Death or Freedom

On Sunday, February 25, 1945, Odd Nansen followed his usual routine. Since his deportation to Sachsenhausen as a political prisoner almost one and a half years earlier, the forty-three-year-old Norwegian had visited the camp’s infirmary on most weekends. Usually he came to help fellow countrymen, but this time he headed straight for one of the youngest patients, a ten-year-old Jewish boy called Tommy, who had been born in Czechoslovakia in 1934, after his parents’ emigration from Nazi Germany. Tommy was all alone. Separated from his mother and father in Auschwitz in 1944, he had only recently arrived in Sachsenhausen. Nansen had first met him in the infirmary on February 18 and was greatly touched, wondering how a child who had witnessed unimaginable sufferingcould still be so sweet-natured. Looking at Tommy that day, with his large eyes and his infectious smile, Nansen felt as if an angel had descended into the depths of Sachsenhausen. He desperately missed his own children in Norway and resolved to watch over Tommy, bribing the infirmary Kapo to save the boy from selections. When Nansen came back to visit the following week, on February 25, he brought rare treats like sardines. And as he sat beside the boy, Tommy told him about the evacuation of Auschwitz.

The Camp SS had forced Tommy out of the Auschwitz complex on January 18, 1945, with most of the remaining inmates. Staying close to two other boys from the Birkenau children’s barrack, he had joined an endless procession of prisoners dragging themselves westward. Everything was covered in snow and ice, and the roads—littered with dead horses, burned vehicles, and mangled corpses—were submerged by waves of German soldiers and civilians fleeing from the Red Army. Tommy saw many prisoners perish along the way, and soon felt that he, too, would die.

After six months in Birkenau, Tommy was bone-thin, and the boots his mother had left him offered little protection against the winter. More than once, he thought about giving up. Still he pushed himself forward. After three interminable days, Tommy and the other survivors finally reached Gleiwitz, the German border town where Nazi forces had staged the phony attack by “Polish” troops that marked the beginning of World War II. Here they were forced onto an open railcar. At first, Tommy was pressed so tightly against the adults that he could hardly breathe, but later death thinned their ranks. The creeping cold tormented Tommy’s frozen feet. He had little to eat but snow, trying to imagine that it was ice cream. “And I cried terribly,” he told Nansen. After more than ten days, the train arrived near Sachsenhausen. Tommy was soon taken to the main camp infirmary, where two of his toes, black with frostbite, were amputated. “Poor little Tommy, what will become of him?” Odd Nansen thought as he wrote down Tommy’s story.1

The young boy was one of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners who entered Sachsenhausen in early 1945.2 Other concentration camps inside the prewar German borders also filled with prisoners from abandoned KL nearer the front line. Faced with the relentless Allied advance, the SS closed camp after camp, forcing hundreds of thousands to leave on foot, trains, trucks, and horse-drawn carriages. The deadly treks led through what was left of Nazi-controlled Europe, sometimes winding over hundreds of miles.3

The KL system broke apart rapidly, just as it reached its zenith: climax and collapse went hand in hand. Despite some disruption by the war in 1944, which led the SS to close several main camps and dozens of satellites, its terror apparatus had still been going strong at the end of the year. On January 15, 1945, the eve of the evacuation of Auschwitz, the SS registered a record number of 714,211 KL prisoners in all.4 Over the coming months, the remaining camps grew into behemoths, bursting with prisoners from evacuated sites, as well as newly arrested inmates. The prisoner population of the Mauthausen complex, for example, exceeded eighty thousand by late February 1945, over fifty thousand more than one year earlier.5 Not only were the remaining camps inside Nazi Germany now at their largest, they were at their most lethal, too. Starvation and disease were rampant, and the SS went on a last killing spree as the Third Reich went down in flames.6

The morale of the prisoners inside was closely tied to the progress of the war, as it had been for years. News of major Allied victories, such as the landings in Italy (1943) and France (1944), had been greeted ecstatically, with prisoners smiling, whistling, even dancing.7 But their hopes of swift liberation had been dashed again and again, leading many inmates to seek solace in fantastical rumors and in the stories of spiritualists and fortune-tellers, which flourished in the KL.8 Only in early 1945 could the prisoners really be sure that the war would soon be over. The Allies were now unstoppable. In the east, Soviet troops penetrated deep into the Third Reich. In the west, the all-or-nothing offensive by the Wehrmacht in December, on which Nazi leaders had pinned their last hopes, quickly stalled, followed by a decisive push from the western Allies, who advanced steadily until they crossed the Rhine in early March 1945. On April 25, 1945, American and Soviet soldiers met on the Elbe, splitting the remnants of the Third Reich in half. The German surrender came less than two weeks later, in the early hours of May 7, 1945.9

Life during the final months and weeks in concentration camps was unbearably tense. As prisoners heard the detonations from the front come closer, they felt as if “on tenterhooks,” one of them wrote in a secret note.10 The KL resembled beehives, with swarms of inmates gathering to exchange the latest news. Their mood fluctuated wildly between hope and anguish. Some were sure that liberation would come at any moment. Others feared that the SS would execute them before the Allies arrived, or force them out. The prospect of leaving the camp terrified many prisoners, especially after they had witnessed the arrival of earlier death marches. But they were also scared of being left behind, especially if they were ill and weak, like little Tommy in Sachsenhausen. “[If] this camp is evacuated—what then?” the boy asked Odd Nansen in late February 1945. “If I’m still lying here and can’t run, what will they do with me?” When Nansen visited Tommy for the last time two weeks later, shortly before Norwegian prisoners like him departed from the camp, he feared that he would never see the boy again.11

It is impossible to say how many prisoners perished between January and early May 1945 during the evacuations and inside the KL. However, an estimate of forty percent dead—some three hundred thousand men, women, and children—is probably not wide of the mark. Never before had so many registered prisoners died so quickly.12 Perhaps some four hundred and fifty thousand prisoners came through the final catastrophe, with Jews, Soviets, and Poles making up the largest groups.13 Most of these survivors were rescued inside the KL, though some sites stood eerily empty by the time the Allies arrived. In the Sachsenhausen main camp, Soviet troops found no more than 3,400 prisoners on April 22–23, 1945, mostly in the abominable sick bays.14 One of them was Tommy. After the boy limped out of his barrack, he saw Red Army soldiers moving through the big gate and shouting “Hitler kaputt, Hitler kaputt!” Ever since this moment, Thomas (Tommy) Buergenthal has reflected on the reasons for his survival against all odds. “If there is one word that captures the conclusion to which I always returned,” he wrote decades later, “it is luck.”15


When Soviet troops reached the Auschwitz main camp and Birkenau, at around three o’clock on the afternoon of January 27, 1945, the site looked nothing like it had just a few months earlier. The SS had dismantled or destroyed many buildings and set fire to the thirty barracks of Canada II, the huge compound storing the property of murdered Jews; the ruins were still smoldering as Soviet soldiers walked among them. Before SS officials had torched these warehouses, they sent some of the most valuable goods back toward central Germany. Building materials had been moved out, too, as had technical equipment like the X-ray machine used for sterilization experiments. The SS had demolished the Birkenau crematoria and gas chambers, as well, beginning in November 1944; crematorium V, the last operational one, was blown up shortly before liberation. Now the Birkenau “death factory” lay in ruins. As for the once overcrowded prisoner compounds, they were largely deserted. Less than five months earlier, in late August 1944, over 135,000 prisoners had been held across the camp complex. By the time the Soviets liberated Auschwitz, there were just 7,500 left, mostly sick and weak prisoners abandoned during the final evacuation.16 But the loss of Auschwitz was still a big blow for the SS, as the camp had been the jewel in its crown: a model for the collaboration with industry, an outpost for German settlements, and its principal death camp.

In recent times, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz has become the focal point for remembrance of the Holocaust.17 Symbolic as the date is, however, January 27, 1945, marked neither the beginning nor the end of the camps’ liberation. The end of suffering was still a long way off for most prisoners; if freedom came at all, it came weeks or months later, often after another round of death marches in April and May 1945. As for the beginning, the first phase of KL evacuations had occurred earlier, between spring and autumn 1944; and although it is widely forgotten today, it foreshadowed much of the horror that was to follow.

Early Evacuations

By early September 1944, the German army appeared to be on the brink of defeat on the Western Front, following the Allied advance after the D-day landings in June. The military situation seemed increasingly hopeless and the popular mood in Germany hit a new low.18 Anticipating the loss of further territory, the WVHA now ordered the immediate evacuation of its two most westerly concentration camps. On September 5 and 6, 1944, the SS moved all 3,500 prisoners out of the Herzogenbusch main camp in the Netherlands; its small satellite camps were closed down, too.19Natzweiler in Alsace was evacuated around the same time. Almost all 6,000 prisoners were deported from the main camp to Dachau between September 2 and 19, 1944; the SS also abandoned around a dozen attached satellites on the left bank of the Rhine, moving out a further 4,500 prisoners. But the Natzweiler complex was not finished yet, as its satellite camps on the right bank of the Rhine continued to operate. In fact, after the German army temporarily stabilized its position, several new satellites were added, and by early January 1945, the camp complex held some 22,500 prisoners. With satellites now turning around an extinct main camp, Natzweiler encapsulated the fragmentation of the KL system toward the end.20

Despite their speed, the western European KL evacuations in autumn 1944 proceeded in a fairly orderly fashion. The WVHA closed the camps well before the Allies arrived, which left sufficient time to move the vast majority of prisoners by train, the preferred SS mode of transport. Not only was it easier to guard prisoners on trains, compared to marches, but journey times were much shorter, too. Exhausting as these transports were, they did not cause mass death. “Apart from terrible fatigue, we arrived [in Ravensbrück] in a pretty decent state,” a former Herzogenbusch prisoner recalled. As a result, almost all inmates survived the early evacuations in the west.21

In the occupied east, events took a very different turn in 1944. Here, too, SS officials had anticipated the loss of camps and prepared for evacuations, hoping to deploy many of the prisoners elsewhere for the war effort. But these plans were often foiled by the size of the task—with five main camps and many dozens of satellites within reach of the Red Army—and the speed of the Soviet advance. Because German military resources were concentrated along the Western Front, the Red Army made dramatic breakthroughs, with the Wehrmacht suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties and losing huge swathes of land.22

In the General Government, the SS kept some control and took away most of its KL prisoners in time. WVHA officials prepared for the closure of Majdanek from late 1943 onward, moving thousands of prisoners out over the coming months. Most others followed in April 1944, when some ten thousand inmates were transported in boxcars to other camps such as Auschwitz. When the SS finally abandoned the main camp on July 22, 1944, with the Red Army closing in fast, it already stood half-empty. The SS left a few hundred sick inmates behind and forced the others, some one thousand or more, westward by foot and train; they were joined by another nine thousand prisoners from the last Majdanek satellites, including the large camp at Warsaw (which had lost its main camp status).23

Some of the Majdanek prisoners were taken to Plaszow, the other main camp in the General Government. But it, too, was soon abandoned. Once again, the Camp SS began its preparations early. Prisoners returned from the satellites to the main camp, which was the departure point for deportations. In late July and early August 1944, the SS then dispatched trains packed with prisoners from Plaszow to Flossenbürg, Auschwitz, Mauthausen, and Gross-Rosen, reducing the inmate population from over twenty thousand to less than five thousand. Thousands more left Plaszow in October 1944, which also saw the closure of its last satellite camps. When the regional higher SS and police leader finally ordered the complete evacuation of the main camp on January 14, 1945, there were only some six hundred prisoners left inside.24

By this time, the SS had also abandoned all three KL complexes farther north in the Baltic territories—Riga, Kovno, and Vaivara—though these closures unfolded in a far more hectic manner. Riga was closed down between summer and autumn 1944, with the evacuation of the main camp lasting until October 11, shortly before Soviet troops entered the city. During this period, some ten thousand prisoners were driven onto ships heading out to open sea, a prospect they had dreaded for months. Crammed belowdecks for days, the inmates were soon covered in sweat, vomit, and excrement. On arrival in Danzig, the starving survivors were put on barges and taken along the Vistula toward Stutthof, which rapidly filled up with inmates from abandoned concentration camps.25

Among the inmates in Stutthof were thousands of Jewish KL prisoners from Kovno, which had been emptied even faster than Riga. All its dozen or so satellites were abandoned in July 1944, and so was the main camp. “Our fate is unknown. Our state of mind is terrible,” wrote Shmuel Minzberg, one of the prisoners, just before the evacuation. In all, more than ten thousand Jews were forced out of the complex in little more than two weeks, mostly onto trains and boats; perhaps a quarter of them survived until the end of the war. Before the SS men left Kovno for good, they razed the main camp. Supported by Lithuanian helpers, they burned or blew up the houses, killing hundreds of Jews hiding in bunkers; others were shot as they fled the inferno. Only a few survivors emerged from the ruins after Soviet troops arrived on August 1, 1944.26

The evacuation of the far-flung KL Vaivara, the most northerly Baltic camp complex, was the most protracted, spanning seven months. During an initial wave of evacuations in February and March 1944, the SS hastily abandoned some ten sites, including the main camp; on February 3, for example, hundreds of prisoners were rushed out of the Soski satellite camp with the Red Army no more than a few miles away. Prisoners often had to march for days until they reached satellites farther west, where conditions were appalling; in Ereda, sick prisoners were dumped into barracks in the marshes. “About twenty persons died every day,” one survivor testified a few months later, shortly before his own death. In mid-1944, the remaining inmates of the Vaivara complex faced a second wave of evacuations. As the Soviet summer offensive made swift headway, the front line was approaching once more. “All around us is noise, pilots are being shot at and do not relent, day or night. A lot of shrapnel over our heads,” the Polish Jew Hershl Kruk wrote in the satellite camp Lagedi on August 29, 1944, adding: “What is our destiny, it is hard to tell.” In the end, with Estonia virtually cut off from the rest of the German territory, the SS deported most Vaivara prisoners by boat toward Stutthof. After seven days at sea without food, one prisoner recalled, “we arrived in Danzig in terrible condition!”27

Murder in the Baltic

Sometime in late September 1944, Soviet troops reached Klooga, which had been the last operational Vaivara satellite camp. Inside were more than one hundred survivors, many of them in shock. “Are we free now? Are the Germans gone?” they asked incredulously. Some touched the red star on the soldiers’ uniforms to make sure that they were not dreaming. Only a few days before, these prisoners had been destined to die. Early on September 19, 1944, with Soviet troops just a few days away, the SS had forced the inmates of Klooga—around two thousand men and women—onto the roll call square and split them into groups. Heavily armed SS men then took the first group toward the forest; soon after, the others heard bursts of machine gun fire. Panic spread among the remnant, who now tried to flee. Most were slaughtered. Later that night, the SS departed from Klooga, illuminated by the fire of burning pyres and barracks, which had been torched to conceal the evidence of the crimes and to prevent Soviet troops from using the site; left behind were the few survivors who had managed to hide, sometimes among corpses scattered across the grounds and the nearby forest.28

This was not the only bloodbath in the Baltic region: one day earlier, several hundred prisoners of Lagedi, Hershl Kruk among them, were driven by truck to a forest clearing and executed.29 Although such massacres remained unusual, they mark a fundamental difference from the simultaneous KL evacuations in western Europe: in the east, and especially in the Baltic territories, mass death was part of SS calculations from the beginning. The chaotic circumstances were an important factor here; in Klooga and Lagedi, SS men had felt cornered by the rapid Soviet advance and, rather than leave the prisoners behind, resorted to mass killing before escaping.30 But these last-minute massacres had deeper roots in Nazi ideology. After all, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the local KL were Jews, and their lives counted for little in the eyes of the SS, especially if they could no longer be exploited for forced labor.

