The Death March of 1945|
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The Nazis exterminated six million Jews during World War II. They also murdered homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, the mentally and physically handicapped, and political prisoners. Perhaps a total of 11 million innocent adults and children were killed on Hitler's orders. Those who survived have accounts of their experiences that the rest of us will never fully understand. As difficult as it is, we need to stop, and listen, and finally learn.
These photographs concern one small group of survivors who returned to Germany in the summer of 1995.
This tower stands today much as it did in 1933 when Heinrich Himmler, the Munich Chief of Police, decided to build the first Nazi concentration camp in Dachau
April 30th,1995 was the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau, Hitler's first concentration camp. Between March 1933 and April 1945, an estimated 200,000 prisoners were interred at Dachau and its outer camps. Over 32,000 died through torture, execution, starvation, or sickness. Those who survived migrated to many parts of the world, but few have been able to leave their experiences completely behind. Over the years the healing process has taken many forms. For some, walking on German soil again has been part of this process.
As the liberation anniversary approached, thousands survivors returned to Germany and the scenes of their torment. They came to remember the past, renew old friendships, and honor fallen comrades. One group, The Association of Survivors, Landsberg/Kaufering (Outer Camps of Dachau), also came to commemorate the Death March of 1945. Uri Chanoch and Solly Ganor have been friends and neighbors for years in Israel, and lead the group together.
Most of the men in The Association of Survivors were born in Lithuania, and many have know each other since childhood. They are old now, and have come a long way together. As a result of their shared past, they exhibit a closeness few men experience. They have been through the worst there is, and somehow survived. They live is Israel for many reasons, one of the most important being their belief that a strong Jewish state will make another Holocaust impossible.
Most of the men spent the last months of the war in forced labor camps on the outskirts of Dachau. They lived in primitive semicircular arching shelters resembling Quonset huts. Food and other necessities of life were almost nonexistent. They suffered terribly throughout their imprisonment, but some of their strongest memories center on the final hours before liberation.
During the last days of the war these men were among the 8,000 prisoners forced from Dachau and its outer camps and marched toward the Bavarian Alps. Some believed they were to be part of a prisoner exchange arranged by the Red Cross. Other prisoners thought the plan was to kill them out of sight of the rapidly advancing U.S. military. It is possible the Nazis planned to use the prisoners to build fortifications in the mountains of Tyrol for a last-ditch defence. Whatever the reasons, German guards forced a brutal pace, and thousands of marchers died in just a few short days. Fortunately, the march never reached its final destination.
In the last days of April 1945, the American army swept through southern Germany. General Patton's troops were credited with liberating the main camp of Dachau, but there were other forces in the area. Elements of the Japanese American 522nd Field Artillery Battalion were heading toward Hitler's headquarters in Berchtesgarden. In the early morning, forward observers came upon strangely shaped mounds in the snow near the resort town of Bad Toelz. When the soldiers looked closer, they discovered thinly dressed creatures under the thin layer of snow. Some had been shot, some had frozen to death. Those who were alive looked like starved and beaten skeletons. The men of the Association of Survivors remember this scene vividly even after 50 years. They were among those found in the snow.
The Death March passed directly through many towns near Dachau, including Allach, Pasing, Graefelfing, Planegg, Krailling, Gauting, Berg, Icking, Wolfratshausen, Geretsried, Bad Toelz, Waakirchen, Fuerstenfeldbruck, and Gruenwald. Many marchers literally died at the front doors of townspeople. There might have been a temptation to forget this awful part of local history, but after numerous discussions and a good deal of soul searching, citizens chose another course.
The towns, lead by the mayor and citizens of Gauting, decided to mark the march route so that people passing by will know what once happened there. A competition was held, and Professor Hubertus von Pilgrim was selected to create the monuments to the victims of Nazism. The bronze statues were in place by the spring of 1995, in time for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. Although the final chapter on Germany's Nazi past hasn't been written, it appears we are moving nearer to closure. and Solly Ganor joined in their pledge to the future: Never Again. Genocide is still very much with us today, for example the recent slaughters in Africa and the Balkans. But hopefully in Germany, lessons have been learned.