he gave two days later he relates:

My first glance at these individuals was one of extreme shock not ever believing that a human being can be degraded, can be starved, can be so skinny and even live under such circumstances… like mice on top of one another too weak to as much as raise an arm… when I entered the room I thought that we had a group of old men lying… at that time judged their ages ranged between fifty and sixty years. I was surprised and shocked when I asked one of these girls how old she was and she said seventeen, when to me she appeared to be no less than fifty… about seventy-five percent had to be carried in by litters. The other twenty-five percent were able with the help of others to drag their weary bodies from the shack to the ambulance… As a medical officer of the United States it is my opinion that at least fifty percent of these 118 women would have died within twenty-four hours were they not located and given the best of care.

Despite the care they were given, 19 more women perished in the hospital, among them 25-year-old Fela Szeps of Dąbrowa Górnicza, Poland. Fela weighed 29 kg at her death. According to her medical records, she looked like a 75-year-old woman. Fela perished in the hospital in Volary on 9 May. The photograph of her dying on the wooden plank bed was distributed amongst the 2nd Regiment of the 5th Infantry Division.

A few days later, on 13 May, 17-year-old Nadja Rypsztajn of Lodz, Poland also perished. Nadja and her three sisters, Fela Eisen, Guccia and Mina had all marched together from Schlesiersee. Guccia and Fela were murdered along the way. Only Mina (Heller) survived.

In November 1945, 17-year-old Dora Ebbe of Wiesbaden, Germany, perished. She was the youngest of four sisters who started out on the march together from Grünberg. Her sisters, Hanni, Nellie and Leah, buried her in the cemetery in Volary and left only after the shiva (seven days of mourning).

Most of the survivors that recuperated left Volary in July 1945, and made their way to the DP camps.

The Americans established a cemetery for victims of the march in Volary. Accompanied by some of the survivors, they retraced the steps of the women, as far as was possible within the time constraints, and buried the women who had perished along the way.

There are 95 graves in the cemetery in Volary.

The residents of Volary have tended the graves from the end of the war to this day.

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