"Death on the March"
From "Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in
the Shadow of Mengele"
by Joe Rosenblum with David Kohn, Praeger
Dachau was an
impressive sight, with a six-foot fence of wood
and concertina wire around it. I had been
through a lot of camps by now, but I never
expected Dachau to be the last one. It was
almost as notorious as Birkenau.
"The war is closing in on the Germans. We're
going to be gassed. They'll want their revenge,"
I whispered to Hana as we marched toward the
mouth of the camp.
The weather was chilly, about thirty-five
degrees, and that seemed fitting. The other
prisoners murmured among themselves the thoughts
I had just expressed.
"The war's coming to an end. They want to get
rid of us. They just need a crematorium and a
big space to bury us," one of the men in front
of me said. "They just want to do it in their
usual way: neat and orderly."
When we marched into Dachau, we were all
shocked. Instead of being the usual model of
Aryan organization, the entire camp was in
disarray. Thousands of other prisoners had been
taken in before us. They were wandering around
aimlessly, or sitting in small ragged clusters.
arrived late in the afternoon. Like everyone
else, we didn't know where to go or what to do.
Thousands of prisoners came marching in even
after our group arrived. Dachau's satellite
camps were being emptied, and people were
running around trying to figure out what to do.
The first order of business was finding a place
to sleep. When we pounded on the barracks doors,
nobody let us in. The prisoners who had arrived
in time to grab a bunk weren't about to
Prisoners coming in after we did had the same
problems. They had been marching for several
days with no food or water, then just let loose.
It was like never-ending herds of cattle being
led into the slaughterhouse holding pens.
There was one improvement in our situation. The
Germans had cleaned out the clothing warehouses
and dumped all the garments near the mouth of
the camp. Through the years that Dachau had been
open, tens of thousands of prisoners had gone
through and left behind mountains of clothing.
The bundles were neatly packed and reinforced
with wire or rope, a typical German method. The
piles were stacked in several ten-foot-high
lumpy mounds. We welcomed a chance to change
into anything else. The clothing we'd been
wearing had rotted away from the rain, the
beatings, our sweat, and the abrasions of the
cement bags. What remained was simply cloth
strips held together by threads, with thin
ribbons of our flesh showing through.
The piles kept dwindling as people stole
clothing from them after dark. After night
cloaked our own efforts, Frank, I, and many
others dove toward the piles and pulled out
jackets, sweaters, long-sleeved shirts, whatever
we could find. There was so much clothing, we
almost looked like little kids playing in the
grownups' closet. After grabbing new clothing,
Frank and I and several other prisoners slept on
the ground in the center of camp, bundling
together so our body heat kept us warm.
Prisoners were still dying. The Germans
continued to stack corpses neatly right outside
the barracks. Most of the bodies were
gaunt-faced and even a little bloated, typical
signs of starvation. Nobody was committing
"Maybe a miracle will happen. Maybe the Germans
will give up before we die. Maybe we can
survive," I preached at people.
What gave us the most hope was feeling the
bombing tremors at night, and, deliciously,
sometimes even during the day. Hearing those
bombs explode was almost like listening to a
Conditions were wretched. Those prisoners who
had previously been in the camp had their
routine and their bunks. Those of us not so
fortunate slept outside. It was April, but the
cold had yet to leave this part of Germany and
the rain hit like ice pellets.
The disarray worsened. We were running wild. We
didn't know where to go, what to do, or how to
eat. We had to scrounge all over the camp, but
very few of us punched each other over scraps.
Most of us were old-timers and knew better than
to waste precious energy fighting.
All of us looked around, and we were unsettled.
"What are they going to do with us, Joe?" Frank
asked, a despairing look I hadn't seen before
settling on his face. "There are so many of us,
it would take them weeks just to gas us."
I just shook my head. I had no idea.
The Germans seemed as confused as we were. Every
couple of hours the air raid sirens would
shriek, and the Germans would run for cover. We
saw them jump into cars and trucks. In a chorus
of tire squeals and dust clouds, they'd head for
somewhere else, only to return when the
all-clear signal sounded. We were too weak to
escape. This kind of disarray was proof that
their discipline had broken down.
To me, this was just another camp. We were
strangers here. If they had wanted to keep us
working, they would have kept us in the small
camps. Even though I had been there only a few
days, the place was stuffed with so many people,
I didn't think they could squeeze in a pin, let
alone another human body.
