Death Marches


Death Marches Essay, Research Paper

Perhaps some of the most vivid images of the Holocaust are the

death marches, when tens of thousands of Jews at one time were paraded

to the extermination camps in Germany, Poland and Austria. Some of the

more notable death marches included the mass march from the Warsaw

Ghetto to the extermination camp at Auschwitz and the numerous marches

that occurred following ghettoization related in Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Though much of the modern world may find it difficult, if not

impossible, to accept that notion that humankind can act with such

disdain for human life, the objectification of the Jews as a component

of the Nazi regime defined the acceptability of the death marches and

the systematic extermination of innumerable populations of Jews.

One of the keys to the relative successes of Hitler’s

extermination plans was that few people escaped the horrors at the end

of the death march, and so there were only a handful of people who were

able to actually substantiate claims of mass extermination that took

place at camps like Auschwitz, and even fewer who could fan the flames

of resistance by retelling the horrific stories of what occurred to

those who followed. Some theorists argue that if the Jews had not been

exposed to the kind of Nazi propaganda that was utilized as a control

measure through out the early part of World War II that the mass

exterminations would have been far less effective. At the same time,

Nazi occupation of much of Europe during this period maintained an

atmosphere capable of quelling resistance, even to the horrific death

camp marches that occurred following increasing ghettoization of the

Jewish population and subsequent implementation of the death march to

exterminate large segments of the Jewish population.


Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of the kinds of

atrocities that occurred and the implementation of the death march can

be assessed in the events that followed the ghettoization of the Jewish

community in Warsaw. After the occupation of Poland, the Nazi regime

determined the necessity centralizing the Jewish community, only to

force many into the killing facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau between

1942 and 1944. The views of some of the survivors of Auschwitz help to

underscore the history of the ghettoization process and the quelling of

opposition to Nazi control.

The process of ghettoization has been related in the stories of

many of the survivors of the death marches, many of whom lived through

ghettoization in Hungary and Poland under the directives of Adolph

Eichmann (Smith 22). Under the plan for the Judenfrei-Europe

(Jew-free), the directive was set for the use of the death marches to

transport Jews from regions of Europe like Hungary to the more

centralized extermination camps in Poland (Smith 22). Over 500,000

Hungarian Jews, for example, were exterminated in the midst of Hitler’s

plan, many of whom were transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death

camps for extermination (Smith 22).

The German occupation of much of Europe caused considerable

changes for the Jewish communities, especially in countries like Poland,

Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Prior to the German military action, the

Anglo-Polish mutual assistance agreement had assured that Poland would

remain independent, but held no military value in the face of German

occupation forces (Richardson uprising.htm). In August of 1939, the

signing of the Mololov-Ribbentrop Pact determined the fate of Poland and

it took just eight days for the Germans to advance on Warsaw (Richardson

uprising.htm). Though the Polish Army worked in resistance to German

occupation, the German “Blitzkrieg” or “lightening war” was unstoppable,

and by late September, Warsaw fell with over 50,000 casualties in the

city alone and some 25 percent of the buildings in ruins (Richardson

uprising.htm). The demoralized and demolished Poland was conquered

(Richardson uprising.htm).

The conditions of the surrender of Warsaw included a statement

about the Jewish population, and a promise was made by the German

Wehrmacht, General von Blaskowitz, that no harm would come to the Polish

Jews (Richardson uprising.htm). But following the surrender, the German

occupation marked a period of rumored activities, including the burning

alive of rabbis and the mass slaughter of all the male inhabitants of

the village of Pilica (Richardson uprising.htm). The general perception

that spread within the Jewish community was that any agreement about the

safety of the Jewish populations were grossly exaggerated and a sense of

“shcrecklichkeit” or fearfulness quickly spread (Richardson


In November of 1939, Hitler called for the abolishing of the

existing military government in Poland and the creation of two

differentiated political administrations, divided by regions (Richardson

uprising.htm). The regions to the west and north were3 annexed by the

German Reich and the regions of central Poland were defined as the

“Generalgovernment,” including four districts: Cracow, Radom, Warsaw

and Lablin (Richardson uprising.htm). The Generalgovernment consisted

of more than 36 thousand square miles and included a population of over

11 million, 1.4 million of whom were Jews (Richardson uprising.htm).

Reinhard Heydrick was the central figure in charge of the task of

ethnic cleansing of the population and there were clearly three

different populations being addressed by Heydrick: the political

leadership, who were sent to concentration camps; the intelligentsia,

who were imprisoned; and the Jews, who were placed in the ghettos, for

what was called “re-education” (Richardson uprising.htm).

Unfortunately, some of the other distinct methods for controlling the

Jewish population were hidden by other agendas, including the

establishment of the Judenrat, or “Jewish councils” that were created in

some ways to make acceptable the many necessary steps towards

exterminating the Jews all together (Richardson uprising.htm). For

example, one of the first orders of the Nazis to the Judenrat in Warsaw

was the organization of a census, which was conducted in October of


The census gave the Nazis the information they needed to put into

place a plan for the extermination of the Jews. The census found that

there were at least 359,827 Jews in Warsaw and that many of them were

land and business owners who still maintained a capacity for personal

livelihood (Richardson uprising.htm). As a result, the Nazis determined

the necessity for removing any immediate source of income and livelihood

for all of the Jews in Warsaw as a part of the process of “cleansing”

and determined a plan to exclude the Jews from the Polish economy

(Richardson uprising.htm). In August of 1940, the Nazis announced that

the city of Warsaw would be divided into three separate districts by

ethnicity: German, Polish and Jewish (Richardson uprising.htm). The

relocation of the Jews into the Warsaw ghetto occurred almost

immediately, and between October and November of 1940, the mass

resettlement of the Jewish community occurred in a systematic manner

(Richardson uprising.htm).