Such murderous convictions had guided the Camp SS already during its preparation for evacuations in the Baltic area. In the months before the Red Army reached the different KL, local SS officials stepped up their selections of weak and sick prisoners: Why save inmates who had little value as slaves and would only be a burden during transports? Children were targeted on the same grounds, and over a frenzied few weeks in spring 1944, Camp SS men murdered several thousand boys and girls; in the Kovno main camp, the action was preceded by a children’s party, organized as camouflage by the local commandant. The ensuing deportations were accompanied by dreadful scenes. Parents screamed and pleaded, as the SS dragged the children away. Some joined their children on the trucks, holding hands as they drove to their deaths; other families committed suicide before the SS could part them. Parents left behind were inconsolable. After Wilna prisoners returned from work to their satellite camp one evening in late March 1944, and found that the SS had deported the children, they “did not eat, did not drink and did not sleep,” wrote Grigori Schur, who lost his son, Aron. “In pitch-darkness, the Jews cried for their children.”31

SS murders in the Baltic region continued to the end. In the Riga complex, the last selections in summer 1944 were coordinated by the senior camp physician Dr. Eduard Krebsbach, an SS veteran who had first participated in the mass killing of invalids in 1941 in Mauthausen. Krebsbach and his helpers conducted trials of the prisoners’ strength—forcing them to sprint and jump over obstacles—and then condemned the weakest two thousand to die.32 The SS carried out similar crimes in other Baltic camps. During the “ten percent selections” in the Vaivara complex—as survivors dubbed them, referring to the proportion of prisoners selected to die—the perpetrators loaded the victims onto trucks in July 1944 and later returned with their SS uniforms splattered in blood.33

Prisoners who survived the selections and massacres in the Baltic KL headed away from the front line. Unlike the evacuations in the west, these poorly equipped and frenzied transports claimed many more lives in 1944. Hundreds of prisoners must have starved or suffocated on trains and ships.34 Even worse were the marches across roads, fields, and frozen swamps, which killed several thousand more. The first deaths came as early as February and March 1944, when inmates of abandoned Vaivara satellites like Soski stumbled through the ice and snow; some froze to death, some were shot by panicking SS officials, some were thrown alive into lakes or the sea.35 More death marches in eastern Europe followed in summer 1944, including one that left Warsaw on July 28, just days before the doomed uprising. Early that morning, the great majority of inmates—some four thousand or more men (almost all of them Jews)—hurriedly set off, surrounded by guard dogs, SS, and soldiers. The sun was beating down on the bedraggled men, some of whom were barefoot. Their mouths became so dry that they could barely swallow the little food they had left; prisoners licked the sweat off their faces, but this only made their thirst more intense. “We prayed to God for rain,” Oskar Paserman recalled in 1945, “but none came.” Soon the first prisoners broke down; those who lagged behind were shot. After marching some seventy-five miles, for more than twelve hours each day, the survivors reached Kutno, where they were crammed on a train. Just 3,863 prisoners were still alive when it pulled into Dachau five days later; at least eighty-nine men had perished inside the cattle trucks.36

The early KL evacuations have long been ignored, overshadowed by the larger death marches in the final months of the Third Reich. But they form an important part of the history of the KL, and contrary to the views of some historians, they anticipated the horrors still to come.37 They often began with a preparatory phase. During this period, the Camp SS packed its property and loot, and oversaw the partial dismantling of barracks and other equipment. Just like retreating SS units elsewhere, it also tried to destroy the evidence of its crimes: bodies were dug up and burned (sometimes by a special SS unit), together with any incriminating documents. In addition, the authorities reduced the size of the prisoner population through transports or through systematic murders.38 Then, when it came to the final abandonment of the camp, the SS forced most of the remaining prisoners out, using different means of transport. Much depended on the military situation. In the west, the SS had planned ahead and moved its prisoners by train. In the east, the SS was often caught out by Soviet advances and hastily marched its prisoners away, or tried to murder them all, as in Klooga. This was one reason why the early evacuations proved so much more deadly in the east; the closer the front line came to a KL, the greater the danger for those prisoners still left inside.39

The Last Autumn in the East

When twelve-year-old Inge Rotschild arrived with her parents in Stutthof, in the summer of 1944, she had already spent what seemed like an eternity in Nazi ghettos and camps. Deported as German Jews from Cologne to Riga in late 1941, Inge and her family had later been sent to the satellite camp Mühlgraben. It was here that she lost her nine-year-old brother, Heinz, killed in April 1944 during the SS selections of children in the Riga KL complex. A few months later, Inge had been forced onto one of the crowded ships that took the surviving prisoners toward Stutthof, where she would remain until February 1945.40

As we have seen, Stutthof emerged as the main destination for prisoners from the abandoned Baltic KL. Inge Rotschild was among more than twenty-five thousand Jewish inmates arriving from these camps in the second half of 1944. Thousands of them, mostly men (among them Inge’s father), were soon transported westward for slave labor in satellites like Mühldorf and Kaufering. Many of the women and girls stayed behind. They were joined between June and October 1944 by well over twenty thousand Jewish women from Auschwitz, which was going through the preparatory stages of evacuation. Stutthof changed dramatically as a result, highlighting another effect of KL evacuations: not only did they lead to the closure of camps, they transformed the remaining ones, as well.41

One only has to look at the size of the prisoner populations. Stutthof had always been a second-rank KL, holding no more than around 7,500 prisoners in spring 1944. Just a few months later, however, in late summer 1944, it had grown to more than sixty thousand (the SS staff also expanded, following the arrival of guards from the abandoned Baltic KL). The new inmates were mostly Jews, and mostly women. Many of them were sent to Stutthof satellites; between June and October 1944, the Camp SS set up nineteen camps for Jewish prisoners, where they lived under the most primitive conditions, often in tents. Back in the main camp, some 1,200 prisoners or more were crammed into barracks that had previously held just two hundred; prisoners even slept in the latrines. Everything was scarce, not just space. “There were no facilities for washing,” Inge Rotschild testified later, “and within a few days we were completely covered with lice.”42

There were frequent selections in Stutthof, Inge added. Indeed, from summer 1944 local Camp SS officials stepped up the systematic murder of weak, elderly, sick, frail, and pregnant prisoners, just as they did in the Baltic KL. The Stutthof SS initially saw this as a radical solution to the overcrowding of the main camp, where the number of disease-ridden inmates was growing daily, with even more “unfit” prisoners returning from satellite camps. But increasingly, the local SS also used murder to ready the camp for a possible evacuation, preemptively killing those considered a burden for transports (following the example of the Baltic camps).43

Several thousand victims of Stutthof selections, largely children and their mothers, were sent by train to Birkenau. Others were murdered in Stutthof itself, especially after the closure of the Birkenau killing complex in autumn 1944. It was around this time that the Stutthof SS began to use a small gas chamber to murder Jews (as well as some Polish political prisoners and Soviet POWs) with Zyklon B. However, the main weapons of the Stutthof SS were deadly injections and shootings. Report leader Arno Chemnitz operated a neck-shooting apparatus in the crematorium, which was modeled on the one he had observed as a block leader in Buchenwald during the 1941 murder of Soviet “commissars.” Another Stutthof SS man later described the aftermath of a routine execution of fifty or sixty women: “I did not look closely at the corpses, but I saw drying pools of blood on the floor, also bloodstained faces of corpses and I remember a blood spattered door frame.”

Many more Stutthof inmates succumbed to the catastrophic living conditions. Corpses multiplied quickly inside the barracks; some inmates woke up pressed against the cold bodies of those who had perished during the night. In autumn and winter 1944, a typhus epidemic ravaged the camp, the third and worst such outbreak to hit Stutthof. It eventually forced the SS to suspend mass executions, and on January 8, 1945, Richard Glücks placed the entire camp under quarantine for almost two weeks. By this time, around 250 prisoners perished each day, and the dying continued until the camp was evacuated.44

Life in the other remaining eastern KL was also overshadowed by the prospect of evacuation in autumn and winter 1944. SS preparations were most intense in the biggest site of all, Auschwitz. Material and machines were moved out, as we have seen, and the families of SS officers finally tore themselves away from their opulent homes (Frau Höss and her children left in early November 1944). SS officials left behind in Auschwitz became increasingly nervous as the front edged closer. Would they manage to escape in time? Would local resistance fighters attack the camp from outside? 45 Would the Soviets get there first? Such fears intensified when SS men heard Allied broadcasts on the BBC in autumn 1944, which named several notorious Auschwitz officials and warned that anyone involved in further bloodshed would be brought to justice. As the mood among the Auschwitz SS darkened, some staff lost their appetite for plunder and excesses.46

The demise of Auschwitz was epitomized by the closure of its gas chambers. Sometime in late October or early November 1944, the gassings inside the camp—the last of the Nazi death camps—stopped forever. Soon afterward, the demolition of the Birkenau killing complex began, and prisoners were forced to conceal any remaining ash and bone fragments.47 Some SS murderers were relieved that this part of their duties had come to an end. “You can well imagine, my beloved,” the chief SS garrison physician, Dr. Wirths, wrote to his wife on November 29, 1944, “how nice it is for me that I don’t have to do this horrible work anymore, and that it exists no more.”48 The inmates, too, recognized this as a momentous event. As he watched the crematorium walls tumble, Miklós Nyiszli recalled, he had a premonition of the fall of the Third Reich as a whole.49

Why did the SS dismantle the Birkenau gas chambers? Many historians have pointed to a supposed Himmler order to stop the mass extermination of Jews.50 If such an order really existed, it was no more than window-dressing for Himmler’s plan to negotiate a secret peace with the west. In practice, the SS never abandoned the Final Solution, and in Auschwitz itself, murders of Jews and other prisoners continued, even after the gassings stopped.51 The true motives for abandoning the gas chambers were more pragmatic. Mass deportations of Jews were coming to an end because of Germany’s deteriorating military position, and the Auschwitz SS was keen to cover its tracks before the Red Army reached the camp.52 SS leaders wanted to avoid a repetition of events in Majdanek, where the gas chambers had fallen largely intact into Soviet hands.53 They also hoped to salvage the murderous hardware; many parts of the crematoria were dismantled, packed up, and shipped westward. The final destination was a top-secret location near Mauthausen, where the SS planned to rebuild at least two of the Birkenau crematoria; it also dispatched some of the Birkenau killing experts to Mauthausen. More than likely, this new complex, which was never built in the end, would have included gas chambers for further systematic mass murder.54

As the Camp SS gradually prepared to abandon Auschwitz, it preemptively moved many inmates away, following the example of earlier evacuations. This was the main reason why the daily Auschwitz prisoner population almost halved in four months, dropping to seventy thousand by late December. Several compounds were closed down and dismantled altogether, including the huge “Mexico” extension (BIII) in Birkenau.55 In all, around one hundred thousand prisoners departed during the second half of 1944 from Auschwitz. Previously, the camp had been the final destination for countless prisoners; now the flow was being reversed. Some transports went north to Stutthof, as we have seen, but most went to camps farther west, away from the approaching Red Army. One of them was Gross-Rosen, the only other main KL in Silesia.56

Gross-Rosen grew with breathtaking speed in the second half of 1944, following the almost daily arrival of prisoner transports from elsewhere. By January 1, 1945, it held 76,728 prisoners, briefly turning a backwater of the camp system into the second-largest KL; among them were more than twenty-five thousand Jewish women in satellite camps, most of whom had come from Auschwitz. Like Stutthof, Gross-Rosen now operated as a vast reception camp for prisoners from concentration camps farther east. Order started to break down as the overcrowded main camp descended into chaos. Conditions were worst in a new compound, built from autumn 1944 onward with barracks dismantled in Auschwitz. When winter came, the prisoners here were exposed to the bitter cold, as many huts were missing windows and doors; there were no toilets or washrooms, either, and the inmates waded through snow, mud, and feces. Conditions were no better across many of the remaining Gross-Rosen satellites. “Nothing can surprise me anymore,” Avram Kajzer noted in his diary in early 1945, after he witnessed two fellow inmates of Dörnhau satellite camp pounce on a bone, after it had been dropped by a guard dog, and then grill it over a fire to eat.57

Flight from the Red Army

On January 12, 1945, the Soviet forces launched a devastating offensive that forced the Third Reich to its knees. Tanks broke through along the vast Eastern Front, sweeping past Wehrmacht defenses, and advanced rapidly toward the German heartland. When the Red Army regrouped at the end of the month, the front line had been completely redrawn. The Third Reich had lost its last foothold in occupied Poland, as well as other vital territory—East Prussia, East Brandenburg, and Silesia—as millions of German civilians joined the retreating Wehrmacht in a desperate mass flight.58

In the path of Soviet troops had stood three big camp complexes—Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Stutthof—which held over one hundred and ninety thousand prisoners in mid-January 1945, more than a quarter of all KL inmates.59 Earlier SS discussions about the full evacuation of these camps had involved the respective Gauleiter and higher SS and police leaders, who held significant sway over the evacuations.60 The WVHA had played a key role, as well. It was Oswald Pohl who had first ordered the Auschwitz SS to plan for retreat, and when he visited the camp one last time, around November 1944, he examined the blueprint drafted by his protégé, Commandant Richard Baer, with the regional party, police, and SS authorities.61 Back in Oranienburg, Pohl’s managers would decide on the final destination of prisoner transports from the abandoned camps.62 Still, they could not micromanage events from afar, given the rapid developments on the ground, and left most of the logistical details to local SS commandants and their officers.63


