Death Marches

Death marches were the forced evacuation of extermination camp prisoners across thousands of miles toward the German Reich at the end of the war.


Death march 1945 (public domain photo)
Death march 1945 (public domain photo)

Beginning in the summer of 1944, the Nazi party realized that Germany was losing the war. Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the evacuation of prisoners in all concentration camps to central Germany for use in slave labor. Evacuations initially began by boat and train, but eventually prisoners were forced to march on foot. Thus began the death marches whose violence marked the beginning of the end of the war. These marches were often thousands of miles long in horrid conditions of the winter cold and with no food, water, or rest. Those who could no longer walk or travel were shot on the spot. Others died of maltreatment, starvation, disease, and exhaustion. They were left where they fell dead or buried in shallow graves.


The Nazi party decided to order such marches for three reasons: it did not want Holocaust survivors alive to tell their stories to Allied liberators; it still needed Jews for labor; and it clung to the irrational belief that the survivors could be used to negotiate a peace with the Allied forces in which the Nazi party would be allowed to survive. To almost the last day of the war, German authorities marched prisoners to various locations in the Reich to preserve them as laborers and bartering chips.


On January 18, 1945, the evacuation of Auschwitz and its satellite camps began. Survivors of Będzin, most of whom had been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, were among the 60,000 prisoner death march to the Reich. Upon arrival, those prisoners still alive were crowded into unsanitary freight trains and transported to other concentration or labor camps closer to the German homeland. It is there that most prisoners, including the few remaining Będzin survivors, remained until their liberation.


Approximately one in four prisoners died on death marches. In all, it is estimated that between 200,000-250,000 prisoners died or were murdered on forced death marches during the last ten months of the Holocaust.


For more information on death marches:

USHMM: Death Marches

Yad Vashem: Death Marches