By June of 1941, the Nazis had constructed a prison in the Jewish

Ghetto for Jewish “criminals” and by May of 1942, the prison had some

1,300 detainees (500 of whom were children)(Richardson uprising.htm).

But the Jewish prison was just one of the many institutions introduced

to further oppress the Jews. The lack of food and food distribution in

the ghetto resulted in the systematic starvation of the ghetto

population, and it was recognized that the German’s were selective in

any aid they provided, clearly avoiding any support to the Jewish

community. Between September of 1939 and June of 1942, statistics

suggest that as many as 100,000 deaths occurred as a result of

starvation (Richardson uprising.htm). Life in the ghetto was perceived

by many to be a death sentence. “Death from starvation is a gradual

process in which only 50 percent of the population is affected.


Between 1940 and 1943, the German’s systematically participated in

the mass deportation of many of the Polish Jews, and the population of

the Warsaw Ghetto decreased considerably. At the same time, the

German’s also cut rations and the availability of food and medical

supplies to the region, creating what some have described as a process

of “indirect extermination” that resulted in the death of tens of

thousands of Jews over a period of less than two years (Richardson

uprising.htm). In 1941 alone, 43,000 Jews died in the Warsaw Ghetto

(Richardson uprising.htm). By 1942, the population of the Warsaw Ghetto

was down from some 550,000 following the German occupation to just

70,000, many of whom were demoralized and hiding (Howe 29).

The mass deportation of the Jews occurred as a systematic process

through out much of occupied Europe, and was integrated into a view of

the transformation of many communities under ghettoization. As a

result, the overall opposition was reduced and there was a general

perception of the acceptance of the death marches as a component of the

relocation process. Many people did not know that they faced

extermination, but instead perceived the death marches as a relocation

process that went hand in hand with the increasing development of the

Jewish ghettos.

Some social theorists have argued that the narratives of the death

marches, including the reflections outlined in Elie Wiesel’s Night,

often relate an initial sense of fear relative to the dissolution of the

Jewish community, but not a fear that the end results of these marches

would be the mass extermination of the population (Schwarz 221). It was

not until individuals like Wiesel experienced the death marches and

understood the kind of systematic violence that would be commonplace

that fear actually nullified any sense of existing faith or hope. Of

the initial transport process, Weisel wrote:

The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of

their darkness in our souls. The train was traveling slowly,

often stopping for several hours and then setting off again.

It never ceased snowing. All through these days and nights

we stayed crouching, one on top of the other, never speaking

a word. We were no more than frozen bodies. Our eyes closed,

we waited merely for the next stop, so that we could unload

our dead (Weisel 94-95).

The marches themselves, which sometimes took place under the dark of

night and over the course of days, were horrific experiences were acts

of violence, torture and murder were committed with great regularity and

without any kind of humanization or any sense of remorse.

Memorialization of the events that surrounded the death marches

often embraced a sense of fragmentation, based on the fact that many of

the people who were forced into these mass transport operations were

never able to walk away. Benjamin Wilkomirski, in his work Fragments,

attempts to direct a view of this kind of segmentation in the history of

the European Jews, and struggles to find a greater correlation between

personal history and the larger perspective. For Wilkomirski and others

whom have created their narratives of the death marches, the process of

developing a view of what occurred that is not negated by a sometimes

anti-Semitic historiography of the era is at the heart of issues around

expression of these events (Yudkin 485).

It has readily been recognized that the narratives of the

Holocaust, including the narratives of the death marches and even the

few stories that actually recount experiences in camps like Auschwitz

and Dachau, are defined by a correlation between fictional elements and

biographical information (Yudkin 485). Some theorists have asserted

that this perspective is defined by the prevalence of varied accounts

and the way in which the human mind attempts to dismiss the truly

horrific in exchange for what can be accepted or at least socialized.

The link between the past and present, then, in regards to the death

marches and the mass extermination of the Jews often underplays the

level of horror that was most likely a common component of the Jewish

experience during this era.


In recent years, a number of different authors have developed

their own perspectives and stories that relate the tales of their older

generations and provide a second hand account of the events that

occurred. In Ozick’s The Shawl, for example, the author presents the

story of a young woman, Rosa, and her experiences during the Holocaust,

a story that relates to the history of the author, the families

retelling of Holocaust experiences and the sense of greater concern for

the overall view of the events that occurred rather than just a

narrative of what can be perceived after years of separation from the

terror (Lehmann 29). The simplicity of the story, which integrates past

and present components, demonstrates the way in which the Holocaust

experience dictated changes in many of the survivors’ lives.

Unfortunately, the ability of the survivors of these events to create

viable depictions of their experience has been relatively limited, and

it is more common for family members to have defined an approach to

recreating the events of the Holocaust and presenting sometimes typified

perspectives on what occurred.

There is no way to deny the level of destruction caused by the

Holocaust or reduce the impacts on the lives of survivors to simple

sentence about the atrocities that occurred. But the violence and the

degradation that was inherent in the ghettoization of the Jewish

communities through out occupied Europe and the increasing sense that

Jews were perceived as “vermin” rather than as a part of humankind is at

the center of most narratives of the Holocaust created by survivors.

While it may be possible to ignore the kind of physical violence that

occurred based on the need for emotional separation, there is no way to

deny the historical content of the events surrounding the ushering of

hundreds of thousands of Jews into the death camps and the mass

extermination of most. The few survivors, though careful in their

perspective, often demonstrate the complexities related to a retelling

of the Holocaust story.

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