I'd like to share a chapter from my book, Light One Candle, with you.
You might also like to see some photographs taken when I returned to the place of the "Death March". The occasion was the 50th aniversery of the liberation of Dachau.
Chapter 22, Death March
By the middle of April 1945, German troops were withdrawing so fast the Allied ground troops could hardly keep up. Motorized units began ferrying the infantry east, toward Munich. The Allies wanted to give the Germans no opportunity to regroup and entrench themselves.
By this time the 522nd had been attached to so many different battalions it was famous. Its artillery provided accurate supporting fire for assaults on Mannheim, Heidelberg, Rothburg, and Morlbach. Its forward observers and scouts acted as the eyes and ears for the advancing Third and Seventh armies. Driving over the remains of Hitler's autobahn, often at highway speeds, they zigzagged over the Berman countryside, going for weeks with very little sleep. Clarence Matsumura, Norm Funamura, Herb Kumabi, Yosh Arai, Mas Fujimoto, and David Sugimoto were patrolling in a radio equipment weapons transport when the approached the outskirts of Munich.
"When we first crossed over into Germany nearly everything had been bombed flat. It wasn't until we reached Bavaria and the area around Munich that I suddenly noticed birds singing. For weeks, every night there had been gunfire and bombs going off and my ears were always ringing. After two or thee days the ringing went away, and that's when I started hearing birds sing. I hadn't heard any birds in two months. Then I started hearing this strange sound which turned out to be rabbits. Rabbits crying for their mates . . .
"Near the end of April we entered a really peaceful-looking town called Dachau. I had never heard of it before."
April 24, 1945, was our last day at work. A great urgency was in the air--confusion among the Germans, excitement mixes with fear among the prisoners. That morning I was led out from the O.T. kitchen to dig a pit, and for a while I thought I as digging my own grave. It turned out to be a trench for an anti-tank gun.
Early that afternoon the Germans brought everyone back to camp. All the prisoners, including the sick and the dying, were told to report to the appell platz for a special roll call. It was an anxious moment for us, but we also sensed confusion and insecurity among the Germans. I thought of the "Big Action" in the ghetto n 1941, and remembered an arrogant Rauca standing there in his glossy boots, determining who would live and who would die with a casual wave of his hand. The Nazis were the masters of the world then.
One thing hadn't changed: the Germans' insistence on order. They counted us endless times. God forbid that anyone should be missing. There were only six hundred of us in the camp, but it was late afternoon before they were satisfied with the count. We were then given some meager rations and told we would be evacuated the next morning.
No one could sleep. I crept outside several times to make sure that the Germans hadn't run away, but the tower guards were still there, and there were extra patrols at the fence.
Early the next morning we were given our usual watery kaffee ersatz plus a little extra bread. The Commandant made one of his few appearances, looking haggard. He told us we were going to march to Dachau and had nothing to worry about, so long as we ere orderly. Anyone who broke ranks would be shot.
It was a beautiful day when we marched out, escorted by a new SS squad. In the beginning they tried to keep us in formation, but no amount of cursing or kicking could keep the starved prisoners marching in proper fashion. Soon we were a disorderly mob shuffling toward Munich, and the S stopped trying to order the ranks. Their great efficient engine of destruction was falling apart. It was a messy business now.
Father, Bertholt, Yisheshe, and I all managed to stay together. I was surprised that Father and I could keep up as well as we did, but we carried little with us. All I had was two blankets and my precious diary. Yisheshe was the one who tired easily. Apparently his twenty-five lashes had done some permanent damage to his legs. After four hours of marching he simply sat down. We struggled with him, trying to drag him along because the guards were beating those who stopped altogether, but he begged us to leave him alone.
We were surprised a short while later when a truck moved along the line picking up those who could no longer walk. We helped Yisheshe and a few others climb aboard. I was sure that they were going to be taken somewhere and shot. They just didn't want to do it out in broad daylight, where German civilians might see. I watched the truck pull away;, with Yisheshe waving from the back. He even tried to smile, which completely broke my heart.