We were all down to skeleton and flesh. Every
part of my ribs showed through my skin. I saw in
a pane of glass that my eyes had dulled. I was
worried. I knew I had to get food and shelter or
I would die.
Things began to change quickly on our last days
in Dachau. The public address system, long
silent, suddenly crackled. Human breath exploded
into the microphone, as someone blew into it to
make sure it worked.
"We're going to hand our cans of meat," the
tinny, anonymous voice said in German. "Line up
just inside the gate."
Suddenly the thousands of listless bodies
erupted into action and swarmed to the
designated area. Fearful the Germans would run
our of food, prisoners pushed and shoved to get
a place in line, but only a little. Nobody had
the strength to do more.
Frank and I were almost the first to get our
tins, because we deliberately stayed close to
the gate. In my experience, that was where the
Germans handed things out. After we got our
meat, Frank and I walked a distance away. I
leaned over and whispered in his ear.
I've got an idea. Everything's a mess. Let's
change clothes so they won't recognize us and
get another can of meat apiece. We'll go
Frank nodded, and I handed my can to him.
Letting someone else hold your food was the
ultimate sign of trust in these circumstances. I
took off my sweater and Frank wrapped the cans
in it. I went through the line. The cans were in
big boxes next to the guardhouse. The Germans
never looked us in the face, so when one of the
guards noted my presence, he just handed me
another can, and waved me on. I walked back
"It's your turn," I whispered.
Frank handed me the cans and went back in line
to be handed his second portion. It took a few
hours, but he got it. Then he returned, and we
ran into a shadowed corner behind some German
vehicles. We peeled back the top on one of the
cans, and the smell almost made our stomachs
cramp, it was so good.
We ate the horsemeat immediately. We used our
whole hands and stuffed it into our faces. Our
faces were smeared with fat after we were
through, but we were too hungry to care.
Besides, having the meat was dangerous because
somebody might grab it from us. At least it now
was safe in our stomachs.
After tearing through the first can, we slept on
top of the other three tins so they wouldn't be
stolen. Before dark the next day, we went off in
a corner again and ate a second can. Again, we
slept on top of the remainder.
The next day I turned to Frank and said, "We
have to eat the rest of this meat. If we don't,
somebody will steal it from us. This way, we'll
make sure we've used it ourselves."
We didn't know what was going to happen, and I
was pretty sure the Germans didn't know, either.
The day after we finished our last two cans, the
public address system again burst out an order:
"Line up. Line up," and that was it. Nothing
else. Not even a good-bye.
We started marching in midmorning in a single
column several miles long.
The first couple of days we made good time,
though we had no idea where we were going.
I looked around. We were marching briskly,
considering our malnourished condition. I almost
laughed at the guards. They were all in their
fifties. Though they all wore uniforms, they
clearly were not the pick of German manhood. The
gray hair, pot bellies, and slouching almost
made me wish for Birkenau. At least there the
Germans had trim and toned bodies, and they
commanded respect. If my own situation hadn't
been so desperate, I would have pitied the
However, they still had rifles. They also had
backpacks with a spare shirt and pants in them.
Two days after the march began, seven wagons
materialized, confiscated from nearby families.
The wagons were supposed to be drawn by horses,
but I knew from my time in the
Leichenkommandos what would happen. The
Germans grabbed a dozen prisoners and thrust
them toward the wagons. "Let's go. Let's move,"
the guards ordered, then threw their backpacks
into the wagons.
There was a rope in the middle of the space
where the horses usually were, and the men were
positioned in equal numbers on each side of the
rope. A couple more were lined up across the
back of the wagon to push. Those prisoners
peeked into the wagons; that is how we came to
know that each of the seven held the guards'
personal belongings, such as shoes, underwear,
razor blades, a shaving kit.
"Pull," one of the guards commanded those
prisoners in front of the wagon, and they did.
We kept marching, with no food, no water, for
several more days. Men were dropping by the
hundreds near the side of the road in pitiful
lumps, there to be shot whenever a German guard
took the time to bother.
Those prisoners who pulled the wagons were
exhausted quickly, and that condition could be
deadly. I figured out that if we got up while
the others were still asleep and moved away from
the wagons, the Germans wouldn't pick us for
Several days later, we began to understand where
we were headed. We could see distant mountains,
and we knew we were aiming for the Swiss border.
