Furst Brothers BRATIA FÜRST
The Death March
After I visited Naftali in the hospital, I no longer saw him. In my continuous contacts with the hospital, I was told that he was alive. That was close to the evacuation of the camp. Like in similar circumstances, I faced a real dilemma: either to find a hiding place inside the camp and stay there until the tempest would be over, or join the mainstream and leave the camp. Which of the two possibilities was preferable?
In the meantime, life in the camp became destabilized, and even those in charge were unable to foresee chances versus risks. The underground inside the camp acted in both meanings of the word: within its organizational structure, the leadership not only took care of the membership; it also dug below-surface ditches and passages.
By April 10, 1945, evacuation had begun. Together with other inmates, we were ordered to leave our barracks and report at the camp’s main square. As we stood in a line-up, American aircraft were flying above our heads. Fearing an air raid, people began panicking. Some ran away, but I was stuck in the middle of a large crowd and could not move.
Later in the afternoon, every person got a loaf of bread and a portion of margarine. We were told that we should be ready for a long journey.
The Buchenwald camp was amidst the Buchenwald Forest. Fifty years after my detention, in 1995, I visited the camp. I was invited, together with other past inmates, to take part in a celebration that marked fifty years of the liberation of the camp. That was the only concentration camp I ever visited, and I saw again the beauty and enchantment of the forest that gave its name to the infamous camp.
We left the camp marching on a trail leading through the forest, on a beautiful vernal day. Everything around us was green and blooming. At the end of our nine-kilometer march we arrived at the Weimar railway station. There we were loaded, one hundred persons of all sorts and kinds, young and old, onto roofless train wagons. Because of the crowdedness we could hardly stand. Right away began quarrels among the travelers, and it did not take long until some fell dead. That happened while the train still stood in the station. Did they die because of the crowdedness or because of the quarrels, or just out of their weakness? No one would know…
At nightfall, the train began moving. The first night was not too bad, although many people could no longer stand on their feet and collapsed on each other. During the first two days of the journey, the Germans would not let us remove the dead bodies from the wagons, and the dead traveled alongside the living, keeping the total number as it was before. However, after some time a horrible smell came out of the corpses.
By the second night, adult travelers began throwing away the corpses from the moving train. That gave us a little more room on the wagon.
It was raining all along the journey. Standing on the open wagon, we got all wet. The mere advantage of the rain was that we drank its water. With more time passing, we consumed all our bread, and that was the only food which came into our mouths.
The train kept moving, with some occasional stops. As time went by, a sort of hierarchy developed among the travelers. The robust men occupied the space along the wagon’s sidewalls, which were more comfortable and better protected. Although there was not enough space for lying down, leaning on the walls was a reasonable alternative. We the children had to make do with what we had, and sit in the middle of the wagon, together with the weak and sick.
In the course of our journey I got acquainted with a Polish boy. In order for us to sit more comfortably, we leaned on each other’s back. That position was effective particularly in our night’s sleep – if sitting on the floor of an open wagon, exposed to constant rain, could be called “a sleep”. At that season, rain was extremely cold, and as we got wet, water turned into ice.
Our journey seemed endless, day after day, night after night. Hunger and cold drove people crazy. They quarreled wildly and shouted at each other, while others tried to silence them. We feared that the German soldier who was assigned to guard our wagon – each one of the wagons had such a guard – might intervene and even shoot at us.
As the train moved ahead, more and more people died. With every dead person, those who were still alive could occupy more space, as well as acquire the clothes of the dead.
It took about a week until the train stopped in what had seemed to us the middle of nowhere. We were ordered to leave the train. That was a very timely order, as the wagons were full of faeces, and dirt was all over. We could finally stretch ourselves. As we descended the wagon we saw a huge meadow in front of us. Right away we began digging with our fingers for roots, which would feed us and provide us with some liquids, but found only a few.
Nonetheless, the break itself was a great relief, and the fresh grass eased a bit our terrible hunger.
During another stop, at nighttime, several inmates jumped off the train and headed to a carcass of a horse, which was lying next to the tracks. The meat was inedible, and we could only suck some parts of it, just enough for getting a vague reminder of food. That was the only food we got during those days of horror.
One morning I woke up from what seemed to me an unusually pleasant and comfortable sleep. To my great shock, I found out that the Polish boy, my travel companion, had died during the night. He collapsed, and while I was sleeping, I stretched myself over his dead body. Suddenly, I felt lonely and lost, as he was the only soul in the whole wagon to whom I felt attached.
As days went by, people became weaker and weaker, and not every person was capable of moving his body to the wagon’s corner in order to relieve himself. That caused a great dispute: the strong men threatened the other ones by saying that anyone who would relieve himself anywhere else on the floor of the wagon would be immediately thrown out of it. They refrained to carry out the threats only because of the presence of the German soldier.
In a later course of our journey we got into Bohemia. The train stopped at a Czech railway station. We saw locals going to work. We begged them to throw over to us some food. They gave us all they had. It was not too much, but their act of humanity
was very touching. The sad point of their deed was that although they did their best to help us, we were beyond the range of their throw. Then the train got into motion, and we remained hungry.
The next stop was in another Czech town. We could hear the mayor demanding that the Germans should immediately release all non-Jewish Czechs and Slovaks who, upon leaving the train, must present the identification papers.
I instantly decided to take the chance. I stood in the line, and when my turn came I was asked how come that I, a Czech or a Slovak child, was just by myself on the train. I made up a story: my father engaged in black market, and after he was caught he was punished and deported to the camps, together with his family. Seemingly, my story sounded credible to the investigators, but at that very moment one of them said: “Okay, let’s see. Take off your pants!” I replied: “I cannot do it now. First I have to go to the toilet.” I hurried back to the wagon, fearing that my deceit would be revealed. Later I learned that only a handful of people were released.
The moment I failed in my attempt to free myself was a crucial turning point in my state of mind and body. My health went downhill, and I could hardly stand on my feet. Later I learned that those were the first symptoms of a serious illness that attacked me: typhus. I should add that already in Buchenwald I suffered from lack of minerals, because of the scarcity in vitamins and nutrients, which caused the loosening of my teeth.
That death journey began on the tenth of April and ended on the sixth of May 1945, a few days before the end of the war in Europe. During all those twenty-seven days the train moved from one destination to another, only to depart from it to the next stop. I already mentioned the “food” I ate: one loaf of bread, a few stalks of grass, and a futile attempt to suck the meat of a dead horse. I have experienced all that in rain and freezing cold.
In the last phase of the journey and on the day of our liberation I was surrounded by countless dead bodies, and I, too, felt that my whole body was falling apart…