There were several air raids the first day, but they were low-flying bombers attacking trains and military convoys. At one point the planes attacked a train moving along in the distance. The locomotive received a direct hit, leaping off the tracks and blowing up in a cloud of steam. The Nazi beast was disintegrating before our very eyes.
The next day, as we passed through a suburb, we could see the furtive parting of curtains as German civilians peered out at us. To our surprise a few of them came out and tried to offer us bread, but the result was disastrous. Hundreds of starving inmates would decent on the benefactor, often knocking him or her down. The bread was immediately torn to pieces, and the guards set upon the mob. Each time this happened several more bodies were left by the side of the road.
As hungry as we were, we stayed away from these mad rushes. I have to admit it was not only compassionate, but daring for these civilians to venture out offering bread. This was the first time we'd seen German civilians up close, outside of one or two in Utting and those in the Organization Todt, and the latter were as callous s the SS. I always wondered how a whole nation could be evil. Apparently this one was not.
In the late afternoon we stopped for a rest, and to our great relief a truck came by giving out bread rations. The guards said they would shoot anyone who became disorderly, but there was still an anxious crush in the bread line. Father, Berthold, and I all got portions. We ate every crumb.
Despite the losses along the way, our numbers were increasing. Prisoners from camps all over the area were now joining our ranks. We were converging on Dachau.
It was late in the afternoon before we arrived at the gate, which was inscribed with the cynical phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei." The watchtowers at Lager Ten were puny in comparison to the formidable towers there.
It was the first concentration camp the Germans build, and it had seen so many months and years of brutality that one could almost feel pain emanating from its walls. You could feel the evil in the place, as if Lucifer himself was in residence. I felt a wave of fear and loathing pass over me when we went in.
They led us straight to the opposite end of the camp and told us to undress. They said that we were going to shower and then they would issue us new uniforms. I clutched my diary. I was gong to lose it again, after all my painstaking work at Lager Ten. Father and Bertholt were giving each other nervous looks when suddenly the capos were on us, shouting and swinging their sticks.
The gas chambers. The transition from life to imminent death was so fast I barely had time to contemplate it. Some of the Poles who had worked at Auschwitz told us that the victims of the gas chamber suffered terribly before they died. That when they opened the door afterward there was a pyramid of people piled up in the middle. The gas spread from the floor up, so the victims climbed on top of each other trying to get one last breath of air. I thought of Cooky in Auschwitz. I thought of the suffocating pit at the Ninth Fort. Father was squeezing my hand so hard he almost broke it, and Berthold had gone almost rigid with fear. My gut tightened into a huge knot, and I closed my eyes.
Then I heard my father laughing. I was certain that he had lost his wits. "Look, look!" he shouted. "Open windows! We're going to have a shower after all!"
Relief flooded over me even as streams of lukewarm water began flowing from the nozzles along the wall. I even began humming a tune as the water washed down the crust of dirt that covered my body.
They gave us reasonable portions of bread and margarine that evening, and then led us to an empty barracks. It was above ground, and the spring air moving through the windows was chilly but fresh. I plopped down on the first available bunk, filled with an unreasoning happiness. I barely had time to wonder what force of nature made us cling so hard to a miserable life before I dropped into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When the capos woke us the next morning I opened my eyes to discover a mob of new prisoners. There were everywhere, crammed two and three to a bunk and sleeping on the floor. We discovered that we had been among the first to enter the camp. Those who arrived in the middle of the night got neither a shower nor clean uniforms, nd the place reeked.
When we first arrived the camp was clean and orderly, with capos and SS enforcing their usual iron discipline. Overnight the situation had changed completely. Thousands of inmates from the eleven satellite camps in Landsberg and Kaufering were now being held there, and it was pandemonium. We emerged from the stinking barracks and hardly recognized the place. Torn clothing, old shoes, and all kinds of rubbish filled the yard. The system was utterly breaking down. There were rumors that we would be exchanged with German prisoners of war, and that Red Cross representatives were due in camp any minute. Others said that we would march to the Swiss border for the exchange. Whatever course destiny would take, we knew that the end was near.
