Late in the war, the tide had turned against the Germans. The Soviet Red Army was reclaiming territory as they pushed the Germans back. As the Red Army was heading for Poland, the Nazis needed to hide their crimes.
Mass graves were dug up and the bodies burned. The camps were evacuated. Documents destroyed.
The prisoners that were taken from the camps were sent on what became known as "Death Marches" (Todesmärsche). Some of these groups were marched hundreds of miles. The prisoners were given little to no food and little to no shelter. Any prisoner who lagged behind or who tried to escape was shot.
By July 1944, Soviet troops had reached the border of Poland.
Although the Nazis had attempted to destroy evidence, in Majdanek (a concentration and extermination camp just outside of Lublin on the Polish border), the Soviet Army captured the camp nearly intact. Almost immediately, a Polish-Soviet Nazi Crimes Investigation Commission was established.
The Red Army continued to move through Poland. The Nazis started to evacuate and destroy their concentration camps -- from east to west.
The first major death march was the evacuation of approximately 3,600 prisoners from a camp on Gesia Street in Warsaw (a satellite of the Majdanek camp). These prisoners were forced to march over 80 miles in order to reach Kutno. About 2,600 survived to see Kutno. The prisoners that were still alive were packed onto trains, where several hundred more died. Out of the 3,600 original marchers, less than 2,000 reached Dachau 12 days later.1
On the Road
When the prisoners were evacuated they weren't told where they were going. Many wondered whether they going out to a field to be shot? Would it be better to try to escape now? How far would they be marching?
The SS organized the prisoners into rows -- usually five across -- and into a large column. The guards were on the outside of the long column, with some in the lead, some on the sides, and a few in the rear.
The column was forced to march - often at a run. For prisoners who were already starved, weak, and ill, the march was an incredible burden. An hour would go by. They kept on marching. Another hour would go by. The marching continued. As some prisoners could no longer march, they would fall behind. The SS guards in the rear of the column would shoot anyone who stopped to rest or collapsed.
I was putting one foot in front of the other mechanically. I was dragging with me this skeletal body which weighed so much. If only I could have got rid of it! In spite of my efforts not to think about it, I could feel myself as two entities - my body and me. I hated it.2
--- Elie Wiesel
The marches took prisoners on back roads and through towns.
I have a curious, unreal feeling. One of almost being part of the grayish dusk of the town. But again, of course, you will not find a single German who lived in Prauschnitz who ever saw a single one of us. Still, we were there, hungry, in rags, our eyes screaming for food. And no one heard us. We ate the smell of smoked meats reaching our nostrils, blowing our way from the various shops. Please, our eyes screamed, give us the bone your dog has finished gnawing. Help us live. You wear coats and gloves just like human beings do. Aren't you human beings? What is underneath your coats?3
--- Isabella Leitner
Many of the evacuations occurred during the winter. From Auschwitz, 66,000 prisoners were evacuated on January 18, 1945. At the end of January 1945, 45,000 prisoners were evacuated from Stutthof and its satellite camps.
In the cold and snow, these prisoners were forced to march. In some cases, the prisoners marched for a long duration and were then loaded onto trains or boats.
We were given no food. We lived on snow; it took the place of bread. 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.4
--- Elie Wiesel.