Despite its preparations the SS was caught off guard when the massive Soviet attack came in mid-January 1945. Local Nazi leaders only added to the confusion, often refusing to give evacuation orders until it was too late.64 In Auschwitz, everything was thrown into disarray as the Camp SS abandoned ship. “Chaos; the SS in panic,” inmates scribbled on a note as guards rushed across the main camp to round up prisoners, hand out provisions, pack up goods, and destroy documents. Prisoner columns started to leave the Auschwitz complex on January 17, 1945, and within two days, more than three-quarters of all the remaining inmates were on the road. Some were in good spirits as they left Auschwitz behind; the last survivors of the Special Squad, for instance, hoped to evade the SS killers by blending into the treks. The great majority of inmates, however, were filled with dread as they departed, anxious about the snow, the SS, and the unknown. “Such an evacuation,” Polish prisoners wrote just as the first treks set off, “means the extermination of at least half of the inmates.”65 In the end, around one in four Auschwitz prisoners would perish during the transports.66

Auschwitz was initially evacuated on foot, with prisoners marching westward. The two main routes, around forty miles long, led them to Loslau and Gleiwitz. On arrival, most survivors—among them Tommy Buergenthal, the young boy we met earlier—were crammed onto trains and taken farther inside the Reich. The largest group, an estimated fifteen thousand prisoners, was sent to the Gross-Rosen main camp, already utterly overcrowded and about to be evacuated, too.67

Unlike Auschwitz, which was abandoned in a matter of days, the final evacuation of Gross-Rosen, 170 miles farther northwest, stretched over months. While the main camp and several dozen satellites were hastily given up in early 1945, the KL complex as a whole continued; because of the way the front line moved, several dozen Gross-Rosen satellites were still operational in early May 1945.68 Over in Stutthof, the final evacuation was equally protracted. The SS abandoned some thirty satellites during the second half of January 1945, marching many of the prisoners toward the main camp.69 The main camp itself was then partially evacuated on January 25 and 26, 1945. With the Red Army only thirty miles away, the SS led around half of the twenty-five thousand prisoners on a march to the Lauenburg region, some eighty-five miles farther west. On arrival, it put the survivors into makeshift camps, with virtually no food, water, or heating. When the SS abandoned the Lauenburg camps again, a few weeks later, and forced the remaining prisoners on yet another death march, it left behind hundreds of dead. Meanwhile, the Stutthof main camp was still open. Because of its isolated position, the Soviets had bypassed the area and did not take the camp until May 9, 1945; by then, there were just 150 KL inmates left. Over the preceding weeks, many thousands had died, waiting in vain for the liberation that had seemed so very near. Among the victims was Inge Rotschild’s mother, who perished, just skin and bones, on her daughter’s thirteenth birthday.70

In early 1945, the KL system was in perpetual motion. Fleeing from the Red Army in January and February, the SS had forced more than one hundred and fifty thousand prisoners out of Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen, and Stutthof (several Sachsenhausen satellites were affected, too).71 When Camp SS officials assembled these transports, the first prisoners were those “fit for work”; as a general rule, probably originating with Himmler and Pohl, these inmates were destined as slave laborers for other KL.72 Less clear was the fate of invalids. Just as during the earlier evacuations in the east in 1944, there were no definite orders from the top, it seems, leaving the initiative to the local Camp SS. If transport was available, officials sometimes cleared the entire camp, forcing all sick prisoners onto trucks, carts, or trains. Elsewhere, especially in more remote satellites, SS men conducted selections shortly before the treks departed, and murdered the weakest inmates.73

One of the largest massacres took place during the evacuation of Lieberose, a Sachsenhausen satellite camp that mainly held Jews from Poland and Hungary. On February 2, 1945, around 1,600 prisoners departed on foot toward the main camp, more than sixty miles away. Another 1,300 or so stayed behind. Their fate had been sealed in a telex a few days earlier, probably by the Sachsenhausen commandant, which had ordered the execution of the infirm. There was no shortage of SS volunteers. “Come on, let’s go,” one sentry said. “We’re going Jew shooting, and will get some schnapps for it.” The slaughter lasted for three days. There was some desperate defiance, with one prisoner stabbing the camp leader in the neck. But there was no way out. A few survivors, hidden under discarded uniforms and shoes, were later pulled out by another group of SS men and lynched.74

However, murder was not the SS default mode during the KL evacuations of January and February 1945. The officials were just as likely to leave exhausted prisoners behind as to kill them. During the partial evacuation of the Stutthof main camp in January 1945, for example, Commandant Hoppe issued written instructions that prisoners who were “sick and unable to march” should stay put; thousands of them watched as the others walked away.75 In Gross-Rosen, too, the SS left hundreds of sick prisoners behind in satellites.76 Some officers shied away from last-minute murders for fear of Allied retribution.77 Elsewhere, they simply ran out of time, surprised by the speed of the Red Army. Inside the deserted SS barracks, survivors later found signs of the hasty retreat: glasses filled with beer, half-eaten bowls of soup, board games abandoned midway.78

The Red Army liberated well over ten thousand prisoners in early 1945. Most of them, around seven thousand, were in the Auschwitz main camp, Birkenau, and Monowitz.79 Here, more than a week had passed between the departure of the death marches and the arrival of the Soviets, who lost well over two hundred soldiers during battles in the vicinity of the camp complex. It was an extraordinary period of peril and promise for the remaining prisoners, the final chapter of their suffering, with the ending still unwritten. Dr. Otto Wolken later described these final days as probably his most difficult in more than five years inside concentration camps. After most of the Auschwitz sentries had left, around January 20–21, the remaining prisoners became more audacious, cutting holes into the barbed wire, moving across different compounds, breaking into SS storerooms. The inmates tried to rule themselves; they looked after the sick, made fires, and handed out food. But it was too early to celebrate. An exuberant Soviet prisoner, who drunkenly fired into the Birkenau night sky after he found some beer and weapons, was tracked down by a German patrol and shot. A group of French prisoners who had moved into the SS dining hall was also murdered. There were other threats, too, in addition to Nazi killers,including cold, hunger, and disease. And yet, the great majority of prisoners survived until January 27, 1945. When the first Soviet soldiers appeared at the gates of Birkenau, some prisoners ran toward them. “We hugged and kissed them,” Otto Wolken said a few months later, “we cried with joy, we were saved.”80

Elsewhere in the Auschwitz complex, however, fate took a last terrible twist. On the same day Birkenau was liberated, SS terror struck in the satellite camp Fürstengrube, just twelve miles farther north. The Camp SS had abandoned the compound eight days earlier, leaving some 250 sick prisoners to fend for themselves. On the afternoon of January 27, 1945, with survival already in sight, a group of SS men suddenly entered the camp and slaughtered almost all the inmates. Only some twenty prisoners lived to see the Red Army arrive; they had come through the last massacre in Auschwitz.81

Death on the Road

No one knows how many KL prisoners died during the evacuations of early 1945, on icy roads and crammed trains, in ditches and forests. It must have been several tens of thousands, among them an estimated fifteen thousand men, women, and children from the abandoned Auschwitz complex.82 Although popular memory of these evacuations is dominated by death marches, most of the way to the KL farther inside the Reich was covered by rail. Conditions on these trains were immeasurably worse than during earlier evacuations from western camps such as Natzweiler. All the horrors of the KL were packed into the train carriages. With rolling stock in short supply, the German authorities used lots of open freight cars, which offered no protection against the elements. The suffering was greatly prolonged by all the delays. Although most trains eventually reached their destination, they often crawled for days along the congested and crumbling German railway network.83 One of the deadliest transports left the Auschwitz satellite camp of Laurahütte on January 23, 1945. The train moved excruciatingly slowly, often forced to a complete standstill, and when it finally reached Mauthausen almost a week later, around one in seven prisoners on board were dead.84

For most of the prisoners, the ordeal of the evacuations did not begin on the trains, however, but on preceding death marches, which claimed the majority of victims in early 1945. The prisoners had received little food before they left. One Auschwitz survivor recalled that she got a tin of beef and two inedible loaves of bread. This was supposed to last for several days, but the starved had often devoured everything before they set off.85 Soon prisoners were so exhausted that they walked in a trance; sometimes even friends no longer recognized each other.86 But the marches did not erase all distinctions between captives. Some small support networks endured, with close friends and family helping each other as best they could, while those who walked alone were often the first to fall. Privileged prisoners also fared better, just as they had done inside the KL. Healthier and better fed, they wore proper shoes and warm clothes, while others staggered along in rags and wooden clogs, and soon collapsed.87 Dispatched by Oswald Pohl to monitor the KL evacuations in the east, Rudolf Höss found it easy to chase the trail of individual treks: he just had to follow the dead.88

The death rates of the marches varied greatly, depending on factors such as available supplies and distances covered.89 While illness and exhaustion were probably the main killers, shootings were endemic, too. Anyone suspected of escape was fair game, according to SS rules, even prisoners who had merely stepped out to defecate by the side of the road.90 And although SS directives gave no clear guidance on the treatment of the sick, their murder was common practice, too. Most victims died a lonely death, felled by SS bullets after they had lost touch with the main column, though there were some large-scale massacres, as well; during a march from the Auschwitz satellite Blechhammer, for example, the SS loaded the sick onto sledges and blew them up with hand grenades.91

Few of the killers were senior Camp SS officers, as most of the local top brass had already made their getaway. Despite their talk of standing tall against the Soviets, high-ranking Nazis made a habit of fleeing first. Rudolf Höss recounted bitterly that the Auschwitz commandant Richard Baer had saved himself in a comfortable SS limousine, with plenty of time to spare.92 Other commandants, too, hurried away, leaving the supervision of the marches to their underlings. Many of them were NCOs who had risen to senior positions inside satellite camps. But these transport leaders could not be everywhere along the stretched columns, which meant that the decision to pull the trigger was often made by regular guards. “In practice each guard decided for himself who to shoot,” one testified after the war. Some of these executioners were women, breaking one of the last gendered taboos of the Camp SS. But the great majority were men, including some elderly soldiers who had only recently joined.93

Fear of the Red Army drove many of these perpetrators in early 1945. Soviet troops were wreaking terrible revenge against the German population during their advance, and the Third Reich was awash with stories of massacres, skillfully exploited by the Nazi propaganda machine. Many ordinary Germans saw these crimes as payback for atrocities in the KL, which had “shown the enemy what they can do to us if they win.” The guards themselves, meanwhile, were determined to keep ahead of the Red Army. If frail prisoners slowed the treks down, and if screams, slaps, and kicks could not drive them forward anymore, they used their guns.94 The guards’ desire to save their own necks prompted the largest massacre during this period of KL evacuations. In late January 1945, a death march of around three thousand Stutthof prisoners (mostly Jewish women) arrived in the town of Palmnicken in East Prussia. Trapped by the Baltic Sea on one side and the advancing Soviet troops on the other, the SS, eager to escape, escorted the prisoners to the nearby coast and mowed them down with machine guns; wounded survivors drowned or froze to death, their corpses washing up for days on local beaches.95


In mid-March 1945, Oswald Pohl embarked on a frantic tour to check on conditions in the KL, on Himmler’s orders. As he passed through a landscape littered with ruins, accompanied by Rudolf Höss and other WVHA officials, he must have realized that the end was near. But he did not slow the pace of his “breakneck tour,” as Höss called it; “as far as I could I visited every camp,” Pohl said later. In the end, he inspected half a dozen or more main camps within the prewar German borders.96

The situation inside these concentration camps, now bursting with ravaged prisoners from recently evacuated sites, had lately deteriorated dramatically; during the first three months of 1945, the Buchenwald SS recorded more dead inmates than during all of 1943 and 1944 combined. Although some crematoria were running day and night, the bodies of the dead were mounting up fast. In Dachau, the Camp SS started in February 1945 to bury thousands of prisoners in mass graves, on a hill near the main camp, because the incinerators could not keep up anymore. So many prisoners were dying, Nico Rost noted in his Dachau diary on February 25, 1945, that the survivors did not have time anymore to mourn their friends.97

Oswald Pohl witnessed all this carnage during his visits in March 1945. The worst camp, Pohl and his managers agreed, was Bergen-Belsen, where they saw masses of starving prisoners and corpses as Commandant Kramer led them through the grounds. The WVHA officials reacted by issuing various orders to the local SS, as they had done elsewhere on their tour. The hard-bitten Rudolf Höss offered practical advice about mass cremation, drawing on his own expertise. Pohl himself, meanwhile, gave worthless instructions about adding herbs, berries, and plants from nearby forests to the prisoner diet, and also used his last meetings with local KL officials, in Bergen-Belsen and the other camps, to discuss their evacuation plans, with mass murder still very much on SS minds.98

The Race Between Illness and War

Flossenbürg, January 5, ’45

Dear Marianne! In this letter I will set out the whole truth to you for once. My health is fine. The life in the camp is dreadful. 1000 men in 200 beds. Manslaughter and whip—hunger are daily visitors. More than 100 kick the bucket every day—perish on the concrete in the latrine or lying outside. Beyond description the filth—lice a[nd] more … Talk to all [our] acquaintances about a donation of food—bread—cigarettes—margarine—spread. Your Hermann.

This plea by the German Communist Hermann Haubner was smuggled out of the camp and eventually reached his wife. But it did not save him. Haubner died on March 4, 1945, one of 3,207 fatalities in the Flossenbürg complex in the final month before the camp was abandoned.99

In the early months of 1945, the remaining concentration camps became disaster zones, including those that had so far been spared the worst. One immediate cause for the catastrophe was the huge rise in prisoner numbers. Overcrowding was nothing new, of course; Buchenwald had been packed to excess since 1942.100 But nothing prepared the camps for the rush near the end, which began with the mass transports from sites closer to the front line in the second half of 1944. Many KL complexes were completely overcrowded by the end of the year, only to be hit by the second wave of evacuations in early 1945. All camps in the heartland of the Third Reich now registered record figures. Buchenwald remained the largest complex of all, with 106,421 prisoners on March 20, 1945; around thirty percent of them were crammed into the main camp, with the rest spread across eighty-seven satellites, many of them no less packed.101

The final few months came down to a “race between illness and war,” as Arthur Haulot put it in his Dachau diary on January 31, 1945.102 Would prisoners be saved in time by the Allies? Or would they perish from hunger and disease, like so many before them? Rations now dwindled to almost nothing. In camps like Ellrich, even bread, the staple of the prisoner diet, went missing. “It is dreadful, this hunger,” the Belgian inmate Émile Delaunois wrote in his diary on March 8, 1945, adding two weeks later: “There are onlyMuselmänner left!” Almost one thousand prisoners—nearly one in six—died in Ellrich in March alone.103

This was not a natural disaster but a man-made one, the culmination of years of Camp SS terror. Overcrowding was a direct product of Nazi policy. Likewise, the dramatic shortages of supplies were linked to the SS conviction that inmates, as proven enemies of the German people, did not deserve better. While prisoners were dying of hunger in spring 1945, the Camp SS itself still received regular deliveries of high-quality provisions, including liver pâté and sausages. After liberation, former inmates found SS warehouses piled high with food, as well as shoes, coats, mattresses, and medicine.104 Camp SS leaders showed little interest in systematically improving the prisoners’ plight, preferring once more to blame the victims. When Oswald Pohl was told in November 1944 that some SS officials had requested better clothing for inmates, he was furious. Instead of pitying prisoners, Pohl thundered, his men had better teach them how to look after their things, “if need be by a sound hiding.”105

All the misery and despair ripped the fractious prisoner community further apart. Some camps descended into violent disorder. Starving prisoners ambushed inmates who carried food supplies to kitchens and barracks, only to be beaten back by others armed with clubs and sticks. Some did not stop short of murder, just for a bite to eat. On April 17, 1945, a group of Ebensee prisoners killed a thirteen-year-old boy, who had just arrived from another Mauthausen satellite camp, and made off with the loaf of bread he had been holding.106

This boy was one of tens of thousands of KL prisoners who died soon after their transfer from another camp. After the horror of the trains and marches, the arrival at their destination had come as a relief to some.107 But not for long. Gravely weakened, these newcomers largely found themselves without protection and connections, exposed to the full force of SS terror. This is what happened to many of those Jewish men who made the march from Lieberose to Sachsenhausen in February 1945. They had survived the “Jew-shooting” in their abandoned satellite camp and the ensuing death march, often barefoot and frostbitten, only to perish in Sachsenhausen. Upon arrival, the SS conducted a mass selection and murdered some four hundred victims. Many more were left to freeze and starve in an isolated area of the camp. On February 12, 1945, Odd Nansen watched a group of them delving into garbage bins and fighting over the scraps. They were beaten back by German Kapos, but soon tried again, their skeletal bodies smeared with blood.