Soon afterward we lined up to receive our rations for the march. To our astonishment we received a whole loaf of bread, a tin of meat weighing a kilo, margarine, and jam.
And among the new crowd in the yard I met two friends we thought were dead. One of them was Yisheshe. He was so happy to see us that he fell into our arms and began to cry. The other was Jacob Portnov.
Like Yisheshe, he found someone in power at Lager Four who knew him and got him an administrative job. The easy work, the extra food, and the better conditions soon brought him around. Although he was still thin as a rail, he didn't look like a musselman anymore. Father cried when he discovered Jacob alive.
The sky turned darker as we lined up in rows of five, and as we marched out of the gate, leaving Dachau and all it meant behind, it started to drizzle. On the road the marchers became a long column that disappeared into the murk ahead. Beside Jews, there were Russians, Ukrainians, and prisoners from the other eat European countries.
Yisheshe had decided to stay back in camp with those too ill to march. He knew he wouldn't be able to get very far. I as afraid of what they might do to the sick who stayed behind, a fear that Father, Jacob, and Bertholt shared. Except for that moment of bliss after our showers, the place filled me with foreboding. It was in terrible disorder now, but there were still enough SS surrounding the camp to kill every inmate there. At least on the march we'd be on public roads.
I felt that with so much food we could easily make it to the Swiss border. Strangely enough I believed this story. If they wanted to kill us, they would have done it a long time ago. Why would they waste so much precious food on us at the end of the war? What we didn't know was that the Nazis had one last, mad plan to hole up in the mountains of Tyrol and put up a last-ditch defense. We were the slave labor who would build the fortifications. The Allies even got wind of the plan.
Almost from the beginning it was an arduous march. The drizzle quickly penetrated our thin garb, and the temperature began to drop. Father, who had somehow gotten himself a coat at Dachau, dropped it on the road the first day. It got too wet and heavy to support.
We emerged from the suburbs of Dachau and headed south. With the arrival of cold weather we ate much more of our rations than we intended. The guards were increasingly nervous, beating and cursing the stragglers. Many of the guards had dogs on leashes, big German shepherds and some especially vicious Dobermans. The dogs barked and snapped constantly, and often lunged at prisoners who strayed too close.
The first night we camped in a wooded area, putting some of our blankets on the ground and others over us. They were almost as damp as our uniforms, and we huddled together trying to retain a little body heat, The cold was a particular affront. It was almost the end of April.
During the night some of the Russian prisoners tried to get at our food, but we chased them away. In spite of our weariness none of us really slept. The cold rain completely penetrated our blankets and clothes, and throughout the night we could hear the dogs barking and the intermittent sound of rifle fire. Either prisoners were trying to escape, or the SS were taking potshots at the clumps of sleepers.
The next day we marched out early. The drizzle stopped, but the sky remained dark and threatening. There must have been many thousands in our column alone, because on one long, straight stretch the mass of people moving behind and ahead of us reached as far as I could see. A biting wind kicked up, adding to our misery. I asked the prisoners around us, most of them from Lager ten and Lager One, if they know whether David and Abke were on the march. No one knew, although a few knew David's father Melechke, and said he was somewhere in the crowd.
The little food we had left we hid under our clothes. The Russians in the column were becoming more daring , and would actually attack other prisoners for their food.
When we stopped for a break I took out the tin of meat they'd given us at Dachau. Out of the corner of my eye I say a Russian prisoner running straight at me. I clutched my tin and quickly stuck out my foot. He went flying. He was cursing when he rose from the ground, ready to jump me, but Bertholt had also risen to his feet. He hit the Russian flat in the face with his open hand, and my attacker fell over as if he'd run into a brick wall. He staggered back up with fear in his eyes, then ran. Bertholt grinned and said that apparently he hadn't lost his touch. For a whole the Russians in our group steered clear.
