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Death March, Tisha B'Av 1944

July 23, 2009 | by Yaakov Astor

Facing defeat, the Nazis marched 6,000 Jews. A survivor's account.

Between 1939 and 1945 hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in death marches. This was especially true in the last year of the war as the Third Reich crumbled. Even when it was clear that Hitler's Germany was doomed, the Nazis continued to march hapless Jewish prisoners aimlessly and mercilessly from one place to another.

This is the story of one of those "death marches" as related by Mr. Reuven. [1]

In Auschwitz

Mr. Reuven was a teenager in 1944 when the Germans arrived in his town and sent him to Auschwitz. While the Red Army rampaged west in the summer of 1944, the Nazis sent him and other able-bodied prisoners to Warsaw as slave labor to help the Germans build fortifications to defend the city. They worked at a furious pace and many people died of exhaustion, but they were fed relatively well. The Germans knew their own lives depended on these fortifications.

From the gunfire that lit up the sky each night, it was becoming more and more obvious that the Russians were coming. With the Russians on the verge of breaking through, the Germans decided to march Mr. Reuven and his fellow prisoners some 80-100 miles west to a train station, from where they would be sent to the concentration camp at Dachau.

It was a boiling day when the Germans marched them out. They gave them meager rations of dry bread and thirst-inducing salted cheese. In addition, everyone had to carry his own bowl and cover. No one was allowed to leave them behind -- it would be considered "sabotage."

Sick prisoners who couldn't walk anymore were offered the "opportunity" by the Germans to travel by bus. About 240 prisoners volunteered and were told to step over to the side of the road. They were all shot.

Those who did not keep pace were shot to death by soldiers.

Mr. Reuven and the others walked from morning till late afternoon before the Germans told them to halt. The commander of the march and his assistants rode in cars and on bikes in the rear to make sure there were no stragglers. Those who did not keep pace were run over and/or shot to death by the soldiers who marched alongside the prisoners, taking turns so as not to get tired.

When some non-Jewish farmers tried to give the prisoners pails of water, they were attacked by the SS guards, who chased them away and spilled the water on the ground. In the afternoon, the group reached a river. The Nazis told the prisoners that they could go and drink. However, this was a ruse only to torment them; when the first group approached the river, they let their attack dogs loose and opened fire, shouting at them to stop.

Soon after, the march continued, their throats parched. Toward the evening, they stopped for the night at a field, which was soaked with water! They bent down on their hands and knees, scooping up water. But with so many people trying to grab some, the water quickly became muddy and undrinkable. Most barely got their lips wet.

That first day they marched about 20 miles. That night, as they slept under the sky in an open field, someone said, "Tonight is Friday night, Tisha B'Av!

Tisha B'Av -- the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the most infamous day on the Hebrew calendar. As the Sages taught:

On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, [2] the First and Second Temple was destroyed, Beitar [3] was captured and the City [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)

The infamy associated with Tisha B'Av did not stop with Biblical and Talmudic times. On Tisha B'Av in the year 1290, Edward I issued an edict of expulsion for the Jews from England. Tisha B'Av, 1492, is also the day of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. On Tisha B'Av 1942, the first Jews of Warsaw were gassed in Treblinka.

Since Tisha B'Av in 1944 occurred on a Shabbos, the fast was pushed off till Sunday. And, indeed, as bad as things were for Mr. Reuven and his fellow Jews, they were about to get even worse.

Tisha B'Av

The next day, they were awakened early to gain time before the sun became fiery hot. The Nazis also wanted to walk while it was still cooler. As the poor prisoners marched, the Capos and SS shouted, "Run! Run!" and called them, "Loafers."

Theirs tongues stuck to their palettes. Water was their obsession, their longing.

Their ordeal reached a peak by the third day, Sunday, observed as Tishah B'Av. People were so weak they removed their shoes to make it lighter and easier to walk. All they could think about was their thirst. Theirs tongues stuck to their palettes. Water was their obsession, their longing.

After marching what seemed like an interminable amount of time, they were told to rest near a river. Again, it was only to taunt the Jews; they didn't let them drink. Some Jews didn't wait for permission and approached the water. The Nazis shot them.

The Germans drank to their heart's content in open mockery, never allowing the Jews even a sip from the river. Instead, they marched them back to the road to a nearby field to sleep.

Hidden Water

That night was particularly dark. Clouds obscured the moon's silver light. The beaten marchers slept surrounded by armed SS guards who dozed off.

Suddenly, a young boy whispered he had found water beneath the swampy soil using a tin pan. As soon as people saw water they came running and everyone started digging. Some had a spoon, some a shovel, and some dug with their hands. Indeed, just beneath the surface was water!

Just then, an SS guard awoke. He stared for a few long moments until he understood what was happening. Quickly, he called out to the other guards. They jumped up immediately and ran to the crowd of prisoners to see what was going on. But they were too late to do anything. And they were afraid of starting a commotion in the middle of the night in unknown territory, out of concern that the prisoners would attack them. So they did nothing.

In the morning, when the commander and other officers were brought to the camp and saw the miracle of the water, they were fuming. The night guards shrugged their shoulders and hurriedly left the area in shame.

Day Four

The next day, day four of the ordeal, everyone had renewed energy from the water. They were even given some bread, sausage (horse meat), and dirty water they called "coffee." They marched long and hard, subjected to the usual beatings and verbal abuse.