We couldn't figure out why they were taking us
there. As we marched higher and higher, the air
was thinning. The highway was a skinny fifteen
to twenty feet wide. I looked over the edge and
saw a long drop down. As we marched farther up
the mountains, we started seeing snow patches,
then more and more snow, with snow banks two
We were so weak we didn't know the difference
between being sick and not being sick. We had to
sleep in the snow with no blankets. More people
were dying, either falling over in their tracks
or not getting up the next day. Those who
couldn't keep marching were hit in the back by a
German rifle butt and ordered to keep moving. If
that didn't work, they were left by the side of
the road to be shot.
The war was right on top of us. All night long,
while we were sprawled out on the snow, we could
hear the heavy artillery's BOOM, BOOM, BOOM,
BOOM, and the rattle of rifle fire. I figured
the Germans were retreating to Switzerland, but
I couldn't imagine why they were taking us with
them. Throughout our sleepless night, we could
hear wagons and horses retreating, and bullets
started whistling past our heads.
We were numb. We didn't know what to think or
feel. We just couldn't figure out what they were
going to do with us.
If they're going to kill us, let them do it now,
I screamed in my mind.
The guards were tired. They were angry that they
had to push us to keep moving and that we were
so weak. They clubbed us constantly with their
The road we were on ran between two mountains.
Germans were trying to retreat down the
mountainside next to the eastern side of the
road. The Americans and British were trying to
advance along the mountain flanking the western
side. Anyone on the highway itself was
sandwiched between the two warring armies.
Sometimes at night a hot piece of shrapnel came
slicing through, shearing off a head or an arm.
The only sign would be a muffled scream. In the
morning, the bodies of the dead were left where
they fell. The injured were left to bleed to
We didn't know what would happen to us from one
moment to the next, and we had no time or energy
for pity or compassion. We were cold, wet,
miserable, and tired. Hunger bored into our
Almost all the shooting and bombing were at
night. When we got up in the mornings, the
guards instantly started smashing rifle butts
into us, screaming, "Let's move," in German. The
ones who couldn't move were left behind.
"I wish we had electric wires, so we could just
throw ourselves on them," Frank muttered one
day. I didn't argue. In fact, I felt so
defeated, I was thinking the same thing.
We passed through farm villages every couple of
miles. We saw chickens and pigs running around
the yard making noises. Our stomachs made
noises, too, as we dreamed of what kind of
cooked dishes each of those animals could
We had to figure out how to feed ourselves in
spite of the guards, or we would perish. I
watched the guards and their movements. I also
peered at the farmyards' chickens, and pigs, as
well as the garbage left for them to eat.
That night, I told Frank I had a plan.
"Listen, if we're fast on our feet, we can feed
ourselves while those German bastards aren't
looking. All we need are a little coordination
and some hand signals."
"Damn, Joe, nothing's been that easy since we
ended up in these goddamned camps. As for food,
the Germans would just as soon see us starve,"
Then, while darkness hid us, I told him my plan.
1'd noticed the guards marched backward for two
to three minutes to keep an eye on prisoners
behind them. Then they'd march face forward,
eying prisoners in front of them.
"As soon as the guards have their backs turned
toward us," I told Frank, "you or I can run off
the road and into one of the barnyards. We'll
scoop into our pockets whatever garbage has been
left for the pigs or chickens."
Frank looked at me with wonder.
"But Joe. How do we know when to get back?"
"You got to figure the guards will go through a
cycle of facing our group again before they turn
the other way. Whichever of us is still marching
will hold up his hand and pump it up and down
twice when the guards have their backs turned
again. Whoever is in the barnyard will run back
into line. Then we'll share the food with our
friends. Whoever was still marching that time
will dive into the barnyard next time, using the
The reason we could bring off this plan was that
the marching slowed whenever we reached a
village. That day, we marched through many
villages, and we succeeded in grabbing food
almost every time.
It took a certain timing. We only did it when we
were marching, because the Germans would shoot
us in a second if they saw us. We also looked
closely to make sure nobody was standing outside
the farmhouse. Frank and I were fast. We also
shared the booty with the other marchers, who
were too weak to do it themselves.
I also had a second plan for stealing food, this
time from the German soldiers.
We were going to die anyway, so why not?
Trucks carried in the guards' food every day,
dropping off sacks in the morning after
breakfast. The food sacks were put into the back
of every wagon holding the guards' possessions.
Of course the Jews were pulling each wagon, and
some were pushing from the back. The Germans now
were marching us even during part of the night.
I stole a spoon and sharpened it on various
rocks during the next few days.
During the day, we still foraged for food at the
farmhouses. We were near the end of our
strength. While we were marching, I filled Frank
in on the rest of my plan.