When Nansen returned to his own Sachsenhausen barrack—tormented by his inability to help—he was greeted by a different picture. His fellow Norwegian prisoners still lived in relative comfort. They had enough food, thanks to the Red Cross parcels, as well as plenty of cigarettes, the unofficial camp currency. After their meals they settled down with a novel, talked, or played games, “unaffected by the death and destruction” outside, as Nansen noted. Some Norwegians saw the death struggle of the Jews from Lieberose as evidence of their depravity. “Those aren’t human beings, they’re swine!” one of them said to Nansen. “I’ve starved myself, but I could never sink to eating sheer filth!”108

The prisoner community remained deeply unequal, as did the inmates’ survival chances. What was garbage to the prominent few was nourishment to the destitute, and not just in Sachsenhausen; when a German Kapo in Ebensee threw up in January 1945, because he had eaten too much goulash, a starved Russian prisoner devoured his vomit.109 The vast inequities were summed up on March 21, 1945, by Nico Rost, then a Kapo in the Dachau infirmary, who collected lists of prisoners who had died in the main camp. There had been no deaths among the kitchen staff, he noted, as they could help themselves to whatever they needed. Most German prisoners also survived, he added, because they held better posts and received more food. Likewise, there were few deaths in the barracks holding Czech prisoners and priests, who received food packages from outside. “But everywhere else,” Rost wrote, “bodies—bodies—bodies.”110

Zones of Death

The deadliest spaces were special compounds for invalids in main camps and some satellites, where the SS left the doomed to die.111 The Camp SS could build on previous experience here: ever since conditions had worsened early in World War II, it had isolated invalids in special sites to hasten their death. From late 1944, SS officials stepped up this policy of death through deprivation, as a local solution to illness and epidemics in their overcrowded camps, not least after the option of deporting prisoners to die in Auschwitz had fallen away.112

There were “shit blocks” for those depleted by diarrhea, lying in pools of urine and excrement. There were “death blocks” for typhus-ridden prisoners, sometimes surrounded by barbed wire to stop them from fleeing to other parts of the camp. There were “convalescent blocks,” where gaunt prisoners were sprawled among indescribable filth. And there were the infirmaries, which were often little more than waiting rooms for the dying; still, desperate inmates begged for admission, some of them collapsing just outside the entrances.113

The largest zones of death were former quarantine compounds in main camps, which had grown rapidly during 1944, with many thousands of new arrivals temporarily housed in tents. Initially, the SS had used these compounds as transit camps, sending most inmates elsewhere for slave labor. But over time, it left more invalids behind, and as the prisoner population grew and disease spread, these spaces acquired a new function, as huge sites for isolating the sick and dying.

Among the worst such compounds was the “little camp” in Buchenwald, set up two years earlier in windowless horse stables separated from the main camp by barbed wire. By early April 1945, it held eighteen thousand prisoners. Many had only recently arrived from evacuated camps, in a state of shock and exhaustion. The misery of the adjoining main compound—vermin, disease, and starvation—was magnified in the “little camp,” and between January and April 1945, around six thousand prisoners died inside. Among them was Shlomo Wiesel. His son, Elie, later said that Buchenwald, which had promised to be an improvement on Birkenau, turned out to be much the same: “At first, the little camp was almost worse for me than Auschwitz.”114

There were so many Muselmänner by the beginning of 1945 that the Camp SS designated entire satellite camps as collection sites; SS men sometimes called them “bite-the-dust camps.”115 In January 1945, for example, the Dora SS set up a satellite camp in the deserted garages of the Boelcke air force barracks on the edge of Nordhausen, not far from the main camp. There was no shortage of dying men and the new camp filled up fast; in less than three months, around twelve thousand Dora prisoners were forced inside, many of them survivors of the Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen evacuations. The weakest ones—unable to walk, stand, or speak—were left to die in one of the two-story garages; the concrete floors inside were hosed down, once in a while, to wash away some of the blood and feces. Prisoners soon called the Boelcke camp a “living crematorium,” and for good reason. In the weeks before U.S. troops reached the camp on April 11, up to one hundred men died every day; in all, more than three thousand perished. Another 2,250 dying prisoners were herded into boxcars, one day in early March 1945, and sent away, never to be seen again. Their destination was Bergen-Belsen, which had become the largest zone of death in the KL system.116


In the early months of 1945, veteran inmates of Bergen-Belsen watched in dismay as endless rows of cadaverous men, women, and children marched toward their compounds. Transport after transport brought more prisoners, whole armies of “wretched figures,” as Hanna Lévy-Hass, who had been held there since the previous summer (following her arrest as a resistance fighter in Montenegro), wrote in her diary in February 1945. In just eight weeks, the camp more than doubled in size, from 18,465 prisoners on January 1, 1945, to 41,520 on March 1, and peaking at around 53,000 on April 15, the day British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen.117 And as the camp grew, so did chaos, disease, and death, with devastating speed.

Set up as a camp for “exchange Jews” selected for possible prisoner swaps by the Nazi authorities, Bergen-Belsen had since taken on several new functions, putting it on the road to disaster. From spring 1944, as we have seen, the Camp SS used it as a holding camp for sick and dying men from other KL. Then, in summer 1944, it established a transit compound for thousands of women en route from occupied eastern Europe to German satellite camps. Around 2,500 of them stayed behind in Bergen-Belsen. Among them were two young German Jews, fifteen-year-old Anne Frank and her older sister, Margot, who had been deported from Auschwitz in late October 1944, where they had arrived several weeks earlier on the last RSHA train to leave the Netherlands (after evading the Nazi authorities for two years in a hideout in Amsterdam, together with their parents and four others). In Bergen-Belsen, the sisters were initially crammed into the tents of the transit compound, which offered no shelter against the cold and rain. After a storm blew several tents away on November 7, 1944, the Camp SS moved the women into barracks inside the “star camp.”118 By then, the situation of the so-called exchange Jews was sharply deteriorating, too. Although they were still held separately, the SS started to treat them like the other KL inmates. “The regimen in the camp gets worse every day,” Hanna Lévy-Hass wrote in December 1944. “Have we not already reached the nadir of our suffering?”119

Much worse was to come, as mass transports in early 1945 completely overwhelmed the camp. While WVHA officials continued to use Bergen-Belsen as a destination for half-dead men from other KL, they also turned it into a reception camp for evacuation transports, initially from eastern camps like Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen, and later from camps deep inside the Reich, too.120 On April 11, for example, a train came from the recently abandoned Dora satellite camp Woffleben. Around 150 prisoners had died during the weeklong journey (another 130 men escaped). Some 1,350 survivors were herded into Bergen-Belsen. One of them was Émile Delaunois, whom we met earlier. Just before the evacuation of Woffleben he had vowed “to do anything to regain my freedom as soon as possible.” He did survive the last days in Bergen-Belsen, only to die shortly after liberation.121

The Bergen-Belsen SS hastily reassigned compounds and added new ones, including a subcamp on the grounds of nearby army barracks. Even so, the site was hopelessly overcrowded. The composition of the prisoner population changed, too. Most of the new prisoners were female, turning Bergen-Belsen into the only wartime camp (apart from Ravensbrück and Stutthof) that held considerably more women than men. And it was no longer a camp almost exclusively for Jews. Although Jews were still by far the largest group—accounting for around half the inmates in mid-April 1945—they were joined by prisoners from other backgrounds, among them many political prisoners from Poland and the Soviet Union.122

“What takes place here is the most horrendous in world history,” the noted Dutch lawyer and Zionist leader Abel Herzberg wrote in his diary on March 17, 1945, more than a year after his arrival as an “exchange Jew.”123 Even before new prisoners glimpsed the horror that awaited them in Bergen-Belsen, they could smell it. A stench of decay and death—sickeningly familiar to prisoners from camps like Auschwitz—enveloped the compounds during the final weeks. “We are all full of lice, everything is dirty, filthy, and full of crap,” sixteen-year-old Arieh Koretz, another “exchange Jew,” noted in his diary on February 8, 1945. Thousands of inmates soiled themselves, and the whole camp, a prisoner doctor later said, came to resemble one huge latrine. At night, inmates faced more agony, with cold winds sweeping through broken roofs, windows, and doors. The barracks were often bare—no lights, straw sacks, covers, stoves, chairs—except for the mass of prisoners, dead and alive.124 Disease was raging, too, with a devastating typhus epidemic gripping the camp. The greatest killer of all was hunger. “I have been working for five days now without bread,” the twenty-four-year-old Dutch Jew Louis Tas wrote on March 25, 1945. “Last night insane hunger and dreams of food,” he added the next day. There were Muselmänner everywhere, so emaciated that their bones made up more than half of their body weight.125

The prisoners’ hope of survival vanished fast. “I am ill again and have given up all hope of getting out of here,” Abel Herzberg wrote on March 7, 1945. “I am afraid of the pain, of the death-struggle.”126 Each morning, prisoners threw the bodies of those who had died the previous night out of the barracks, though not before they had ripped clothes and valuables from the stiff bodies. The corpses were then flung on trucks or carts, which dumped the dead in different corners of the camp; toward the end, prisoners were just left lying wherever they had died.127

Never in the history of the KL did so many prisoners die as fast of disease and deprivation as in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945. During this one month, when the camp held an average of around 45,500 prisoners, some 18,168 lost their lives.128 Among the dead were Anne and Margot Frank. During their last days, the two sisters, ravaged by typhus and dysentery, had been huddled under a blanket in one of the infirmaries. When a friend found them there, she pleaded with Anne to get up. But Anne, who had been looking after her dying sister, just replied: “Here the two of us can lie on a bunk, we are together and have peace.”129

Camp SS leaders had not planned the Bergen-Belsen disaster. They expected weak prisoners to die, to be sure, but not at this rate.130 As the situation spiraled out of control, Commandant Josef Kramer sent a frank letter to the WVHA on March 1, 1945, warning that conditions were “untenable.” Shortages of supplies and massive overcrowding were causing a “catastrophe.” Kramer demanded beds and blankets, as well as trucks to pick up food and equipment for delousing.131 But his appeal rang hollow. Kramer was at pains to present himself as a responsible official, not just to his SS superiors but to future Allied judges, as well.132 Previously, he had betrayed little of the urgency expressed in his letter to the WVHA. In fact, as a veteran Camp SS officer and radical anti-Semite, he had brought more suffering to the camp after his arrival in early December 1944. And when the full tragedy unfolded, Kramer and his men mostly watched from the sidelines, not least to protect themselves from disease. During March 1945, the sight of SS officials became rare inside the Bergen-Belsen compounds. “There are no more roll calls. Also no work,” Abel Herzberg wrote on April 1, 1945. “There is only death.”133

Mass Murder

Along with death by deprivation, the Camp SS relied on mass executions to decimate the weak. Lethal selections expanded across the remaining KL in the early months of 1945, probably in line with WVHA orders. The SS killed several tens of thousands of frail prisoners by shooting, lethal injection, and gas, determined to rid the camps of prisoners seen as health risks, drains on resources, and obstacles during evacuations.134 Sometimes the SS chose its victims as they arrived in the camp.135 Further selections followed in the compounds, especially inside the death zones. In Uckermark—a police camp for “deviant” girls and young women, which was largely taken over by the Ravensbrück SS in January 1945 to isolate the weakest and oldest women from the main camp and its satellites—the SS conducted daily selections. “We may be sick, but we are still human beings!” one wrote in despair on February 9, 1945. Those who were spared listened as the victims were driven off on SS trucks, their cries and screams growing fainter. The trucks stopped by the nearby Ravensbrück crematorium, where the doomed were forced into a hut that had been converted in January 1945 into a gas chamber. In all, some 3,600 out of the 8,000 (or more) Uckermark women were murdered there, perhaps half of them Jews.136

In addition to the sick, the Camp SS executed political prisoners and others it wanted to silence forever. These murders were part of a final killing frenzy that swept across the Third Reich as the regime collapsed. Driven by the same self-destructive desires as Hitler, a small band of fanatics targeted German defeatists, foreign workers, prisoners, and many more; if Nazi Germany was going to perish, so were these “community aliens.”137 Inevitably, the concentration camps, which were meant to hold the most dangerous enemies, stood at the center of the carnage. Hitler and other Nazi leaders had long envisaged a bloody reckoning with KL prisoners in case of defeat, and that moment had arrived in early 1945.138 The casualties included selected “high-value” prisoners like Allied agents and prominent resistance fighters. Among those hanged in the final days by the Flossenbürg SS, for example, were thirteen British secret agents, three French women accused of sabotage, and seven leading German opponents of the regime, including the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.139

Initially, many such murders followed the top-down route established in 1939, with formal execution orders issued by the RSHA. Apparently, concentration camp commandants had been asked in early 1945 to report those prisoners they regarded as a threat, in case the camp had to be abandoned. The RSHA probably added further names to these lists from its database of dangerous inmates, and then gave the go-ahead for the executions.140 As central government structures broke down, however, regional and local officials across Germany gained greater powers to kill on their own initiative, leading to a final escalation of violence.141 In the KL, commandants received the official license to order prisoner executions, awarded powers they had long claimed for themselves anyway.142