We passed a road sign that said we were twenty kilometers from a place called Wolfratshausen, wherever that was. Many of the weaker inmates were now falling by the wayside, and we heard shots behind us. There were no more trucks to pick up sick prisoners. The SS were taking care of them with guns and dogs. It was a bad omen, and demolished my theory that the Germans wouldn't shoot prisoners where the civilian population might witness it.
Jacob was growing weaker by the minute, so we took turns supporting him, two on either side. By the time we stopped for the second night we were exhausted. Once again we marched into a wooded area, and we just dropped where we were standing. It wasn't raining, but a cold wind had kicked up and quickly penetrated our sodden blankets. We huddled together, teeth chattering.
Again we spent a miserable, sleepless night. I began to think that Yisheshe was right to stay behind. Joining this march had been a horrible mistake.
The next morning the Germans liked us up again and led us out to the road, then suddenly chased us back into the woods. In a minute we heard the roar of planes over our heads, and the long bursts of cannon fir ripped through the trees. Our attacker seemed to think we were German troops. Fortunately, no one in our immediate group was hit, although other inmate around us took causalities.
We remained in the woods that day, trying to recover our strength. From a distance we could hear faint explosions, and as they continued and the volume increased we realized they weren't bombs. Then one of the Russians came crashing past, laughing and singing like a madman.
"What is it, comrade? What's happening?" my father shouted after him.
"That's field artillery! The front is upon us! It's the Americans!" He shouted back, throwing his hat in the air.
My heart was racing. Had the unbelievable hour come?
Father, Berthold, Jacob, and I threw ourselves on each other, laughing and crying all at the same time. We were hugging and clapping each other on the back when Jacob fell back against a tree. He had a funny smile on his face, as if he were drunk. Then he slid to the ground. Suddenly we all stopped laughing.
"What is it Jacob? What's the matter with you" Father cried. Jacob just kept smiling foolishly and said nothing. I looked into his eyes and saw them moving about erratically, as if he were unable to focus. There was a strange brilliance in those eyes. I had seen it before. It was the radiance of a soul about to leave a tortured body.
"Oh no! Don't die now Jacob! The Americans are here! They're coming!" I screamed.
Suddenly Father grabbed him in his arms and started sobbing.
"Don't die Herman. Don't leave me now, my son. I won't let you. You will not die, you hear me?!"
I stared at Father, my heart twisting in my chest. This time his mind had definitely snapped.
Father clutched Jacob to him, rocking him and calling out Herman's name. But Jacob's eyes had turned glassy. Nothing was behind them anymore.
The rest of us fell into a numb silence. Then Sugihara's last words floated into my head. "Vaya con Dios, Jacob," I whispered. "Vaya con Dios."
We left him sitting underneath the tree, the smile still on his lips. Perhaps he saw a better world on the other side. I don't know. I closed his eyes. I didn't want him looking at this miserable world anymore.
Father wept for a long time, and then turned mute. He didn't say a word the rest of the day.
That evening, as we sat eating our last rations, a Russian prisoner came running from out of nowhere and snatched Father's tin of meat from his hands. Father didn't move a muscle. Berthold and I chased after the thief, but a dozen of his comrades rose up and blocked our path. It was senseless to try to fight all of them. The short distance we ran made us realize how weak we were.
The artillery fire we heard that morning died away. Either it wasn't field artillery, or they had moved on, and once again we were plunged into a dark world ruled by Dobermans and the SS.
After nightfall the guards marched us out once again. We started to think that they had no idea what they were doing. Someone had given them an order that no longer had any relevance, and they were mindlessly following it. And so our column marched through the picturesque Bavarian countryside, littering the roads with the bodies of some of the last Lithuanian Jews in Europe.
Chapter 22 from Light One Candle, by Solly Ganor. All rights reserved.