Excerpt from David Herman’s autobiography: The Death March
The next day the train was approaching the town of Chemnitz when the American planes attacked again. The dive bombers made some direct hits on the train and on the railway station in the town. The train was brought to a standstill. Some SS soldiers jumped off the train and ran to hide in bomb shelters.
When we saw that there were no guards, we all left the train and ran into some nearby woods to look for food. As Vrumi and I headed away from the train, we saw dozens of German teenage boys, who belonged to the “Hitler Yugend” or “Hitler Youth”. They were lying in the tall grass, trying to shoot down the American planes with rifles.
My brother and I saw a small farmhouse. We went and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. The door was unlocked, so we went in. There was no one in the first room, so we walked through into the next room.
There was an old man sitting in a rocking chair. We said to him in German that we had had no food for five days and we begged him to give us some food. He looked at us suspiciously, but did not utter a word. Then he got up, walked into a different room, and came back pointing a rifle at us. He shouted “Don’t move!”
He must have raised the alarm, because suddenly a group of about a dozen of the Hitler Youth teenagers came bursting into the room, all with rifles. They ranged in age from about 12 to 14 years old, and began shouting at us “Raus! Raus!” “Out! Out!” They ordered us out of the house and then took us back to the SS soldiers by the train, under armed guard.
Back at the train station, the SS were lining up prisoners who had been running in all directions after the train was hit. About 300 prisoners had been killed by the Allied bombing. Some prisoners who were found trying to hide were rounded up and shot.
Now the SS made us continue the journey on foot. There were about 2,000 of us survivors, from the 3,000-odd inmates that had been evacuated from Rhemsdorf. Several dozen SS soldiers guarded us, some walking and some bicycling. The journey ahead was to become a death march.
We had no idea where the SS were taking us. We trudged wearily along on the hard packed-dirt road, which served as a main thoroughfare in that part of Germany. We stayed to one side of the road, heading east, while a long line of traffic headed west on the other side of the road.
It seemed that the whole German population was on the move, heading in the opposite direction. There were cars, lorries, bicycles, horse-drawn carts and thousands of pedestrians. There were German Vermacht soldiers and so many civilians, including those pushing their personal belongings in small carts and baby prams. As the Allied forces closed in, the thousands of German civil servants who had been working across the nearby border, in Czechoslovakia, where fleeing back into Germany. Apparently, all the Germans wanted to get as far away from the Russian army as possible, including if this meant moving closer to the American forces.
The Germans, as I learned from other prisoners, were deathly afraid of being captured by the Russians. The Russians and the Germans were known to be equally brutal with one another in war, and neither side was known for taking prisoners. The Germans preferred the thought of being captured by Americans than Russians.
As the fleeing Germans crammed the road, the American and British fighter planes swooped down and attacked every vehicle. They strafed and machined gunned and dropped incendiary bombs. As a result there were hundreds of burnt out lorries scattered along the road and the smell of burning vehicles filled the air.
There was a great sense of desperation among the thousands of fleeing Germans. They did not look us in the eye. There were people of all ages, men, women and children. Many of the children were crying.
We prisoners did not process clearly what was happening. We saw and we observed, but just mechanically moving one foot in front of the other. But the sense of time had changed. It felt like things were speeding up. Everything was suddenly happening so quickly.
Each time the Allied planes came in low to strafe the road, we moved off the road and jumped into nearby trenches or fields. We searched in those fields for food, and sometimes got lucky by finding a carrot or potato, which we ate raw. When the planes left, we lined up on the road again and continued with our march. Some prisoners were wounded and could not carry on. Others were simply too exhausted and weak. The SS guards shot these inmates by the roadside and carried on.
During some of the Allied attacks, some prisoners sought refuge by crawling into pipes that ran the length of trenches alongside the road. The pipes were just wide enough for a person to crawl into and there were openings to the pipes at regular intervals. As soon as the attacks had ended and the SS were rounding us up, some of the German soldiers would walk over to the pipes and, without a word of warning, shoot the people hiding inside. As we resumed the march, some of the SS guards would purposely fall behind with dogs. The dogs were used to sniff out anyone who was hiding and the SS shot and killed these people in the pipes.
The terrible march went on for 18 days. Sometimes at night we slept outdoors, in the cold and wet. The SS slept under waterproof cloaks. Sometimes we arrived at the end of the day at a town where the SS arranged for us to stay in sheds or stables. If we were lucky, we got a piece of bread and grain coffee or some soup. Often we got nothing.
We started off very early each morning, and there were always many bodies of people who had died in the night.
Vrumi and I were so hungry that we began to eat anything we could lay our hands on. We ate grass, buds from the trees. We chewed on tree bark.
One night when we had all stopped at a farm and were spending the night in some sheds, I saw two brothers fighting over a piece of bread. There was a lot of noise and commotion, and some of the SS guards came over and asked what the fight was about. When they were told, one of the SS soldiers pointed his gun and shot one of the brothers dead. Then he said to the other brother “Now you don’t have to share your bread.”
As we headed into the second week of marching, prisoners began to drop like flies. People were dying from hunger and cold and exhaustion. There were dead bodies all along the road, and our group got smaller and smaller. We were joined by some new SS guards, and all the vicious young German guards left.