Death marches

The SS abandoned Auschwitz in mid-January 1945. Most prisoners were forced on marches, with little food or protection against the biting cold. Many collapsed or were shot. Those who made it faced lethal train journeys further west. An estimated 25 per cent – around 15,000 men, women and children – died during the marches and train transports. Among the survivors was Thomas (Tommy) Buergenthal, a ten-year-old Jewish boy who made it to Sachsenhausen. Here he told his story to the Norwegian prisoner Odd Nansen, who recorded it in his diary. Nansen feared that the boy would not leave the camp alive; but against the odds, Tommy survived.

105 – Ten-year-old Thomas Buergenthal on the Auschwitz death march

Monday, 26 February 1945

[…] Yesterday, as usual on Sunday, I was in the Revier [infirmary]. First I went to see my youngest friend Tommy […].

This time he told us a little about the transport from Auschwitz […]. The first three days they walked. They had been given some food to take with them, including tinned meat. That was stolen from him right at the start. The blanket he was carrying he threw away; it got too heavy. He walked with several other little boys of his own age. They were alone in the world too – their parents dead, in all probability. Alone in the world, on a prison transport, at 10 years old! After three days’ march, they were stowed into railway cars, 200 in each car. The cars were open, but had walls. The prisoners stood up, squeezed together, as many as there was room for. So one can imagine what it was like for the little 10-year-olds – right down among the legs of the grown people. The transport took place in the worst period of frost, and took 12 days. The child says people were dying all the time, and that every time someone died the others were glad, for then there was more room. The dead were thrown overboard at once, or another common thing was to sit on the bodies. […].

​ I cried terribly

“And you, Tommy, were you very cold?” “Terribly! And I cried terribly. But my hands didn’t freeze!” He was proud and glad of that […]. “But my feet!” and [he] made faces to show how much his feet had hurt. […]

Only he was in such a hurry, such a great hurry to get up and be well. “But why?” I asked. “You have the time to yourself, and then as long as you stay here you’re safe!” He looked at me – almost tolerantly – with those big, sagacious eyes of his and said, “Yes, but if this camp is evacuated – what then? If I’m still lying here and can’t run, what will they do to me?”

No, indeed, it wouldn’t be much use trying to deceive this 10-year-old or to “cheer him up” on false grounds. Poor little Tommy, what will become of him?

Source: O. Nansen, From Day to Day (Nashville, 2016), pp. 524–5 (emphasis in the original)