The Path to Death

The Fellowship  |  March 18, 2019

Today we continue our look at the Volary Death March, in which more than 1,000 Jewish women were forced to walk hundreds of miles. Most of them did not survive, either falling by the wayside due to sickness, starvation, or exhaustion, or else being murdered by their Nazi captors. Here, Yad Vashem shares what went on during these months of ruthless anti-Semitic evil:

The death march of the female prisoners of the Schlesiersee camp under the supervision of camp commander Jäschke, began on 20 January 1945. Jäschke was given orders to leave no one behind. The women were marched on foot for eight days, covering a distance of some 95 km in a northwesterly direction, until they reached the Grünberg camp. On leaving Schlesiersee, each woman was given one loaf of bread. They did not know if and when they would be receiving more food. Clad in thin garments and wearing unwieldy wooden clogs, they marched in the freezing cold. The weaker ones were pushed in wheelbarrows by their friends. The guards urged them on, so they wouldn’t slow down. Anyone who couldn’t keep up was shot. It is unclear how many women survived the journey and reached Grünberg. At least 150 were shot, or perished from hunger and exhaustion on the way.

On 25 January, after having marched more than 40 km, some 40 women, the weaker prisoners, were murdered in the vicinity of the village of Alt-Hauland, today Stary Jaromierz. Their bodies were later moved to a mass grave in the cemetery in nearby Kargowa.

A committee established to research crimes committed against the Polish people in Zielona Gorà (formerly Grünberg) investigated the murder of the women in the forest, gathered testimony from the locals, and summarized as follows in their report of 1967:

The German guards put aside 38 exhausted women who could not continue marching, and from then on, they no longer received anything to eat. Afterwards, at around 15:00, they were loaded onto three wagons… and removed together with seven guards who accompanied the transport to the forest. On arrival in the forest, the guards ordered the wagon drivers… to halt. They then began to murder those defenseless women. They were murdered in cold blood, in the most inhumane manner possible.

One of the wagon-drivers said in his testimony:

The women… looked miserable and exhausted…the head of the village said that they were being taken to the hospital… When we reached the forest, they [the German guards] ordered us to stop, and started shooting the women. They pulled them by the hair and shot them… After the women were buried… those guards were drunk, and they continued to drink. They also offered me alcohol…

On 2 February 1945, the march of the prisoners continued, following a stay of some two days in the Christianstadt camp. It would seem that some female prisoners from Christianstadt were added to the group of women that had arrived from Grünberg. They continued in a southwesterly direction. Some women who had come from Grünberg took advantage of the chaos that ensued when the camp was evacuated and escaped.

Every escape attempt foiled by the march escorts resulted in savage fatal beatings or in the shooting of the escapees. In the course of the journey from Christianstadt to Weisswasser, which they reached on around 7 February, there were several escape attempts. Some of the escapees were caught. Of those who were caught, several were beaten and shot; this was the first time that Grünberg prisoners witnessed a public execution, a sight which left an indelible scar.

Gerda Weissmann Klein, a survivor of the march, describes the will to escape in her memoir All But My Life:

We began toying with the idea of escape. Several girls had already slipped away under cover of darkness… “We must go,” I wanted to whisper. Instead I heard my voice saying: “Maybe tonight.”

“All assemble!” the voice of the SS rang out. For some moments we stood ready. Than we heard screams and frightened begging from the forest. Three SS men had rounded up fourteen girls in the forest. Now they lined them up in front of us. The commandant took out his pistol. The girls screamed. The commandant fired again and again and the girls fell, one on top of the other.

I closed my eyes and held Ilse’s hand tightly. We marched on. At that moment I vowed that I would never try to escape, never take our lives into my hands, never step off the path that was leading us to death…

Each day there were those who didn’t wake up. There were the dead. At the beginning, the Germans killed many. Afterwards, we already got used to it. We saw the same thing every day. Dead bodies, killings and beatings.Tema Weinstock (née Pinczewska)

On 13 April, the women marched 17 km from Helmbrechts to Schwarzenbach. After some 5 km, one of the guards shot a prisoner who couldn’t march any further, and left her body where it lay. On 16 April, a farmer found her body, her face mutilated by the bullet. She was buried in the cemetery in Ahornberg, a village occupied by the Americans a day earlier. When the march passed through Ahornberg, the starving prisoners begged for food and water, but most of the guards prevented the locals from helping them.

Some 2 km east of Ahornberg, a little before the village of Modlitz, one of the guards led two exhausted women into the forest and shot them in the head. The Americans who entered Modlitz on 15 April found their bodies and buried them where they had been found.

After leaving Modlitz, one of the guards shot two more women who could not go on. One of them did not die immediately. Locals heard her cries and groans, but no one dared approach her, and she perished during the night. On 14 April, residents of Modlitz buried her where she was found.

On the way from Modlitz to Wölbersbach, one of the guards shot a 20-year-old prisoner in the head because in her weakened state she had fallen behind the marchers. On 14 April, residents of Wölbersbach found her body and buried her there. After the march had passed through Seulbitz and reached a narrow gully, guards shot four women in the head who were too weak to go on. Their bodies were found the next day by residents of Seulbitz and buried there.

In the evening, the women reached Schwarzenbach an der Saale. The prisoners who had arrived on foot spent the night outdoors, in a fenced yard on the outskirts of the town. They were not given food or a hot drink, either in the evening or the morning. The sick prisoners who had arrived by truck were led to a building thanks to the intervention of the Deputy Mayor of Schwarzenbach. One of the female guards from the truck pushed and dragged them, and some crawled, overcome with weakness and exhaustion. The sick women did not receive food either.

During the night, five of the sick women in the building perished. Another dying prisoner was taken to the cemetery in Schwarzenbach together with the 5 dead women, and perished on the way. The six women were buried there.