The Other Camps
A group of about six dozen young men from Zolynia were selected for slave labor at Pelkinie. For nearly two years, they would move as a group through a series of camps, until some were split off in late 1944.
From Pelkinie, the group was trucked to the labor camp at Biesiadka, where there was a lumber operation (on the way to the camp, their last remaining valuables and possessions were confiscated by the Germans as the fee for being allowed to work). Slave laborers uprooted, cut and hauled trees under the supervision of the SS and Ukrainian guards. Prisoners were worked eighteen hours a day, every day. The 700 prisoners at Biesiadka were fed only turnips in a thick broth, which made many ill. If an inmate could not leave the barracks to work, they were not seen again when the others returned.
By the end of March 1943, not as many workers were needed to do forestry at Biesiadka and the Gemans began transferring groups of prisoners to other camps. The inmates from Zolynia, kept together under the same Kapo (crew foreman), were transferred to the Huta Komorowska camp. This was another logging operation, which in the spring of 1943 had about four hundred prisoners. Samuel Stimler of Rzeszow arrived at the camp at about the same time as the Zolynia group and said in a 1995 interview: "This is my picture of how hell looks." 700 prisoners slept on floors of barracks infested with vermin, many sick with typhoid. Even women in the camp were put to work cutting trees and were frequently beaten.
At both logging camps, William (Wolf) Katz of Zolynia recalls being able to occassionally sneak out under the wires (he would dig a hole and cover it up during the day and come back at night). Once out, he could go to local farmers, all Christian Poles, and beg for food. Back in the barracks, this donated food, usually kasha and other grains, was mixed with water and cooked by the prisoners on a few bricks. The extra nutrition was critical to their survival.
After logging production at Huta Komarowska wound down at the end of summer 1943, the Zolynia men were trucked to Pustkow, originally a logging camp and now an Industriehof, an industrial complex geared toward German war production. Prisoners repaired things (such as army trucks) and made things (such as shoes and brushes). One of the sections worked on assembling the early versions of the infamous V-1 and V-2 rockets. The Zolynia men were in a section adjacent to a camp for Polish political prisoners. Thousands died at Pustkow, from malnutrition, exhaustion, disease and arbitrary killings.
In late July 1944, with the Soviet Army about to cross the San River into former western Galicia, the Germans prepared to evacuate Pustkow and most of the other nearby camps. The Zolynia men were assembled and once again sorted by the Germans. Some men were separated out and went to a different camp than the main group. The rest of the prisoners were crammed into train boxcars. Polish prisoners were sent to the Ravensbruk and Sachsenhausen concentration camps in Germany. The Jewish prisoners travelled for three days on the trains, with no food or water, and arrived on August 1 at the enormous camp complex called Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Birkenau (Auschwitz II)
Still a group of several dozen men from Zolynia and nearby towns, they were taken to Birkenau, often referred to as Auschwitz II. Like Belzec, Birkenau was an extermination camp. The SS applied lessons learned at Belzec and the other Operation Reinhard camps at Birkenau, increasing the efficiency and volume of the killing operation. Between April and November 1944 alone, an estimated 585,000 Jews arrived at Birkenau. Three-quarters of those who were taken off trains or trucks there were killed immediately, almost all in gas chambers. This included all children, all older prisoners and anyone who appeared unfit to work. Those in the Zolynia group were registered as prisoners for slave labor at one of the forty satellite camps.
The Zholiners spent three weeks in Birkenau. During that time they were issued striped uniforms, had their heads shaved and their arms tattooed with Auschwitz identification numbers. There was still a labor operation at Birkenau; the gas chambers and crematoria were in another section, past the forest of birch trees. Each day their were roll calls, during which the weakest were culled from the group. The group was again put on trucks and sent to the Gleiwitz complex, a sub-camp of "Auschwitz III" at nearby Monowitz.
The camp near the Polish villages of Monowice (renamed Monowitz by the Germans during the war) and Buna had been a satellite of Auschwitz-Birkenau, under control of the commandant there. By 1944 it had been spun off as its own camp with its own system of 28 satellite labor camps, including four at the city of Gleiwitz (the current Polish name is Gliwice). Gleiwitz was located just inside pre-war Germany, on the border with Poland. In a sense, the Second World War began there when, on August 31, 1939, the Germans staged a phony Polish military raid on the radio station there and used it as a pretext for invading Poland. the inmates at Gleiwitz I, II, III and IV mostly were put to work at war production, producing synthetic rubber, liquid fuel and other materials.
The Zolynia group was trucked to Gleiwitz III, put to work in an adjacent factory that made weapons, munitions and railroad wheels. Some of the Zholiners unloaded train cars filled with metal plates used to make sea mines. The materials were considered essential to the German war effort, which reduced the chances of random killings because it was important that the work continue. With the Soviets advancing fast, German workers had been moved west and were replaced by prisoners. The Zolynia men occupied a large hut that had been used by German workers. For the first time, they were sleeping on mattresses instead of the floor.
