The Death March to Volary

As we try to educate ourselves and future generations about the Holocaust — so that we remember, and so that it will never happen again — the horrifying stories and the stories of true heroism are countless. This month, as we celebrate women, we will also — with the help of an amazing exhibit by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial — tell the story of the Volary Death March, in which 1,300 Jewish women were forced to march 500 miles. Only 350 of them survived:

In October 1944, approximately 1,000 female prisoners of Auschwitz-Birkenau – young women who had come mostly from Hungary and from the Lodz ghetto – were sent by train to Schlesiersee, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen in Upper Silesia, western Poland, a region that had been annexed by Germany.

They were housed in two adjacent farms, where they lived in appallingly unsanitary conditions and slept on straw that had been strewn on the floor.

The commander of the camp was Karl Herman Jäschke of the German Security Police (Schutzpolizei), formerly a policeman in the Breslau prison.

Each day, the women marched about 3 km from the farms to the forced labor site, and back. They were forced to dig anti-tank trenches in the snow-covered earth, using only shovels and other manual work tools. It was bitterly cold, and they were clothed in thin garments and given very little food. Lice spread from one to the other, and many of the women fell ill. Dozens perished in the course of the three-month forced labor period. The dead were buried next to the fence surrounding their living quarters.

It was bitterly cold in Schlesiersee, and since we were very poorly dressed some of us women took the one blanket they possessed and wore it out to work. A check was made three or four times of all the woman returning from work, and all those found wearing their blankets were given as punishment 25 whip strokes…The girls were whipped until they were bloody. Of the hundred girls I worked with, thirty received this punishment at one time. We used to be beaten also for having our clothes a little wet or dirty.  It was practically impossible to avoid this since our work consisted of digging anti-tank ditches in the snow. (Testimony of Zisla Heidt, given to a US intelligence officer on 16 May 1945 in Volary).

With the approach of the Red Army, the Germans evacuated the women from Schlesiersee. This evacuation turned into a death march.

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