The Death Marches

The Prisoner Death Marches from Auschwitz and the Auschwitz Sub Camps West to the Altreich – January 1945.

On January 17, 1945 there were 33,035 male prisoners and 2,097 female prisoners in the Auschwitz III-Monowitz sub camps,[1] [2]. In addition, there were 814 male prisoners and 650 female prisoners in the agriculutural sub camps of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The total number of prisoners on January 17, 1945 in all of the Auschwitz sub camps was 36,596. This represents some 53% of the 66,878 prisoners in the complex of Auschwitz camps at January 17, 1945. [3]

Preliminary evacuations of the sub camps had taken place in the autumn and winter of 1944 when some Polish and Soviet prisoners were transported back to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau and onwards to concentration camps in the Altreich. The Polenaktion (Polish Operation) had already begun in March 1943 with the aim of significantly reducing the number of Polish and Soviet prisoners in the concentration camp on former Polish soil, Auschwitz. The Germans were  concerned about Polish and Soviet prisoner escapes, uprisings and interaction with the local Polish resistance. [6] 

Orders to finally dissolve and evacuate the sub camps were issued to the Lagerführer on-or-around the 17th January 1945. The precise details of these orders is unknown but it is likely that they were similar to those issued in other areas and to other camps, “ To the degree that the situation on the front makes it necessary, timely orders must be issued for the complete emptying of the prisons. Should an unforeseen development of the situation make it impossible to transport the prisoners, their liquidation is ordered with the proviso that the bodies of those shot must be removed to the degree possible (burning, dynamiting buildings, etc) In such a situation, the Jews employed in armaments factories or elsewhere must be dealt with in a similar way. Under no circumstances should a situation arise in in which either prisoners or Jews are liberated or fall into enemy hands, regardless of whether this is resistance movement bands or the Red Army.” [4]

Prisoners were formed into columns and marched out of the camps from around the 17th January 1945. Most of the prisoners were marched on foot to collection points in Gliwice and Wodzisław Śląski from where the prisoners were transported by rail to concentration camps in the Altreich: Mittelbau-Dora, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg, Ravensbrück, Bergen-Belsen.

Other prisoners were marched on foot to Gross-Rosen concentration camp and its sub camps in the Central and Western Sudetenland and also to the concentration camps in the Altreich. The forced marches to Gross-Rosen were the longest death marches (around 275 km) on foot and resulted in the highest number of deaths as the already weakened prisoners succumbed to the harsh winter and lack of food or were shot by SS guards when unable to keep up.

The evacuation of the prisoners from the sub camps did not proceed in a consistent manner. The likely orders received by the Lagerführer of the sub camps were to move the prisoners west to concentration camps in the Altreich; no prisoners were to be left behind or to be allowed to fall into Soviet hands. These orders were not consistently applied and the treatment of prisoners unfit to leave the camp on the death march varied. In some sub camps the ill and sick were killed; in others they were left behind to be liberated by the Red Army; in others the ill and sick were forced onto the death march.

In Arbeitslager Althammer 150 sick prisoners were left in the camp and liberated by the Red Army; around 60 prisoners too sick to go on the death march remained in Arbeitslager Janinagrube and were liberated by the Red Army on 25 January 1945; several dozen sick prisoners were left in Arbeitslager Jawischowitz; in the sub camp Eintrachthütte prisoners unfit to march were left behind in the sub camp and were liberated by the Red Army; hundreds of sick prisoners were left behind in Monowitz.

In Arbeitslager Blechhammer many of the sick who had been left behind were shot by returning SS guards; prisoners unable to march were killed in the Arbeitslager Charlottegrube sub camp; in the Arbeitslager Fürstengrube retreating SS troops set fire to the barracks in which the sick prisoners were housed; in Arbeitslager Gleiwitz IV after the column had left the sub camp, SS-Unterscharführer Otto Lätsch and a group of Nazis set fire to the infirmary with the sick prisoners inside; in Arbeitslager Tschechowitz-Vacuum the 100 or so prisoners unfit to march were shot and their bodies burned; before the prisoners left the sub camp Plawy on 18 January two female prisoners too ill to march were shot by the Lagerführer in the accommodation barracks.

In other sub camps for example Arbeitslager Laurahütte all prisoners sick or otherwise were forced onto the death march. In two of the sub camps in Czechoslovakia, Freudenthal and Lichtewerden the SS guards fled the camps and the prisoners were liberated by the Red Army.

Those unable to keep up with the column on the forced marches were shot by the roadside. On the death march from Leszczyny to Gross-Rosen concentration camp it is estimated that approximately 1,000 of the 2,500 prisoners who set out from the sub camps died or were shot en route. In contrast on the two foot marches from the Auschwitz main camps to Gliwice of around 40,000 prisoners, which included some sub camp prisoners, it is estimated that only a few hundred perished.

Transportation from Gliwice and the Gross-Rosen concentration camp to the concentration camps in the Altreich was by rail in open trucks and cattle trucks. In the harsh winter many prisoners died of hunger and exposure.