Nearly all the prisoners at Gleiwitz III were Jews, and there was a separate camp holding thousands of female prisoners assigned to work in Auschwitz III factories.The work was difficult and the strategic importance of the Upper Silesia factories made them targets for Allied bombings. There were frequent rollcalls and inspections. Those deemed unable to work anymore due to exhaustion, illness or injury were immediately removed and sent to the Auschwitz II gas chambers.
Once, some men in the group found errant containers of flour and artificial honey on a train they were unloading. They mixed up a makeshift dough, smuggled pieces back to the barracks and cooked them, sometimes in the sun or on window sills. Every calorie counted and this one incident may have meant the difference between living and dying for some of the workers.
By mid-January, 1945, the Soviet artillery could be clearly heard in the east, getting closer almost each day. The Germans began evacuating all of the Auschwitz camps. The death marches began.
The Death March
The Soviet Army was advancing quickly. On January 17, the Polish capital of Warsaw was liberated and the Soviets were on the edges of Cracow, only 57 miles (92 km) east of Gleiwitz. Orders were issued in Berlin to evacuate prisoners in all Auschwitz camps and subcamps westward, into the interior of the Reich. The final rollcall records on January 17 showed 67,012 prisoners remaining in the Auschwitz I, II and III systems, including 609 at Gleiwitz III and 2,520 in the other three Gleiwitz camps. There were 35,118 prisoners at the various Auschwitz III camps, including 2,095 women.
On January 18, columns of prisoners began marching out of dozens of Auschwitz camps. The Gleiwitz III prisoners were among the last to begin marching out on January 21, surrounded by scores of heavily armed SS guards. They were heading west into the frozen German countryside, wearing only their thin striped uniforms and wooden shoes. Those who were too weak to keep up were shot and left along the side of the road. The Germans relentlessly kept up the pace of the forced march, aware that the Soviet Army was moving quickly through the countryside.
The marchers were leaving not just from Auschwitz camps, but from camps throughout what was left of German-controlled Poland. According to German records, there were 714,211 concentration camp prisoners on January 15, 1945. Most were Jews, but there were also Poles, Russians, Allied POWs and others. It is estimated that 200,000 died on various death marches in the last six months of the war in Europe. One of the columns leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 18 passed through Gleiwitz and continued marching for six weeks, until reaching Geppersdorf deep within Germany; of 3,000 marchers starting out, only 280 were alive at the end. In many columns, about one-third of the marchers died along the way.
Many of the Auschwitz III prisoners were issued a small piece of bread at the start of the march and no more. At night, the Gleiwitz prisoners, now consolidated into one column which included the Zolynia group, were made to kneel by the side of the road to sleep. "We heard shooting all the time. We were not allowed to turn our heads, but we knew what the shooting meant. All those lagging behind were shot dead," testified survivor Alfred Oppenheimer about the march from Gleiwitz at the 1961 Eichman trial. After two days, they reached the concentration camp at Blechhammer.
Blechhammer (today the Polish town of Blachownia) was another slave labor subcamp of Auschwitz III, its last 4,000 inmates had already been evacuated. The Gleiwitz prisoners were put into huts for the night. Before dawn, the men from Zolynia, still together, decided with some other prisoners that they would no longer march and would attempt to hide and escape. Taking advantage of the uneven ground, they concealed themselves beneath two of the huts, about 100 in all, including several Polish officers from among the political prisoners. At 6 a.m., the rest of the prisoners were assembled and marched out of the camp. After a few hours, the escapees emerged to find the camp empty. They shorted out the electrified wires and ran into the surrounding forest. Some of the men ran into the
Actually, the camp was not completely empty. There were were others hiding in the camp that morning (Alfred Oppenheimer himself hid in a latrine pit). Later that day, the Germans found others hiding in the camp and they were immediately shot.
In the forest, the group found two empty civilian houses. They split themselves between the two houses and hid in the attics overnight, waiting for the Soviets to clear the Germans out of the area. The men from Zolynia decided to stay together, so that any survivors could tell next of kin what happened to their loved ones. The next morning, one of the houses was surrounded by an SS patrol (they were given away by their old foreman from Biesiadka and Huta Komorowska). Marched in a column of threes into the forest for execution, the group bolted and scattered, the SS in pursuit and shooting. William Katz was shot in the head at close range by an officer with a low-calibre pistol and left for dead. However, the wound did not kill him, and he was aided by the group from the second house. Moving through the forest toward the sound of the Soviet artillery, the SS would discover them hiding in a hay barn. Most were executed instantly. Katz and a few others were not discovered and were eventually found by Soviet soldiers, who arranged for First Aid and a pass to cross into Poland.
The date was January 27, 1945.