Some of the doomed fought back, just as the Special Squad prisoners had done in Birkenau. The largest rebellion involved so-called “Bullet” prisoners in Mauthausen. Faced with a growing number of POW escapes, the Wehrmacht High Command had ordered back in March 1944 that fugitive enemy officers and NCOs (except for U.S. and British nationals) should be sent to Mauthausen upon recapture. The code name for the secret operation—Action “Bullet” (Kugel)—made clear that no one was supposed to survive. Over the coming months, some five thousand condemned men came to Mauthausen. Almost all were Soviet POWs who had fled from sites of Nazi slave labor. The Mauthausen SS executed several hundred upon arrival, isolating the others in barrack 20, a quarantine block surrounded by a stone wall and electric fence. “It was the intention to have the inmates under me slowly starved to death,” the responsible SS block leader later confessed, “or to have them perish through diseases.” This is exactly what happened, and by late January 1945, only some six or seven hundred prisoners were still alive.143

On the night of February 1–2, 1945, most of the surviving “Bullet” prisoners, facing certain death, tried to escape from Mauthausen. Several conspirators strangled the senior Kapo, a German (or Austrian) political prisoner loyal to the SS. Then, armed with nothing more than rocks, wooden shoes, pieces of soap, and a fire extinguisher, the men attacked the SS at nearby searchlights and guard towers, capturing a machine gun. Using clothes and wet blankets, which short-circuited the electric fence, over four hundred men climbed over the wall: the greatest mass escape in the history of the KL. The merciless pursuit of them across the region lasted for around two weeks. Most of the fugitives were captured within a day or two and executed on the spot; only a handful are known to have survived the “hare hunting,” as the SS and some locals called it. “We really shot down those guys,” one SS man boasted at the time.144

Elsewhere, the SS killed to rewrite history, by silencing witnesses to some of its most heinous crimes. This included numerous privileged KL prisoners, who paid with their lives for all the secrets they had learned.145 And it also included some survivors of human experiments. One of the victims was young Georges Kohn, whom we last saw as he was deported from Auschwitz to Neuengamme in November 1944, together with nineteen other Jewish boys and girls. Here, they had soon fallen seriously ill, after an SS doctor infected them with tuberculosis and supervised operations on their glands. Georges was the weakest, stretched out lifelessly on his bunk. Still, the children had survived until the last days of the war. Then, on April 20, 1945, three days before his thirteenth birthday, the SS came for Georges and the others. The drowsy children were taken late at night to an empty school at Bullenhuser Damm in Hamburg, previously an SS satellite camp. In the cellar, they were drugged by the senior SS camp physician and hanged; afterward, the SS doctor had a coffee to steady himself and drove back to Neuengamme.146

The dedication of diehard SS men was undimmed. Although the Camp SS had undergone massive changes in recent years, its core was still made up of zealots. With the end of the war in sight, they redoubled their assault on prisoners.147 Many of them had previously served in the occupied east and brought all they had learned about prisoner abuse and killing to the remaining KL. This was true, above all, for some of the one thousand former Auschwitz staff redeployed in early 1945, together with their most violent Kapos. “I must admit that I had been hardened by conditions in Auschwitz,” an SS officer later said to justify his actions in Mauthausen, which absorbed around one hundred former Auschwitz SS men. Even more ended up in Dora, among them the new commandant, Richard Baer, who oversaw an immediate increase of violence. Another new commandant, Josef Kramer in Bergen-Belsen, had arrived via Auschwitz, as well, followed by more veterans of the camp. “They are all bastards, thugs, and sadists,” Arieh Koretz noted in his diary.148

Rudolf Höss, meanwhile, was a frequent presence in Ravensbrück, where he appeared in late 1944 (his wife and family had moved next door) to supervise mass shootings and the construction of the new gas chamber. Höss must have felt at home there, surrounded as he was by familiar faces from Auschwitz, such as the new camp compound leader Johann Schwarzhuber (whom he had known since his Dachau days). These killing experts had not come to Ravensbrück by chance, but had evidently been dispatched by the WVHA to decimate supposedly dangerous and sick prisoners. Even after its demise, then, Auschwitz cast a shadow over the KL camp system.149

Few Auschwitz alumni were more versed in mass murder than twenty-nine-year-old Otto Moll, the former chief of the Birkenau crematorium complex. The WVHA valued Moll’s expertise and put him in charge, in early 1945, of a mobile killing unit made up of other Birkenau veterans. The unit participated in mass gassings in Ravensbrück, and was also behind the Lieberose massacre and executions in Sachsenhausen. In late February 1945, the WVHA then moved Moll to the south of Germany, to the Kaufering complex, where he continued his murderous spree; the inmates here simply knew him as the “henchman from Auschwitz.”150 Moll was an extreme case, however, and while he continued to rage, some of his colleagues turned away from murder.

The Camp SS had never spoken with one voice, and it sounded more disjointed than ever in early 1945. By then, domestic support for Hitler and the Nazi regime had largely collapsed.151 The Camp SS was infected by the grim popular mood, not least because more and more ordinary Germans—customs officials, railway workers, members of the People’s Storm (the ramshackle last-ditch Nazi militia), and other civilians—were drafted into guard units right at the end of the war, a sign of how frantic KL recruitment had become.152 Resignation had already crept into Camp SS ranks in summer 1944, following the Allied landings in France and the gains of the Red Army in the east. “Soon you will be liberated,” SS guards had told prisoners in Klooga. “And our lot is bad. They will slaughter us with no mercy.”153 Defeatism spread further over the coming months, until even the model camp at Sachsenhausen conspicuously stopped flying the Nazi flag above its entrance.154 The growing sense of desperation was summed up by a guard in a Flossenbürg satellite camp, who asked the Jewish prisoners to pray for a German victory.155

Some SS staff scrambled to distance themselves from KL crimes. In the past, they had felt invincible.156 But as the Thousand-Year Reich crumbled, they feared that the tables would turn. “I wish you all the best for the coming year,” Elie Cohen recalls an Auschwitz guard saying at the end of 1944. “In that year I shall most likely find myself in your shoes and you in mine.”157 More and more Camp SS men simply stayed away, in the same way that Wehrmacht soldiers absconded from the army, feigning illness or deserting.158 Some of the remaining SS staff put on a friendlier face. They made a calculated bid for prisoner sympathies, hoping that this would help them later on. One such attempt to buy “life insurance,” as the prisoners called it, was made by the Mauthausen commandant Franz Ziereis, who suddenly posed as a friend of Jews. More than once in April 1945, he paraded a young Jewish boy through the camp, whom he had dressed in specially tailored clothes.159 A few SS officers even engaged in acts of disobedience. The SS physician Franz Lucas, who had previously participated willingly in Auschwitz selections, apparently refused to do the same in Ravensbrück in early 1945. After the war, an SS colleague dismissed this change of heart as a cynical ploy to purchase a “return ticket” to postwar society.160

Camp SS leaders reacted furiously to the progressive breakdown of morale and discipline. In late February 1945, Oswald Pohl branded all those who entered into “personal relationships” with prisoners as “traitors,” and threatened them with execution.161Commandants, wedded to the world of the KL, echoed this hard line. During a screening of the Nazi propaganda film Kolberg—a crude historical epic celebrating individual sacrifice for the nation—on April 20, 1945, Hitler’s last birthday, the Neuengamme commandant Max Pauly vowed that anyone who sullied the SS uniform faced brutal punishment. His men did not doubt his words, for he had just handed over one of them—an officer whom Pauly disliked, possibly because of his reputation for greater civility to prisoners—to an SS court for dereliction of duty; he was executed four days later.162

Himmler’s Endgame

In early 1945, Nazi leaders had to face up to defeat. The Allied coalition held firm and there were no miraculous reverses on the battlefield, as the Wehrmacht was routed and German arms production, in rapid decline since autumn 1944, collapsed. In his Berlin bunker, Hitler sank further into gloom and paranoia, ranting against all those he blamed for his downfall, from his own generals to the Jews. Hopeless as the situation was, however, Hitler did not deviate from his uncompromising course—total victory or total destruction. There would be no retreat, no capitulation, no negotiation.

Some of Hitler’s lieutenants, by contrast, were hoping to save themselves and some of their powers. Planning their own endgame, Himmler and other Nazi leaders considered approaches to the West, hoping that the western Allies’ fears of Soviet domination in Europe would prompt them to agree to a separate peace. But any such plans were delusional from the start. Even if the Allied policy of total German surrender had not been set in stone, Himmler would have been the most improbable of all associates: this was the man who had been featured on the front cover of Timemagazine as the infamous butcher of Nazi Europe, pictured before a huge mound of corpses. Himmler’s folly was exposed at the end of the war. Assuming that Hitler had effectively abdicated, he made a secret capitulation offer to the western powers through an emissary. The Allies rebuffed Himmler, brusquely and publicly. When Hitler heard the news on April 28, 1945, he dissolved into a last fit of rage, screaming about “the most shameful betrayal in human history.” A few hours later, not long before his suicide, he expelled Himmler from the party.163

For Himmler, the pursuit of a deal with the western Allies ended in humiliation. For thousands of KL prisoners, however, it meant salvation, as they benefited from Himmler’s efforts to transform himself into a respectable negotiation partner. He had first tried to pose as a pragmatic statesman back in 1944, when he approved the release of some Jewish prisoners. On June 30, 1944, following secret negotiations with Jewish organizations abroad, the SS transported a select group of 1,684 Jews from Budapest to Bergen-Belsen, where they were held under privileged conditions until their transport (in August and December) to Switzerland. The SS was looking for goods and money in return, though the deal was also driven by Himmler’s desire for a peace agreement.164

Secret negotiations about prisoner releases intensified in early 1945. Although Himmler remained cautious, his search for an exit strategy made him seek closer contacts abroad. This coincided with growing efforts by foreign governments (such as Sweden and France) and organizations (such as the World Jewish Congress) to save prisoners, animated by reports about mass deaths in the KL. The rescue efforts were led by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), headed by the Swiss diplomat Carl J. Burckhardt, and by the Swedish Red Cross, represented by its vice president, Count Folke Bernadotte. There was a flurry of letters and meetings between January and April 1945, occasionally involving Himmler’s shady masseur Felix Kersten as go-between.165 The foreign envoys met with a rogues’ gallery of the Third Reich, including the new RSHA boss Ernst Kaltenbrunner and his Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, Camp SS managers like Rudolf Höss and Enno Lolling, and senior SS officers like Standartenführer Kurt Becher (a key figure during the occupation of Hungary in 1944, he had been appointed by Himmler in April 1945 as Reich commissioner for the KL, primarily to negotiate with the Allies and the Red Cross).166

As for Himmler himself, he appealed for sympathy from the foreign officials, whining that he was a much misunderstood man. Despite his terrible image, he insisted, he had always been a good shepherd, concerned only with prisoner well-being. To lend some credence to his story, he made a few tactical adjustments behind the scenes, ordering a temporary stop to corporal punishment and deadly human experiments.167 Himmler and his men constructed an alternative reality of the KL to impress their foreign guests. On the occasion of a visit to Ravensbrück in April 1945, Commandant Suhren regaled an ICRC official with tales about the camps’ educational mission. Such claims were echoed by Himmler. Reports about mass death and murder were just “atrocity propaganda,” he assured his interlocutors. He also brushed aside concerns about conditions in Bergen-Belsen, claiming that a team of medical experts had everything under control.168

For all their contacts with the SS, the foreign rescuers initially had little to show. True, the ICRC continued its delivery of food parcels (especially for western European and Scandinavian prisoners), dropping off supplies directly at the camps.169 But the negotiators were frustrated by German refusals to allow proper inspections and complained about broken promises by WVHA managers.170 Above all, there was almost no movement on the critical issue of prisoner releases. Only in exceptional cases, Himmler decided in February 1945, could sick and elderly inmates from Denmark and Norway be handed over; between January and March, the Danish authorities received just some 140 freed prisoners.171

Himmler’s most significant concession during this period concerned the move of Scandinavian prisoners to a special compound in Neuengamme. From mid-March 1945, buses and trucks of the Swedish Red Cross carried inmates from other KL to this camp. One of them was Odd Nansen. As he walked out of Sachsenhausen with fellow Norwegian prisoners, “it was as though we sprouted wings and flew out, to where the row of white buses stood.” By the end of March, Nansen and more than 4,800 other Scandinaviansenjoyed decent food, adequate conditions, and medical care in Neuengamme. Their joy meant more misery for others. To make room for the incoming prisoners, the SS had thrown inmates out of a so-called recuperation block. Some died within hours. More than two thousand others were taken away on buses—the very same white buses that had brought the Scandinavian prisoners—after the Swedish Red Cross reluctantly agreed to help transport these exhausted inmates to satellite camps (where many of them would perish). Some of the Scandinavian prisoners were deeply troubled by these developments. He was feeling a “gnawing sense of undeserving and unfairness,” Odd Nansen wrote on March 31, 1945, “in our being preferred to other people who are worse off, and who are going under and dying while we live in plenty.”172

Only in April 1945, with much of Germany already occupied, did the SS finally surrender a more substantial number of its prisoners. Desperate for an agreement with the Allies, Himmler put his hopes in the well-connected Count Bernadotte, a nephew of the Swedish king. They met three times that month, the last time on the night of April 23–24, when Himmler made his offer to capitulate on the Western Front (Bernadotte was the emissary who relayed it to the Allies). To help his cause, Himmler let more KL prisoners go. At first, the main beneficiaries were Scandinavians: the Danish and Swedish Red Cross spirited away almost eight thousand prisoners, including those held in Neuengamme. Odd Nansen completed his last diary entry in Germany on April 20, 1945, on “the bus to freedom”; as the prisoners crossed the border to Denmark, they were greeted by thousands lining the streets, waving flags and handing out flowers, bread, and beer. Himmler soon agreed to free further prisoners. The man responsible for the extermination of countless women and children now extended his “charity” to a few female prisoners, among them pregnant and seriously ill women, as well as mothers with children. In the final two weeks of war, the Danish and Swedish Red Cross picked up around 9,500 women, largely from Ravensbrück. Another two thousand or more were put onto ICRC trucks and taken to Switzerland. Most of the saved women came from Poland, others from France, Belgium, and elsewhere. “The camp behind us is getting smaller and smaller,” the French prisoner Marijo Chombart de Lauwe wrote about her rescue from Mauthausen on April 22, 1945, “and I sit here with empty eyes, silent and dazed.” It took time before they understood that they really were free.173