"Frank, when it's dark, you and I will push one
of the wagons. We'll slit the food sack with the
spoon edge, eat the food, then throw the sack
into a ditch so they won't be able to trace
where it went. They won't be able to see what
Frank smiled the biggest smile I had seen from
him in months. It worked.
The first night we positioned ourselves so that
we pushed one of the wagons at night. We knew
which bag had the food because we could smell
the salami. Frank slit the food bag, and we
started eating as we pushed. We kept eating and
eating. We slipped the rest of the food into our
shirts and pants, then threw the bag away.
Later, after we'd stopped pushing and were lying
down for the night, we shared our food with our
"Where did you get this food?" they would ask,
with a gasp.
"Don't ask questions. Just eat, eat, eat," we'd
tell them. They grabbed the food and stuffed it
into their faces.
The next night we felt bolder after having
pulled off our little trick, so we slit open two
food bags in a wagon. The line crookedly
stretched out for eight or ten miles, so nobody
was watching the wagons very closely.
As I tossed each bag into the ditch, I thought:
Let the German bastards feel what it's like
to go hungry. Let them feel their bodies get
colder and colder because they can't fight off
the chill. Let them feel wet and cold, just as
we do and have for several years.
In the morning, when the guards went to get
their food just before dawn, the sounds we heard
were so funny we could barely keep our lips
closed. Our stomachs ached from working so hard
to contain our belly laughs. The guards ran from
one wagon to another, looking for their food
supplies. Of course we'd already eaten them.
They screamed at each other: "Dumbkopf. Dumbkopf.
You've forgotten which wagon you put the food
in? Now we're not going to get anything to eat."
The other guards shrugged and threw up their
hands. We giggled, quietly.
Frank and I did this trick three times. We
didn't want to overdo it. Meanwhile, the bombing
was getting worse. At night we could hear "Kerwump,
kerwump, kerwump," as the bombs landed and
exploded. Every morning when I got up, I noticed
the rapidly thinning ranks of the guards. They
were deserting in droves.
We didn't have that luxury. We were getting
rail-thin and so weak our marching line became
increasingly strung out. Every morning, more
people had died. With gusty winds, pellet-hard
rain, and a thin coating of snow covering
everything, we were miserable.
"They still don't know where they're taking us,
so they just might shoot us all," I whispered to
Sometimes we slept by the side of the road,
sometimes in the forest. It was too cold and wet
to actually sleep, so we just shivered. When we
got up in the morning, there were always
hundreds of corpses sprawled there, mouths open.
The Germans didn't have to shoot us. Hunger and
exhaustion did the job for them.
We had started with about 120,000 people, and we
were down to about 80,000. The line was
stretching out even farther because people were
slowing down, they were running out of strength.
The weather was getting worse, with lots of rain
mixed with snow. The remaining guards wielded
their rifle butts mercilessly.
When I looked down at the rest of the marchers,
some of them were so far behind they resembled
pinpricks on the landscape. Many of us were
still living. That isn't what the Germans
wanted. I spoke what the others were thinking:
"Look, just because we have survived so far
doesn't mean the Germans will keep us alive. The
closer we get to Switzerland, the likelier it is
they'll gun us all down as revenge for losing
the war, then run across the border."
Everyone who heard me nodded his head. It was
inconceivable that the Germans would let us
We had been on this march for nearly ten days.
As bad as the days were, the nights were more
fearful when we heard the Americans and French
bombing and shooting. I knew who was bombing
because I could hear the guards talking.
"We're surrounded. We don't know where we're
going or what we're doing.
We don't know what the hell we're going to do
with all these Jews. We just have to keep going
toward the border," the guards said, never
The piercing whistle of heavy artillery over our
heads now was close to nonstop at night.
"Let's press ourselves as close to the ground as
possible in the ditches," I whispered to our
group. "If you have to scoop out some snow so
you can lie even flatter, then do it. It might
save your life for another night."
After about the twelfth day, the killing got
even worse. The Germans marched us to a place
where a mountain stood next to a highway. The
mountain was covered with snow, and the snow was
piling up in thick, fluffy mounds, making
passage almost impossible, so the retreating
German army congregated where we were.
They had wagons drawn by huge Belgian horses and
they were stopping there for the night. They had
food, of course. We didn't see their wagons
coming then, because this was evening. When the
guards stopped us that night, they barked: "Lie
low. Lie low. We're going to stay here." They
didn't tell us why we were stopping and they
didn't hold a meeting to ask our opinions.