Max Kaufmann from Riga


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First-Hand Account



We marched out through the great gate of the Sachsenhausen camp. Many SS men in uniform who had been assigned to the individual marching columns were already waiting for us on the other side. One column after another began to move. They traveled along a great variety of routes, but all of them had the same destination: Rostock. I no longer thought about anything at all. I only held my loaf of bread, which was my food ration for four days, in my trembling hands and gradually I began to eat it. Because of my raging hunger I couldn't stand to wait any longer, and it was impossible for me to save these provisions for later. I had to strengthen myself in order to survive; if I hadn't, I would have simply fallen over. I marched and I ate, looking neither left nor right.

Slowly my strength seemed to return, and I felt that perhaps I would make it after all. We knew nothing about recent political events, but we realized clearly that the situation was very tense. The SS divisions forced us to march between fifteen and twenty kilometers a day; time seemed precious.

In the mornings it was still cold, but by noon it became warmer, sometimes even hot. We threw away all the blankets and similar things we had with us to lighten our loads. The whole road was already covered with the things discarded by the columns marching ahead of us. I replaced a few of my things with other ones and wound a towel around my head. On the way we met comrades who had collapsed. They were lying in the roadside ditches and waiting to be picked up. Many of them had already died.

During the day there were several breaks. Fires were made, and those who had organized potatoes for themselves tried to roast them. It was by no means easy to light a fire, for we hardly knew where we should get the wood for it. Most people teamed up in groups to cook their potatoes. In the evening we were forced into a barn, or we stayed in the open fields. The earth was damp, and so were our striped clothes. People tried to warm themselves against each other. In the effort. many fell asleep forever, and our guards' attempts to wake them with truncheons and gunshots were in vain. They were asleep forever, and nobody saw to it that they were buried. Because the whole road was covered with people in striped uniforms. we called our march the "March of the Dead". One died sooner, the other later, and hardly anyone was able to survive. The rations provided by the SS were very meager: two or three potatoes a day. They gave us nothing more. Sometimes we saw whole mountains of sugar-beets and potatoes in the fields, but the SS men did not allow us to go near them. Every expedition toward them resulted in some of us being killed. But punishment meant little to us, for we knew we had to die one way or another.

Once on this march we came upon a dead horse. The people marching ahead of us had already torn out large chunks of flesh. We didn't rest till we had organized the remains for ourselves, whatever the cost. We cut all of it into small pieces, roasted them over a lire, and thus had an unhoped-for meal of meat.

Several days later we marched into a large forest. We were ordered to stay there. All the columns. consisting of thousands of people gathered together, and we lay down on the ground to sleep. During the night the women's divisions arrived from Sachsenhausen, and they were ordered to sleep in another part of the forest. The forest was completely international. We heard a great variety of languages, and every nationality slept in its own section. We broke twigs from the trees to make fires. This had also been forbidden by the murderers. There was no talk of food; we got nothing at all to eat. Water was a further problem. Expeditions were sent to a nearby stream to fetch water. Indescribable scenes took place. Many people found their death in this stream. We heard shooting from all directions. Our "protectors" would shoot whenever they saw a prisoner too close to the fence.

For three days we sat in this forest in despair, with no food. We prepared to die of starvation. But then one evening we saw the arrival of a Red Cross truck with "Canada" written on it. How could a Canadian Red Cross truck have gotten there? We were absolutely astonished!

But it vanished just as unexpectedly as it had come. Less than an hour later a whole column or Red Cross trucks arrived. We were very excited, for we didn't know what was going on. We were told that the Americans had heard about us and were sending us food. How they could do this in the middle of Germany was a riddle to us, but without their help we would surely have died. We were happy not only about the packages but also about the fact that people cared about our fate, that we were no longer alone. Until then we hadn't known what they would do with the Jews and whether there was a plan to save us too. But the Americans made no exceptions, so each of us got a package. They distributed the packages themselves, for they didn't trust the SS people. And for our part, we made sure the SS people got nothing.

To read more of Max's story about this death march, please click here.

From Max Kaufmann's book, "Churbn Lettland: The Destruction of the Jews of Latvia."







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