Death marches

Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp where many of the Boys were interned before Buchenwald.
Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp where many of the Boys were interned before Buchenwald. Courtesy Elly Brooks 2014.

As the Russian Army advanced from the east, the Germans began to evacuate camps, such as Auschwitz and Skarzysko-Kamienna. Those inmates deemed physically capable of working as slave labour for the German war industry were relocated to concentration camps within Germany. Although some of the Boys were sent to Buchenwald as early as August 1944, most of them were sent on the devastating “death marches” from Auschwitz and elsewhere, stopping at other camps, such as Gross Rosen or Gleiwitz, before arriving in Buchenwald in January 1945, weak and starving.

The many thousands of people on the death marches were not provided any food or water for more than a week at a time. Jack U recalled that they felt terrible hunger. They also endured a combination of walking, scantily dressed and with inadequate footwear, and being transported, squashed into open wagons in the freezing winter of 1944–45.

The Boys on the death marches suffered the overwhelming terror of Nazi death threats and beatings. The German soldiers immediately shot those who could not march, or were too weak, injured, sick or exhausted, leaving them behind in the ditches and ravines. One Melbourne Boy recalled that they lived in constant fear of being shot.

Jack told of an horrific episode he witnessed while on the death march, which has stuck in his mind. Walking one metre in front of him was a woman with rags on her feet and a rucksack on her back, who started to fall behind. When the German guard saw that she could barely move, he told her to throw away her rucksack. She told him, speaking half Polish and half German, that the rucksack contained bread. She went down on her knees, repeating what she had said. Jack was horrified when the German soldier took his revolver and mercilessly shot her in the head. He said that he can still clearly visualise her blood on the freshly fallen snow.

Jack U described his experience of travelling in open wagons and the extreme fear and ensuing panic and chaos when local people offered water to somebody and others in that wagon desperately pushed over one another trying to grab the water.

Many of the Buchenwald Boys reported their attempts to survive the death march by eating snow. One of the Boys, Joe K, told of his own survival, and that of his two brothers, due to the lunch package that some Czech workers threw to them as they passed by.

The forced death marches in the last months of the Second World War brought about the death of many thousands of Holocaust victims

The Buchenwald Boys miraculously survived the death marches, some saying that they faced worse horrors in Buchenwald concentration camp.