The death marches west were described in a report drawn up on February, 1 1945 in Neisse (now Nysa) by Procurator General Haffner for Reich Justice Minister Otto Thierack: “The evolution of the situation in Upper Silesia is apparent in today´s joint report, to which I refer. Rapidly developing events cannot fail to influence the transport of prisoners. The planned marching routes are partially unusable because the streets are blocked or within the range of enemy activity. The blocking of the streets results from the partial evacuation of 1,500,000 civilians from the endangered areas in marching columns. Unforeseen motor vehicle columns are travelling in a westward and south-westward direction on the few main roads. In addition, there are withdrawing columns of Wehrmacht and Police. Yet almost 50,000 male and female Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners and thousands of English and Soviet POWs are being sent along these same roads. I have been informed that, of columns numbering 3,000 POWs, 1,000 arrive at the destination. In the complete confusion that prevails on the roads, which is made worse by enemy air attacks, I regard this as completely possible. There are no words to describe the scenes occurring before our eyes. The road is strewn with the countless bodies of the dead, fallen horses, and overturned vehicles. The situation became greatly exacerbated from January 20 to 23. Namely, according to information from the head of Security Police, things reached the inconceivable point where 8,000 to 9,000 concentration camp prisoners could not be transported and were left without supervision.”[5]

Upon reaching the concentration camps in the west many prisoners were assigned to their sub camps. Many prisoners were moved around three or more Stammlager and sub camps as the front closed in from the east and west. Already weakened by more than a month on the road and the privations of the concentration camps many prisoners succumbed. Surviving prisoners were marched to the north coast of Germany, or to the south to Dachau, Flossenbürg and their sub camps. Others ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where thousands died in the last weeks before liberation by the British army. Other prisoners ended up in Neustadt in Schleswig on the prison ship SS Cap Arcona moored in the Bay of Lübeck in April 1945. The Cap Arcona was sunk by the British Air Force on 3 May 1945 and most prisoners did not survive.

We present on this website a list and maps of the main death march routes of prisoners from Auschwitz and its sub camps. On the Survivors section we also present a table of Jewish survivors from the Warthegau and trace their deployment in the Warthegau labour camps through to their transfer to Auschwitz and its sub camps and finally the death marches west to the concentration camps in Germany and liberation for the lucky few.


[1] The prisoner numbers at January 17,1945 are sourced  from the testimony of former Auschwitz prisoner Otto Wolken, 22nd June 1945. Viewed 10 August 2019 https://www.zapisyterroru.pl/dlibra/publication/3755/edition/3736/. Wolken discovered the final prisoner count for the Auschwitz complex at January 17, 1945. Wolken provides the number of male  prisoners in the Auschwitz complex including exact numbers for the male prisoners in the Auschwitz III-Monowitz sub camps and the agricultural sub camps of Auschwitz II-Birkenau on January 17, 1945. The female prisoner numbers for the Auschwitz III-Monowitz sub camps are sourced from the Auschwitz III-Monowitz female prisoner strength reports at 30 December 1944. The female prisoner count in the agricultural sub camps at Janaury 17, 1945 are estimates. 
[2] According to Danuta Czech the prisoner numbers in the Auschwitz III-Monowitz sub camps on 15 January 1945: 33,037 male prisoners and 2,044 female prisoners and on 17 January 1945 33,023 male and 2,095 female prisoners. Danuta Czech, A Calendar of the Most Important Events in the History of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp [in:] Auschwitz 1940-1945 Vol. V, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Oświęcim 2000, p. 226-227.
[3] According to Danuta Czech the prisoner numbers in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp: 15,325 male prisoners and 16,421 female prisoners, total 31,746. Danuta Czech, A Calendar of the Most Important Events in the History of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp,  in Auschwitz 1940-1945 Vol. V, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Oświęcim 2000, p. 227. It is not clear whether Danuta Czech´s number for the total number of prisoners in the Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau camps at January 17, 1945 include the agriculutural sub camps of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. We have assumed for the purposes of this study that they do. 
[4] Strzelecki, Andrzej, The Evacuation, Liquidation and Liberation of Auschwitz, [in:] Voices of Memory 1, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum 2008, p. 57. Decree of July 20, 1944 from the commander of the pólice and security service of the General Government on the evacuation and liquidation of prisons and compulsory labour camps for Jews.
[5] Strzelecki, Andrzej, The Evacuation, Liquidation and Liberation of Auschwitz, [in:] Voices of Memory 1, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2008, p. 64.
[6] Piper, Franciszek, Auschwitz Prisoner Labor, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 2002, p. 324-325.

Further Research

Tiergarten4Association e.V. propose to complete the research and analysis of the approximately 500 files of Warthegau labour camp survivors we identified in the ITS in Arolsen. We would also extend the research to other survivor sources. Further research on the records of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is also required in relation to the transports arriving in Auschwitz in 1943. Danuta Czech´s, Kalendarz wydarzeń w KL Auschwitz provides details of transports arriving and prisoner numbers allocated to those selected for work. We have confirmed from the prisoner numbers allocated in Auschwitz to the Warthegau labour camp Jews match those allocated to prisoners on the specific transports we identified. However it is not clear that these transports and prisoner numbers allocated only relate to transports from the Warthegau.

Our research so far has concentrated on the Jews of the Warthegau. This is but one category of prisoners who were sent to the Auschwitz sub camps. Other categories of prisoners included:

  1. Jewish forced labourers from the Organisation Schmelt camps in Silesia,

  2. Jewish forced labourers from camps in the General Government,

  3. Jews from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece and from all over Europe transported with their families to Auschwitz and selected for work,

  4. Political prisoners from all over Europe,

  5. Soviet civilians and former prisoners of war,

  6. German criminals.

We would like to extend the research to all the survivors of the Auschwitz sub camps based on the records of the International Tracing Service (ITS) now called Arolsen archives in Bad Arolsen in Germany and other sources.

The Death March Routes From the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex – January 1945

Source: Strzelecki, Andrzej, Ewakuacja, likwidacja i wyzwolenie KL Auschwitz, Oświęcim 1982.
Most important evacuation routes of prisoners from Auschwitz in January 1945.
Map of death march from Goleszów to Wodzisław Śląski.
Map of death march from Auschwitz to Wodzisław Śląski passing through Żory.
Map of death march from Auschwitz to Wodzisław Śląski passing through Jastrzębie Zdrój.