But releases remained the exception. The rescue of some twenty thousand men, women, and children in April and early May 1945 coincided with the suffering of hundreds of thousands more still trapped inside the KL system. When he made his tactical concessions, Himmler was determined to hold on to the great bulk of prisoners as bargaining chips for the elusive deal with the Allies—even if this meant the continuation of deadly KL evacuations.174 This strategy was most transparent in his approach to Jewish prisoners, whose fate was raised repeatedly during discussions with the Red Cross. Himmler had thought for some time that improving the conditions for Jews might boost his stock in the West.175 Now he took some symbolic steps. Around March 13, 1945, just before Pohl set off on his hectic tour of the last KL, Himmler apparently instructed him to tell commandants that the killing of Jews should cease. Himmler made similar promises to his foreign negotiation partners and talked to camp commandants directly about improving the treatment of Jews.176 But his disingenuous intervention came far too late to make any difference. In Mauthausen, for example, Jewish prisoners were still more likely to die than any other group, despite sudden orders to give preferential treatment to sick Jews.177

Eager to buy credit in the West, Himmler was willing to let at least some more Jewish prisoners go. Rewriting his own genocidal past, he claimed to have always supported their orderly emigration from Germany. To prove his point, he agreed to release one thousand Jewish women from Ravensbrück to the Swedish Red Cross with immediate effect, following an extraordinary meeting on the night of April 20–21, 1945, with Norbert Masur, a representative of the World Jewish Congress who had come to Germany from Sweden, his safe conduct guaranteed by the SS.178Himmler never went beyond such tactical adjustments, however.179 In general, he continued to regard Jewish prisoners as hostages for a deal with the West. “Look after these Jews and treat them well,” Himmler is said to have told the Mauthausen commandant Ziereis in late March 1945, “that is my best capital.”180

Himmler’s hostage strategy also determined the fate of the remaining “exchange Jews” in Bergen-Belsen. Between April 7 and 10, 1945, just days before British troops reached the camp, the RSHA dispatched three trains with 6,700 Jews toward Theresienstadt, the last remaining ghetto, now redesignated as another exchange camp. Only one train reached its destination, after an odyssey of almost two weeks. The other two drifted for days through war-torn Germany like ghost trains, until they were liberated by the Allies; by then, several hundred prisoners on board were dead.181


By early April 1945 the KL system was in turmoil, caught up in the general maelstrom of doom and defeat. Himmler’s kingdom of terror had shrunk fast since the start of the year, as the Allies penetrated deep into German territory; in all, the Camp SS lost some 230 satellite camps in the first three months of 1945.182 Meanwhile, chaos and death had spread through the remaining camps. Even their much-vaunted war production had ground to a virtual standstill because of shortages and air raids, which constantly sent SS and prisoners running for cover. “The siren has diarrhea,” a friend of Ágnes Rózsa joked in Nuremberg on February 19, 1945, only days before their camp was hit—one of several satellites destroyed by Allied bombs in the final months of war, causing yet more deaths.183 In all, perhaps one hundred and fifty thousand KL prisoners perished between January and March 1945, during the evacuations and inside the remaining camps, resulting in the first sharp fall in inmate numbers for many years.184

But it would be a mistake to think that the Camp SS was finished. Although its grip was slipping fast, it had not yet lost complete control. And the size of its terror apparatus was still formidable. At the beginning of April 1945, the SS operated ten main concentration camps and almost four hundred satellites.185 Around thirty to thirty-five thousand SS officials served in these remaining camps.186 And although the prisoner population had plummeted, the KL still held an estimated five hundred and fifty thousand inmates, far more than one year earlier.187 These men, women, and children came from all across Europe, and most of them were held in satellite camps. Germans were in a smaller minority than ever, making up less than ten percent of the prisoner population.188By contrast, Jewish prisoners had grown into one of the largest groups. Their numbers in concentration camps within the Third Reich’s prewar borders had increased rapidly in recent months, first with the transports of slave laborers to satellites, and then with the evacuations from the east. By early spring 1945, Jews made up perhaps thirty percent of the KL population.189

Only in April and early May 1945 did the KL system finally collapse. During a dramatic five weeks, the WVHA disbanded, and Allied forces reached the remaining satellites and the last main camps: Buchenwald and Dora (April 11), Bergen-Belsen (April 15), Sachsenhausen (April 22–23), Flossenbürg (April 23), Dachau (April 29), Ravensbrück (April 30), Neuengamme (May 2), Mauthausen-Gusen (May 5), and Stutthof (May 9).190 In well over one hundred camps, the Allies found prisoners left by the SS, ranging from a handful of survivors in some satellites to fifty-five thousand in Bergen-Belsen. In total, an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand prisoners were liberated inside concentration camps during this period.191

Most camps, however, were empty when Allied troops arrived. The SS had evacuated the great majority of satellites and also reduced the prisoner population in most main camps. In Neuengamme, virtually no inmates were left inside when British soldiers entered the vast compound.192 The deserted camps stood in sharp contrast to roads and trains outside, which were full of prisoners. Countless death transports crisscrossed the ever-shrinking Third Reich, often cut off from the remaining camps; tens of thousands of prisoners died before Allied troops reached them.

Historians have offered conflicting assessments of these last death transports. Some depict the KL system as remarkably resilient, even at the end, with prisoner treks operating as small concentration camps on the move.193 Others argue that the transports should be viewed separately from the history of the KL, as a new stage of Nazi genocide.194 Ultimately, neither position is fully persuasive. There was nothing stable about the KL system in spring 1945; seeing the treks as mobile camps ignores the manifest differences from life inside.195 At the same time, the death transports are still very much part of the camps’ history. The transports were dominated by Camp SS men, after all, who were already accustomed to murdering prisoners for escaping or for losing their strength. As for the prisoners themselves, their desperate physical state was a product of the camps, while the behavior they had learned inside, and the connections they had made there, proved invaluable on the road. In the final analysis, the death transports accelerated long-standing trends in the KL system. Its structure became even more dynamic, with prisoners perpetually on the move; perpetrators gained even more autonomy, killing with complete impunity; staff became even more diverse, as more men from outside were drafted in as guards; Kapos held even more sway, with some officially armed and co-opted as escorts; and terror became even more visible, with treks and trains moving all over Germany.196

“No Prisoners [Must] Fall Alive into Enemy Hands”

The mass evacuation of the KL in spring 1945 was no foregone conclusion. Amid growing panic, SS leaders considered several alternatives and sent contradictory signals to the bewildered local officials.197 The most radical idea was a last bloodbath, condemning all prisoners to go down with the Third Reich. At a time when Hitler preached that it was better to reduce Germany to ruins than to leave anything to the enemy, there was some loose talk among SS leaders and local officials of razing the camps, too, together with all those inside. But just as Hitler’s scorched-earth order was not implemented, the SS never came close to the total annihilation of all prisoners.198

At the other end of the scale stood mass releases. When it came to the evacuation of Nazi prisons, the Reich Ministry of Justice decided to free large numbers of inmates regarded as harmless.199 But such a measure was unacceptable to Himmler and his officers. Mass releases would have destroyed the founding myth of the KL as the bulwark against Germany’s most evil enemies. Ultimately, the RSHA only agreed to rather low-level releases, freeing several thousand political prisoners.200 A few thousand more German inmates were pressed into ragtag military formations, but despite the hopes of Nazi grandees like Joseph Goebbels, these reluctant, ill-equipped soldiers made no discernible contribution to the defense of the fatherland.201

Yet another option was to abandon camps after selected prisoners had been moved out, leaving the great majority behind. There was some support for such an approach within the WVHA. After all, orderly mass evacuations were out of the question by spring 1945; the transport system was in meltdown and the last camps were bursting.202 Himmler briefly toyed with this idea, too, and when it came to the final evacuation of the Buchenwald main camp, he ordered that the remaining inmates should be left to the Allies.203But he quickly changed his mind. On April 6, 1945, Commandant Pister received Himmler’s new order to abandon the camp with immediate effect. Buchenwald had to be cleared to a very large extent, Himmler demanded, by taking the prisoners to Flossenbürg.204In the end, evacuation remained the SS default mode.205

During April 1945, the Camp SS forced hundreds of thousands of prisoners onto transports, as it moved to abandon eight main camps and well over 250 satellite camps. Some SS officials yielded to pressure from local industry and municipal authorities, who wanted the SS to take away slave laborers before the Allies arrived, to wash their own hands of any association with KL crimes.206 Moreover, the SS principals saw good reasons for holding on to their inmates.207 Himmler himself still regarded prisoners—especially Jews—as pawns in his gambit for a separate peace.208 And the WVHA leaders still saw the KL as sites for vital armaments production. Refusing to accept the inevitable, Pohl and his managers worked frantically to keep the last factories running, while the relentless Hans Kammler hoped to make new miracle weapons; after the Dora underground complex was abandoned, Kammler wanted to produce antiaircraft missiles in another tunnel system, by taking blueprints, machines, and prisoners to Ebensee.209 From the perspective of fanatics like Kammler, the idea of leaving able-bodied slaves behind in abandoned camps must have seemed like sabotage.

Most important, perhaps, SS leaders believed that they had to protect the German public. They remembered the scare stories of the 1918 revolution, when freed prison inmates were (wrongly) accused of terrible crimes.210 Fears of a recurrence appeared to come true after the evacuation of Buchenwald. Although the Camp SS had managed to force some twenty-eight thousand prisoners out of the main camp at the last moment, following Himmler’s revised orders, another twenty-one thousand were still left inside when U.S. troops arrived. Their liberation came as a great surprise to the German civilian authorities—the Weimar police president called the camp in the late afternoon of April 11 to speak to Commandant Pister, only to be informed by a gleeful inmate that Pister was no longer available—and the region was soon awash with reports of prisoners pillaging and raping the helpless population. These stories were largely baseless; years of pent-up fears among locals distorted minor incidents into atrocities. But there was no stopping the rumors, which even reached the Führerbunker in Berlin. Hitler was livid, and is said to have instructed Himmler that all KL prisoners who could march had to be forced out during evacuations.211

Himmler was spurred into action. Around April 15, 1945, he held a meeting with Camp SS officers, receiving Richard Glücks and other senior figures on his special train. Pointing to the alleged atrocities in Weimar, he evidently ordered the complete evacuation of the remaining KL.212 Just a few days later, around April 18, 1945, Himmler reiterated his hard line in a telex to Flossenbürg, brushing aside any suggestion of leaving inmates to the Allies: “There is no question of handing over the camp. No prisoners [must] fall alive into enemy hands. The prisoners in Weimar-Buchenwald abused the population in the cruelest way.”213 Similar instructions appear to have reached other main camps at the time.214

Himmler’s uncompromising stance was hardened, no doubt, by recent accounts of Camp SS crimes in the foreign media. There had been earlier exposés, after the Allies reached sites like Majdanek, Natzweiler, and Auschwitz, including the first films shot in abandoned camps, but the echo abroad had still been muted.215 Not so in April 1945, as graphic images from recently liberated camps flashed around the globe. The media attention initially centered on Buchenwald, the first SS camp liberated in spring 1945 with large numbers of prisoners still inside.216 Himmler was furious about these reports, which made a mockery of his ongoing efforts to paint himself as a humanitarian. During his meeting with the representatives of the World Jewish Congress on April 20–21, 1945, he complained bitterly about the Buchenwald “horror stories” in the foreign media. In the future, Himmler threatened, he might not leave any more prisoners behind.217

This was not the final word, however, as the local Camp SS did not, or could not, implement Himmler’s order to the letter. Of all the main camps abandoned during the last three weeks of the war, only Neuengamme was almost completely cleared. In Flossenbürg, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück, by contrast, the Camp SS left some invalids behind.218 The same happened in numerous satellite camps.219 So not all Camp SS men had understood Himmler’s instruction—insofar as it reached them—as an automatic order to march all mobile prisoners out and kill the rest.220

In the last remaining camps, meanwhile, which persisted into the final days of the regime, the SS really had nowhere left to send all its prisoners. As a result, the Dachau main camp was only partially emptied, with U.S. troops liberating some thirty-two thousand inmates on April 29. And when SS officials fled Mauthausen, a few days later, they left some thirty-eight thousand prisoners behind in the main camp and in Gusen.221 In the last satellite camps (over eighty), too, the SS staff left most prisoners inside as they slipped away in early May. Still, until the Camp SS ran out of options, it generally tried to implement a policy of total (or near-total) evacuations.

The most striking exception to the rule was Bergen-Belsen, the only main camp formally turned over to the Allies. On April 11, 1945, Himmler authorized his representative, SS Standartenführer Kurt Becher, to leave the area around Bergen-Belsen to the British army. Perhaps Himmler wanted to make a grand gesture to the West, though he also had pragmatic reasons for abandoning the camp and its prisoners, since an evacuation would have run the risk of spreading typhus among the German population and troops. Following the conclusion of a local armistice, British forces rolled up to the main camp entrance on the afternoon of April 15, 1945. They were greeted by Josef Kramer—the only SS commandant not to flee—who officially handed over the camp. British soldiers were shocked when they entered. Despite desperate SS efforts to clear up the site, more than thirteen thousand bodies were strewn across the main compounds. Major Alexander Smith Allan recalled “a carpet of human bodies, mostly very emaciated, many of them unclothed, jumbled together.” During an uneasy period of transition, some SS men initially helped to administer the camp; they even shot at prisoners. But as the full scale of the crimes emerged, British officers disarmed and detained the remaining SS staff. “The first person I arrested was Josef Kramer,” Sergeant Norman Turgel said after the war. “I was very proud of being a Jew who arrested one of the most notorious gangsters in Nazi Germany.”222

Abandoning the Camps

By spring 1945, the SS officials were experts in preparing for evacuations.223 Often, they began by closing the satellites nearest to the front line, moving prisoners back to the main camp or to satellites designated as reception camps. Although the advance of the Allies frequently foiled these plans, and diverted prisoner transports elsewhere, some of the reception camps became vast sites. In the Neuengamme complex, the two camps Wöbbelin and Sandbostel took in almost fifteen thousand prisoners in April 1945; conditions inside were infernal and around four thousand inmates died before liberation. “We could smell the Wöbbelin camp before we saw it,” the regional U.S. army commander later wrote.224

Another well-established SS routine was the eradication of incriminating evidence. Across the remaining camps, the officials destroyed documents, torture instruments, and other proof of SS crimes, including the gallows. The gas chambers in Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück were dismantled, too, while prisoner corpses were hastily buried or burned. The aim was to make everything “look decent” before the arrival of the Allies, as the Ravensbrück commandant Fritz Suhren told inmates. In the Neuengamme main camp, the SS even forced prisoners to clean the barrack floors and windows, and paint some of the walls, expecting a coat of whitewash to cover years of barbarity.225

On the eve of the final evacuation, local Camp SS officials then decided the destiny of the remaining invalids. Many weakened inmates had perished over the preceding weeks and months. But the catastrophic conditions always created more Muselmänner, and their fate hung in the balance to the end. Individual Camp SS officials chose very different paths, just as their colleagues had done during earlier evacuations. Some forced the invalids to leave, providing that transport was available.226 Elsewhere, SS men left the sick behind as the camp was cleared. And there were also some final massacres, following Himmler’s maxim that no prisoners should fall into Allied hands.