That night there was a huge storm. It poured and thundered, and it was cold. Five or six people spread a cover underneath themselves. The cold wind carried away many of the thin blankets and left the prisoners chilled to the bone. There was no place to take cover. If they tried to raise their heads they were greeted immediately by a barrage of bullets. The prisoners huddled together and tried to warm up, covering themselves with whatever they could find -- rags, torn coats, leaves. But to no avail. Rain poured down, filling the entire valley. The guards, armed with clubs and revolvers, stood ready to strike or shoot anyone who tried to get out.

Feverish from the intense heat of the day, the prisoners were now shivering from the sudden cold. Just the day before they had yearned for a drop of water, and now were almost drowning in it.

In the morning, there was steam rising from the wetness, humidity, and heat of the new day. Unfortunately, many didn't wake up.

Day Five: The Cattle Car

On the fifth day they arrived at a train station and were boarded into cattle cars with a capacity of 40 people. Instead, the Nazis squeezed in 90-100 people, 45 people on each side, and Capos in the middle.

Many of the prisoners died on the train, either from starvation or by being trampled in the overcrowded car.

If someone slept, he remained standing and supported by those around him. Some people died and remained standing. If someone fell he was usually trampled and unable to get up.

People relieved themselves where they were. The torture was unbearable. There was a terrible stench from both the living and dead bodies. Many of the prisoners died on the train, either from starvation or by being trampled in the overcrowded car. The dead bodies were piled in the corner so that the living could spread out or sit on the pile of corpses. There was simply nowhere else to sit. They stood the entire journey, awake, asleep, eating, and relieving themselves.

Occasionally the train stopped at a station. The guards would go out and return with jugs of water, which they put in the middle of the cars. The prisoners raced to get some water, but most of it spilled on the floor because of the chaos.

At other times, when the train stopped near springs of water some of the prisoners were allowed to go out. At the end of their strength, they ran toward the water but the Germans let their attack dogs loose, claiming that they had to prevent the prisoners from escaping. The dogs viciously attacked the prisoners and many did not survive.

Dachau and Beyond

It took about two and a half days for the train to arrive.

Nearly 6,000 Jews left Warsaw on the march. Less than 2,000 arrived at Dachau. They came off the train half naked, filthy, smelly and wounded. Some of them were crazed. The fresh air revived some of them, making them drunk with giddiness. But as they disembarked the train, they saw a stark reminder of their predicament: draped over the gates to the camp were the notorious words, "Arbeit Macht Frei" – work will set you free.

Mr. Reuven survived Dachau, as well as the labor camp they sent him to from there. He also survived typhus and numerous other harrowing life-and-death situations.

On May 5, 1945, he was liberated and went on to live a full life, seeing children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all raised as observant Jews. He also became a great philanthropist, despite arriving in the United States penniless and unable to speak English, helping countless people and institutions in ways that became legendary.

Tisha B'Av is a day of national mourning when we fast. People often wish each other to have an "easy and meaningful fast." The moments during the fast when I invariably feel hungry or thirsty and wish I could take a drink of water or reach for a small snack, that's when I stop and think to myself:

"People in the Holocaust had it so much worse. Here I am dying for a cup of coffee after only a few hours of fasting. They were starving or felt they were dying of thirst day after day – often with a sadistic guard standing nearby. They had to deal with fear and the death of loved ones and friends on a daily or even hourly basis. Throughout history Jews have suffered horribly at the hands of anti-Semites for their beliefs or for no other reason than that they were Jews. Thank God I do not live in those times. Please God, protect us from ever having to experience those times ever again. The least I can do is take this moment of hunger or thirst to feel a solidarity with their plight, with what it means to be a Jew, a people who stand for values and morality. I am part of a great chain stretching back 3,000 years. And although to be a Jew means much more than to suffer, sacrificing for our values has often been part of it. May this moment of deprivation I am feeling now link me to my ancestors in both body and soul so that I may merit to be considered part of that great chain."

Such thoughts do not necessarily take away the hunger or discomfort, but they connect me to those who suffered and my heritage in a way no intellectual exercise can equal.

Mr. Reuven's story accentuates the meaning of Tisha B'Av. The Jewish people may go through enormous tribulations, but the Jewish spirit and its message to humanity survives, rising from the ashes to rebuild and live on. At the end of the day, this is arguably the greatest message of Tisha B'Av.


[1] The family of Mr. Reuven commissioned me to write their father's biography. Although they gave me permission to publish the content of the death march for this article, they did not want me to mention their family name or that of their father. The name "Mr. Reuven" is a pseudonym. The story of this death march is also related in "The Klausenberger Rebbe: The War Years," translated and adapted by Judah Lifschitz, published by Targum Press. Some of the information from that book has been incorporated into this article's account of the same event.
[2] "Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: That night was Tisha B'Av; The Holy One, blessed be He, said: They cried for naught, I will establish for them [this night as] a weeping for generations." (Sotah 35a)
[3] [About 65 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Beitar was] a city where tens of thousands of Jews lived who were led by a great king whom all of Israel and its Sages thought was the Messiah. The city fell to the Romans and all its inhabitants were killed. It was a catastrophe akin to the Temple's destruction. [Maimonides, Laws of Fasting 5:3



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