The treatment of invalids was only one of the dilemmas facing the local Camp SS. As they realized that camps like Buchenwald and Dachau could only be partially emptied, SS officials had to decide which prisoners to take with them. In Dachau, they began by assembling Jews, and later added Germans and Soviets. In total, 8,646 inmates left on April 26, 1945; almost half came from the Soviet Union, Jews made up more than a third, and Germans the rest.227 In Buchenwald, the SS started with Jews, as well, and then added others, among them Polish, Soviet, Czech, French, Belgian, and German inmates; more than half of the twenty-eight thousand prisoners who departed came from the “little camp.”228 Clearly, SS officials did not proceed at random during their selections for death transports. They targeted specific prisoners, especially those seen as high value or particularly dangerous, with Jewish “hostages” falling into both categories.229

Prisoners did anything to avoid the final death transports. Having dreamed for so long about leaving the camps, they were now desperate to stay until the Allies arrived. During the partial evacuation of Buchenwald and Dachau, some prisoners tried to obstruct and delay the SS. But most defiance was easily broken. “With a handful of SS men one can force prisoners to do anything deemed necessary,” one Buchenwald inmate wrote despondently on April 9, 1945.230

The mastery of the SS often ended at the camp gates, however. While it was still powerful enough to force prisoners out, it was unable to keep its transports on track. With the German transport system torn apart, trains constantly stopped or changed direction. Journeys that should have lasted a day took weeks, and the longer they lasted, the more prisoners died. When the remnant of a train that had left Buchenwald on April 7, 1945, with around five thousand prisoners on board reached Dachau some three weeks later, it was packed with more than two thousand dead (these were the corpses U.S. soldiers found as they first entered the camp on April 29). Elsewhere, SS guards pushed survivors out of trains that had got stuck in the middle of nowhere, and continued on foot. But with many roads no longer passable or cut off, treks often split or got lost. Prisoners felt as though they walked in circles, always escaping from the nearest Allied troops.231

On the road, the SS transport leaders could expect no more guidance from their superiors. The communications network was collapsing, making contact with WVHA headquarters largely impossible. Soon, the WVHA disappeared altogether. Oswald Pohl left his office in Berlin in mid-April, shortly before the German capital was surrounded, and so did most of his men, including those in Office Group D; the last Camp SS managers, including Richard Glücks, fled from Oranienburg on April 20–21, 1945. After SS security guards locked the doors for a last time, the T-Building, the nerve center of the KL system since summer 1938, stood empty.232 And just as Germany was divided in late April, so, too, was the Camp SS. WVHA managers fleeing from Berlin split into two groups, one heading north, the other south, and quickly lost touch with each other.233

With few exceptions, the final death transports were also supposed to move north or south, as the SS tried to hold on to its last prisoners.234 Initially, most transports headed for the remaining main camps. Likewise, Camp SS managers assembled in KL that were still operational. In the north, the rump of WVHA Office Group D set up a temporary base at Ravensbrück. Oswald Pohl, meanwhile, moved south (apparently on Himmler’s orders) and settled in his quarters on the Dachau plantation. Here he was joined by several other WVHA officers, including a few members of Office Group D and their families, as well as two former commandants, Richard Baer (Dora) and Hermann Pister (Buchenwald), and their staff. Just days before Dachau was liberated, Pohl presided over a last lavish supper for his men. Accustomed to an opulent life, he wanted to go out in style.235

In late April 1945, as the last main camps came into reach of Allied troops, some transports began to head for wholly imaginary sites. In the south, Nazi leaders like RSHA chief Kaltenbrunner dreamed of an impregnable Alp fortress on Austrian soil, with its own arms factories. Several Camp SS officials duly moved toward this make-believe site in Tyrol. Among them were Commandant Pister and his colleague Eduard Weiter, who had replaced Martin Weiss as commandant of Dachau. They fled from Dachau at the last moment on April 28 or 29, driving off in convoys loaded with food and alcohol. With Himmler’s blessing, prisoner treks were heading south for the Ötz Valley, too, where a testing facility for fighter jets was being built. If necessary, Himmler ordered, the prisoners would have to live in holes in the ground; in the end, few even made it onto Austrian soil.236

The SS in northern Germany also had visions of a remote new camp.237 Camp SS leaders considered various sites, including German cities near the Baltic coast (Lübeck and Flensburg) and an island in the Baltic Sea (Fehmarn). There was even talk of taking prisoners to Norway, where the former Auschwitz camp compound leader Aumeier was setting up a camp staffed by guards from Sachsenhausen. Although there were no proper plans to speak of, a number of prisoner convoys duly headed toward the northern corner of Germany. Many were cut off by Allied troops, but the SS still assembled well over ten thousand prisoners from Neuengamme and Stutthof in Neustadt (outside Lübeck) at the beginning of May 1945. Most were held on board three ships (the freightersAthen and Thielbek, and the passenger ship Cap Arcona) in Neustadt bay. Inmates were crammed belowdecks without food, water, or air; each morning, the Soviet prisoner Aleksander Machnew recalled, they had to lift out the dead on ropes.238

Meanwhile, many Camp SS leaders gathered farther north, in Flensburg, the fanciful “Fortress North” that became a magnet for the die-hard elite of the Third Reich. It was the seat of the German caretaker government around Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, the fanatical military commander who became Reich president after Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945, and it drew the experts of Nazi terror, as well, including leading SS and RSHA officers. Senior WVHA staff arrived via Ravensbrück, after fleeing the camp around April 28, and were joined by other Camp SS veterans. It was an illustrious group. All department leaders of Office Group D were present—Rudolf Höss, Gerhard Maurer, Enno Lolling, and Wilhelm Burger—as was their nominal boss, Richard Glücks. Also gathered were several former commandants—Max Pauly (Neuengamme), Anton Kaindl (Sachsenhausen), Fritz Suhren (Ravensbrück), and Paul Werner Hoppe (Stutthof)—accompanied by some of their staff. Finally, there was Bertha Eicke and her family; as the widow of the legendary Theodor Eicke, she was as close to royalty as anyone in the Camp SS, and was looked after personally by Höss. What brought all of them to Flensburg was, above all, the presence of Heinrich Himmler, who had also made his way north and met his men around May 3–4, 1945. It was to be the final conference between Himmler and his Camp SS leaders.239

Lethal Transports

The final death transports of spring 1945 reproduced the suffering of earlier evacuations. Prisoners had no hope of respite on marches, even after treks pulled up for the night. Barns and sheds were so packed that sleep was often impossible, while those lying out in the open—in quarries, fields, or forest clearings—shivered in the cold and rain; there were frequent scuffles, as well, with stronger inmates stealing food and blankets.240 Occasionally, the Camp SS regrouped along the way in provisional compounds. The largest such site was set up on April 23, 1945, when the first columns of the Sachsenhausen death march stopped near a village called Below. Even the most primitive satellite camp was well equipped compared to the Below forest. At least sixteen thousand men and women slept in muddy holes or tents made from branches. During the day, they huddled around fires or walked a few steps to forage for bark, roots, and beetles. It was days before prisoners received real nourishment, after trucks from the ICRC, which monitored the course of the death march, arrived with food parcels. The distribution of milk, canned meat, and fruit undoubtedly saved prisoner lives. But hundreds were dead by the time the SS resumed the march on April 29–30, 1945.241

SS murders mounted up during these last transports. Because of the growing reluctance of ordinary guards to cover themselves in blood just before the German defeat was sealed, Camp SS leaders entrusted the task of killing stragglers to selected SS men stationed at the rear of death march columns. The so-called burial detail on one of the Flossenbürg death marches, for example, was led by none other than Erich Muhsfeldt, the former chief of the Majdanek and Birkenau crematorium, whom we last encountered waving body parts at female guards. Veteran SS men like Muhsfeldt, who had long become inured to murder, occasionally taunted and tormented the exhausted prisoners before shooting them.242

The fact that many of the hardened SS killers were anti-Semites, and many of their victims Jews, has led some historians to describe the spring 1945 death transports as the last stage of the Holocaust: with the gas chambers closed, Jewish prisoners were now exterminated by other methods.243There is no doubt that Jews made up a large proportion of KL prisoners on these death marches—somewhere between one-third and half—and a large proportion of the dead.244 And yet, the SS made no attempt to systematically kill all Jews during evacuations. This time, there were no genocidal orders from above; on the contrary, Himmler talked about Jews as hostages, which was one reason why they were more likely than most prisoners to be moved out of camps as the Allies approached. During the ensuing death transports, Jews were not treated fundamentally differently from the other prisoners.245 They often marched together and shared a similar fate. In fact, with prisoner numbers and uniforms mixed up or missing, and many Jews using the confusion of the final weeks—when files were lost or destroyed—to conceal their identities, it was often impossible to tell them apart from other prisoner groups anyway. In the end, survival depended primarily on luck and strength.246

Even when the SS specifically selected Jews for separate transports, it was not necessarily as a prelude to mass extermination. Many escorts of the train of “exchange Jews” that departed from Bergen-Belsen on April 10, 1945 were demoralized elderly ex-soldiers, and they largely left the prisoners in peace. Some shared food and cigarettes with them, while the transport leader tried to find additional supplies along the way. At times, the guards even allowed prisoners to leave the train and wander alone through the countryside to search for something edible—utterly unthinkable during earlier KL evacuations.247

All this leads to a crucial conclusion: the main purpose of the KL evacuations was not the murder of Jews or other prisoners.248 Although mass death through exhaustion, hunger, disease, and bullets was an inevitable result, it was not the end itself. When it came to mass extermination, the SS still had more effective means at its disposal, as it demonstrated to devastating effect during occasional last-minute massacres.249 Nonetheless, the transports proved lethal and many tens of thousands of prisoners died on German roads,trains, and ships during April and early May 1945—including some killed inadvertently by Allied forces, perhaps the most tragic chapter in the course of the evacuations.250

Prisoner deaths by friendly fire had increased with the escalation of bombing raids in 1944, as the Allies attacked various German factories using slave labor. One of the most lethal attacks came on August 24, 1944, when a U.S. raid on the Buchenwald armaments works killed almost four hundred prisoners, including the former SPD chairman in the Reichstag, Rudolf Breitscheid. The SS also suffered more than one hundred casualties during the attack, including many relatives of SS men; Gerhard Maurer, the de facto leader of Office Group D, lost his wife and three children when a shelter was hit.251 Other main KL were bombed, too, as were some satellites.252 Prisoners had mixed feelings about these raids. They reveled in the vulnerability of their SS tormentors, and in the fact that Allied air supremacy would shorten the war. At the same time, they knew that their would-be liberators might kill them, as the bombs were blind to the difference between perpetrator and victim. When prisoners from the Dachau screw factory were hit in October 1944 by a hail of bombs, they thought “that this would be the end of us all,” Edgar Kupfer wrote soon after in his secret diary, recovering from a broken foot in the infirmary.253

The threat to prisoner lives from the air increased in the first months of 1945, as Allied planes dropped more bombs than ever and low-flying aircraft began strafing soldiers and civilians. Among the targets was the notorious Oranienburg brick works, which were flattened on April 10, 1945, burying hundreds of inmates among the rubble. A raid on Nordhausen a few days earlier had claimed even more lives, killing 1,300 prisoners in the Boelcke death zone.254 Many more casualties came outside the KL. Evacuation trains were particularly vulnerable. On the evening of April 8, 1945, for example, a U.S. attack on the freight depot at Celle partially destroyed a long train, which had arrived with almost 3,500 prisoners from Neuengamme and Buchenwald; several hundred were killed, many more badly wounded.255

The worst disaster came right at the end of the war, on May 3, 1945. During a major British aerial attack on German ships around Kiel and Lübeck, several missiles hit the Thielbek and Cap Arcona in Neustadt bay. An urgent warning from the Swiss Red Cross that both ships held inmates had not been passed on in time. Prisoners who survived the explosions and fires on board froze to death or drowned; some were shot by British fighter planes. “I had already swum a little,” Anatolij Kulikow later testified, “but to keep swimming any farther was beyond my power.” He was saved by other prisoners in a lifeboat, some of the five hundred survivors of what may be the largest naval catastrophe in history, having claimed over seven thousand lives.256

Ordinary Germans

At around four-thirty on the afternoon of April 26, 1945, the concentration camps came to Oberlindhart, a sleepy hamlet amid the rolling hills of Lower Bavaria. Centa Schmalzl, a fifty-two-year-old housekeeper on her brother’s farm, was alone when a trek of around 280 prisoners slowly came into view, surrounded by a few dozen SS escorts. The agitated transport leader, an elderly SS man with a bright red face, told Schmalzl brusquely that they would stay for the night. He then demanded a bed for a woman he introduced as his wife and some food for his guards, who made themselves comfortable in the kitchen. Centa Schmalzl watched as the guards beat prisoners who begged for food. They also hit a local French laborer who tried to give water to the captives. After the SS had finally distributed a few potatoes among the starving prisoners, they locked them in a barn, though not for long. Following a nearby explosion, the panicking SS men forced them out again after midnight. Just before the column left, Centa Schmalzl heard shots from the barn. An SS man emerged and asked her to get rid of three corpses inside; the other prisoners marched away, disappearing into the night.257

This trek was part of a death march that had left Buchenwald on April 7 with more than three thousand prisoners, mostly Jews from the “little camp,” and which had since split into different groups. Oberlindhart was one of countless crime scenes along the way, as the trek wound toward faraway Dachau.258 Similar scenes took place all over Germany in spring 1945. In streets, squares, and stations, local Germans were confronted with death transports from the KL: they saw the beatings, heard the shots, and smelled the dead. SS terror had become ever more visible since the spread of satellite camps in late 1943. Now it fully spilled into the open, as prisoners appeared even in remote corners like Oberlindhart.259

The responses of ordinary Germans varied, as they had done during earlier encounters. One reaction was shock; even months later, some witnesses were unable to testify without breaking down.260 Occasionally, dismayed locals left food and drink on the roads, or handed it directly to prisoners.261 Others aided those who had fled. There were plenty of escapes during the transports as desperate prisoners used the growing chaos to steal away, often at the spur of the moment.262 The prisoners were helped by the fact that many were wearing civilian clothing, after the WVHA had run out of prisoner uniforms months earlier.263 To succeed, the fugitives often needed local Germans to turn a blind eye or to offer shelter.264 On April 28, 1945, in a singular event in the history of the KL, some fifteen escaped prisoners even joined a local uprising by civilians in Dachau, the birthplace of the KL. Determined to hand over the town to U.S. troops without bloodshed, the small group of rebels stormed the town hall. SS men soon surrounded them, and although most rebels got away, six were shot dead.265

Far more common than popular support, however, was silence. The few German helpers were far outnumbered by the silent majority, which stood by or looked away as transports passed through. Such passivity could conceal different emotions, as we have seen, including curiosity, indifference, and resignation.266 Above all, there was fear. Fear of the SS, which threatened locals willing to help prisoners and occasionally lashed out at them.267 Fear of guilt by association, because civilians wanted nothing to do with SS crimes as the Allies were about to arrive; when a guard dragged away an exhausted prisoner in a village near Oberlindhart, a local woman beseeched him not to shoot his victim right outside her house.268 And finally, there was the fear of the prisoners. The pictureof KL inmates as dangerous criminals was firmly entrenched, and some locals openly vented their disgust, shouting “traitors!” “bandits!” and “bastards!” as treks passed.269 SS guards encouraged such hostility, reminding the locals: “These are criminals.”270

Fear sometimes turned into paranoia and panic, with apocalyptic visions of escaped criminals attacking defenseless civilians. In reality, most prisoners on the run were careful to stay out of sight. But this did not stop the rumors about hordes of dangerous prisoners on the loose, which fed on similar anxieties about marauding bands of foreign workers. Local officials and newspapers sounded hysterical warnings, and there was plenty of talk about looting, rape, and murder, just as there had been after the evacuation of Buchenwald.271 Galvanized into action, elderly men from the People’s Storm, youngsters from the Hitler Youth, small-time party officials, and upstanding members of the local community reported escaped prisoners to the authorities or joined in manhunts, typical for the decentralization of Nazi terror toward the end of the Third Reich.272

Among the victims were prisoners who escaped from the train in Celle in the wake of the U.S. air raid on April 8, 1945. The following morning, German soldiers, policemen, and SS forces combed nearby gardens and woods, where most prisoners were hiding, and shot them at point-blank range. Local civilians took part, too. The massacre was masterminded by the local military commander, who claimed that prisoners were “plundering and murdering” all over town; in all, at least 170 prisoners were killed around Celle.273 In numerous other German towns and villages, too, fugitive prisoners were murdered with the help of the local population. It was “a real bloodbath,” one witness wrote after a similar pursuit, still stunned by the sudden killing frenzy that had come over some of his neighbors, who shot prisoners cowering in cellars, sheds, and barns.274

Some locals also participated in massacres of prisoners still under SS control. This is what happened on April 13, 1945, in Gardelegen, a small town north of Magdeburg. Several prisoner treks had recently reached the area, which was almost completely encircled by U.S. troops. Arguing that the prisoners would pose a grave threat to the population if liberated, the fanatical young Nazi Party district leader in Gardelegen pushed for mass murder. He was supported by other locals, whipped up by stories of outrages committed by fugitive prisoners. On the afternoon of April 13, the prisoners were marched from army barracks in the center of town to an isolated brick barn outside. The killers—a motley crew of SS men, paratroopers, and others—used torches and flamethrowers to ignite the petrol-soaked straw inside the barn, and threw grenades. The barn was soon ablaze. “The screams by the men who were burning alive grew louder, as did the groans,” the Polish prisoner Stanisław Majewicz, one of around twenty-five survivors, later recalled. Those who tried to flee were cut down with machine guns. When U.S. troops reached the site on April 15, they found around a thousand charred corpses.275

News of this atrocity rapidly spread through the U.S. press, and Gardelegen has become a symbol of Nazi war crimes. But it was the exception, not the norm. Few local leaders were as bent on mass murder as those in Gardelegen. Just some twenty miles away, for instance, another Nazi Party official protected a trek of five hundred prisoners in his village. And even in Gardelegen, only a small number of citizens actively participated in the murder of prisoners. Many more Germans, here and elsewhere, had little desire to tie themselves to a lost cause.276

The KL and their prisoners always drew a range of responses from ordinary Germans. Popular opinion was never united, not at the beginning of the Third Reich, and not at the end, either. The wide spectrum of reactions was evident even in small villages like Oberlindhart. Most locals had watched in silence as the Buchenwald trek halted on April 26, 1945. A few called for mass executions; several others, among them the mayor, sheltered fugitives. The local drama continued even after the trek had left the village. Some fervent inhabitants denounced prisoners who had hidden in the barn of the Schmalzl family. But there was another twist: a local policeman took pity on the recaptured prisoners after they pleaded for their lives, and led them to a different farm, where they stayed until U.S. soldiers arrived the following day. They were finally free.277

The End

By early May 1945, even the most blinkered Nazi fanatic knew that the game was up. The Third Reich was in ruins, and many career SS men like Rudolf Höss felt that “with the Führer, our world has gone under, too.” Their last hope was Heinrich Himmler. As Höss and the other Camp SS managers prepared to meet their leader in Flensburg on May 3–4, 1945, they probably expected a final battle cry. Would Himmler offer them another fantastic vision to cling to? Or would he order them to go down in a blaze of glory? But there was no last stand. All smiles, Himmler, who had been frozen out of the new Dönitz government, breezily announced that he had no more directives for the KL. Before he dismissed his men with a handshake, he issued one last order: the officials should disguise themselves and go into hiding, just as he planned to do himself.278

Even in defeat, the Camp SS leaders followed Himmler. Several men from Office Group D dressed in navy uniforms and took false identities. Gerhard Maurer became Paul Kehr, and Höss turned into Franz Lang. In disguise, Höss and Maurer, together with several other WVHA men, took jobs on small farms in rural northern Germany and initially evaded capture. Their former boss Richard Glücks, however, who had taken the jolly moniker Sonnemann (Sunnyman), had no hope of passing himself off as a farmhand. Glücks was a shadow of the sturdy figure he had been six years earlier, when he took over the KL system. His gradual loss of institutional power, evident not least in his increasingly rare meetings with Oswald Pohl, had been accompanied by a marked physical decline. Popping pills and drinking heavily, he was rumored to have lost his mind, and ended up in a German military hospital in Flensburg, more dead than alive. On May 10, 1945, just after the capitulation of the Third Reich, Glücks killed himself, biting on a capsule of potassium cyanide.279

Glücks’s death was part of a wave of suicides that swept Germany in spring 1945. Nazi propaganda extolled suicide as the ultimate sacrifice. In truth, it was mostly fear and despair that led former Nazi officials to take their lives.280 The roll call of SS suicides was led by Heinrich Himmler, who killed himself on May 23, 1945, in British captivity, two days after his arrest. Among the other Camp SS officers who died by their own hand were Enno Lolling and the last Dachau commandant, Eduard Weiter.281 Most of the dead were hard-bitten veterans, though some had felt more ambivalent about the KL system, among them Hans Delmotte, the young Auschwitz doctor who had broken down during his first selection of prisoners.282 Like Himmler and Glücks, several Camp SS suicides used cyanide, which had been tested a few months earlier for this very purpose during a lethal prisoner trial in Sachsenhausen. A few others, like the Gross-Rosen commandant Arthur Rödl, departed in more dramatic style: a man with a long history of hands-on violence, Rödl chose a suitably gory death and blew himself up with a hand grenade.283

Most Camp SS officers, however, wanted to survive the Third Reich. They may have talked about heroic sacrifice and kamikaze missions, but in the end, they scrambled to save their skins.284 The mass of SS guards did the same. In the remaining camps, the officials often stayed away from the compounds in the final days, plotting their getaway. When the moment came, they changed into civilian clothes and disappeared.285 Likewise, SS escorts on death transports tried to evade capture at the last moment; if there were no regular clothes at hand, they put on prisoner uniforms.286

Before they made their escape, SS escorts had to decide the fate of the remaining prisoners on their transports. Some chose to kill. Early on May 3, 1945, for example, SS men ordered prisoners on a Buchenwald death march, which had reached a small forest near Traunstein in Bavaria, to line up and opened fire, killing fifty-eight men. Then the guards “threw away their weapons and made a quick getaway,” testified the only survivor, who had lain injured under two dead comrades.287 Elsewhere, SS escorts disappeared during brief stops or overnight, concerned only with saving themselves.288 When the survivors of a Sachsenhausen death march awoke on May 2, 1945, in a forest clearing outside a small village near Schwerin, with all guards gone, they were dumbfounded. “We could not comprehend it, not believe it,” the Austrian Jew Walter Simoni recalled after the war.289 But the abandoned prisoners were not yet safe; they were “free people but not liberated,” as one survivor later put it, still in danger of falling victim to Nazi fanatics. Bewildered and exhausted, some dazed prisoners actually continued their aimless march, even without SS escorts.290Only the arrival of the Allies finally put an end to the transports. We will never know how many prisoners gained their freedom in April and early May 1945 in German cities and villages, on trains, in forests, and on the open road, but their total number most probably exceeded one hundred thousand.291

Many more men, women, and children survived inside the last KL. During the final five weeks of the Third Reich, the Allies liberated an estimated one hundred and sixty thousand prisoners in main camps, most of them in Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, and Mauthausen-Gusen. In addition, Allied troops found an estimated ninety thousand prisoners in over one hundred satellite camps, in some cases even after the official German capitulation. The great majority of liberated satellites were small, holding fewer than one thousand prisoners. But there were also huge ones like Ebensee, where U.S. troops encountered an estimated sixteen thousand survivors on May 6, 1945. Among them were Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, who had arrived on the death transport from Auschwitz in January 1945, and the Czech interpreter Drahomír Bárta, a longtime inmate of the camp. When the first U.S. soldiers appeared in Ebensee, Bárta noted in his diary, they were greeted by “indescribable scenes of joy and ecstasy.”292

The final moments of captivity were full of confusion. The prisoners had long been suspended in a state of nervous exhaustion, between hope of liberation and fear of SS massacres, stray bullets, and bombs. “All that has kept us going for three weeks is the rumor that the war will only last for two or three more days,” Ágnes Rózsa wrote on April 28, 1945, in the Flossenbürg satellite camp Holleischen, where she had arrived after the bombing of her old camp in Nuremberg. She endured another week of slave labor in a nearby munitions workshop, until it was hit by Allied bombs on May 3, 1945. Rózsa survived once more, but she was still in SS hands. “Our liberation is so close and so real,” she wrote the following day. “That makes the thought that we have to die at the last minute … even more unbearable.” When freedom finally came on the morning of May 5—with U.S. soldiers emerging from the surrounding forest—it came suddenly. Silence fell across the former farm that made up the Holleischen camp. Then there were shouts of “They are coming! They are here!” followed by wild screams from more than one thousand women inside.293

On occasion, the transition from terror to freedom came in a more orderly fashion. In Buchenwald, SS Commandant Pister told the camp elder, the German Communist Hans Eiden, early on April 11, 1945, that he would hand the camp over to him. Soon after, a final command went out over the loudspeakers, ordering SS members to move out immediately. By now, U.S. troops were in the immediate vicinity; shots were ringing out as the SS fled, with the guards on the watchtowers the last to leave. In midafternoon, with the SS finally gone, prisoners emerged from hiding and went toward the main gate. Soon after, Eiden spoke over the public address system, confirming that “the SS has left the camp” and that an international committee of prisoners was in control. When the U.S. troops reached the main compound, a white flag greeted them on one of the towers.294

In Dachau, too, U.S. soldiers saw a white flag when they arrived on the afternoon of April 29, 1945, though here the flag had been raised by anxious SS men, not the prisoners. Although Dachau was not the last concentration camp to fall, its liberation symbolized the destruction of the Nazi terror machine. It was more than twelve years since the SS had set up its first makeshift camp on the site. Since then, Dachau had changed its appearance many times over and gained multiple functions: bulwark of the Nazi revolution, model camp, SS training ground, slave labor reservoir, human experimentation site, mass extermination ground, and center of a satellite camp network. Dachau was not the most deadly KL, but it was the most notorious at the time, inside Germany and abroad. “Dachau, Germany’s most dreaded extermination camp, has been captured,” The New York Times reported on its front page on May 1, 1945. Of the more than two hundred thousand prisoners who had passed through the Dachau complex since 1933, at least fourteen thousand had perished in the final months from January 1945, not counting all the unknown victims, like those of the death marches that continued for several days after the liberation of the main camp.295

The final hours in Dachau had been just as tense as in the other camps. By the morning of April 29, 1945, most SS men had fled, but the guards on the watchtowers still trained their machine guns on the prisoners. Detonations could be heard close by, planes roared across the overcast sky, and the howl of tank engines came and went. Then prisoners listened as small arms fire edged closer, with some guards shooting back. Finally, a U.S. officer, accompanied by two reporters, peered into the compound from the gatehouse and entered the empty roll call square. Within minutes, the square was bursting with ecstatic inmates, who embraced and kissed the liberators. “They grabbed us,” the officer wrote the following day, “and tossed us into the air screaming at the top of their lungs.”296

Before long, all of Dachau was in an uproar, with the news spreading fast across the compound. Even prisoners in the infirmary heard the revelry and began to celebrate. Among them was Edgar Kupfer, the intrepid chronicler of Dachau, who had become weaker and weaker in recent months. Now he watched from his bed as other sick prisoners struggled to their feet and went outside, or looked through the windows at the tumultuous scenes.297

Soon Kupfer was joined by Moritz Choinowski, who had been treated in the Dachau infirmary a few weeks earlier for an ear infection. It was almost a miracle that the fifty-year-old Polish-born Jew was still alive. His ordeal in the KL had begun years earlier, on September 28, 1939, when the Gestapo took him from his adopted hometown of Magdeburg to Buchenwald. That afternoon, Choinowski had handed over everything—his money, documents, suit, hat, shirt, socks, jumper, and trousers—and become a concentration camp inmate. “I stood there naked and received a convict uniform,” he later wrote. His red-yellow triangle marked him out as a political prisoner (he had been an SPD supporter) and as a Jew. He survived the early war years in Buchenwald, despite several months in the lethal quarry and repeated corporal punishment (including three times “twenty-five blows”), and escaped the clutches of the murderous T-4 doctors. He survived his first mass selection in Auschwitz, soon after his arrival there on October 19, 1942, on a freight car with some four hundred other men from Buchenwald. He survived more selections over the coming two years in Auschwitz-Monowitz, at the height of the Holocaust, and also withstood more illness, starvation, and beatings, despite serious injuries. He survived the death transport from Auschwitz via the hell of Gross-Rosen, during which an SS bullet only just missed his head, hitting his ear instead, and arrived in Dachau on January 28, 1945. And he survived the final months of forced labor, even though he was now badly emaciated and sick, and contracted typhus, which claimed thousands of lives in Dachau in early 1945. Somehow Moritz Choinowski had survived all this, and on April 29, 1945, after more than two thousand days in the KL, he was free. “Is this possible?” he sobbed, as he hugged and kissed Edgar Kupfer in the Dachau infirmary. “And he cries,” Kupfer continued in his diary, “and I think about how he has suffered, and I cannot hold back my tears.”298

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