AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU, Poland — Along a desolate stretch of road in southeastern Poland, a dozen miles from Auschwitz, there is a graveyard. Candles and fresh flowers cover nearly all the marble tombs. But in the corner stands a large black marble slab separated from the rest.
“Forty-two victims, women, men and children, prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp, who were murdered by the Nazis during the death march, and died on Jan. 18, 1945, in the village area of Miedzna were buried in a mass grave in this cemetery,” an inscription explains.
But there are only four names. Another 21 people are identified by their inmate numbers. And 17 have never been identified.
Seventy-five years ago on Jan. 27, Soviet forces swept across Poland from the east and liberated Auschwitz, the camp complex where 1.3 million were enslaved — and 1.1 million among them systematically murdered — during the war.
But before they could arrive, the Nazis force marched some 56,000 weakened prisoners out of the camp ahead of their advance, in the dead of winter, with an estimated 15,000 shot or dying of cold, hunger and illness along the way.
Similar marches were taking place all across the eastern front after the SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that all able-bodied prisoners be taken to the Reich.
Despite years of study and troves of testimony from witnesses, the chaos of that evacuation is one of the least understood periods of the Holocaust.
Himmler’s orders served several purposes, according to research by the United States Holocaust Museum. First, he wanted to eliminate evidence of German crimes and witnesses who could testify to those crimes. He also hoped to use inmates as slave labor to keep the German war going. And rather irrationally, he believed that the prisoners could be used as bargaining chips in any peace negotiations.
While death might not have been the goal of the marches, that was indeed the fate of many, as the scattered gravestones that remain along these roads today attest.
Zofia Posmysz still remembers her inmate number: 7566. Sitting in her neatly kept apartment in Warsaw, the 96-year-old survivor remembered the biting cold on the night the guards gathered thousands of women outside the gates of Birkenau, a death camp that was part of the Auschwitz complex.
“We didn’t know what it meant that we would leave the camp,” she said. “We didn’t know if we would have to undergo some sort of selection.
“We heard that those who could not walk would get to stay in the hospital, but we weren’t sure if they would be kept alive. We knew nothing and worried.”
But how could it be worse then the hell she had endured for three years? One memory came rushing back to her.
“One night, I woke up and heard someone singing outside. It was a man’s voice. I thought to myself that our guard wouldn’t probably notice if I sneaked out to have a look. I went outside and saw a man dressed in a black coat. He was singing and raising his arms in the air. Suddenly I felt someone grabbing my arm. It was a Jewish friend from the ward. She asked me: ‘Do you know what he’s singing?’”
“‘No,’ I replied. But it was hauntingly beautiful.”
“It’s a Hebrew song, a prayer for a good death,” her friend told her.
“When we woke up in the morning, there was no more singing; the square was completely empty. All we saw was the smoke coming from the crematory chimney.”
Ms. Posmysz was among those made to march. In her memory, after the first bitterly cold night, the days blend together, something Holocaust scholars say is common among those who survived.
Her next memory is arriving at the station in Wodzislaw Slaski for a train that would take her to another camp in Germany. She would be moved one more time before the end of the war. Once free, she walked for weeks until she finally made it back to her home in Krakow.
Until recently, it would have been possible to find people who lived in the towns and villages along the route who could recall seeing the columns of starving and abused prisoners flanked by Nazi soldiers walking past their homes.
Their numbers, like the survivors, grow fewer every year.
Maria Kopiasz, 93, still lives in the same house in the town of Brzeszcze that she did during the war, and the grim scene of the march has stayed with her.
“They marched in the middle of this road,” she said. “SS men on both sides. Every third of them or so with a German shepherd. I remember mainly women. We knew we couldn’t even show any sympathy as we would be taken with them. I could only watch quietly through the window.”
Jan Stolarz, a retired miner, has led a small group of people on a trek to retrace the path of one of the marches for nine years.
“I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with my wife 10 years ago,” he explained. “I saw a handwritten note left by someone in one of the barracks. It read: We live as long as the memory of us is alive. This message resonated with me strongly.”
He hopes that in some small way, his walk will help do that.
For Poles who were not Jewish, their fate during the war could turn on the smallest things.
The Germans who occupied the country had given all the Poles in Silesia a ranking based on ethnic purity, with different categories often determining whether your family lived or died.
Eryk Langer, 91, from a town called Studzionka, said that because his father was a friend of the local German mayor they felt protected and got the second highest category.
His home was along the death march route and German officers moved in during the evacuation.
He said his father asked the officers if they could give the prisoners some spare food, and it was allowed. But all they had was some buckets of water for very few people.
“They walked all day long. They were hungry,” he said trailing off. It’s an image he does not want to think about.
“In the morning we saw one prisoner shot in front of our gate,” he said. Later, he saw a horse-drawn cart going through the village collecting the dead. At least 18 bodies were collected, and they are buried in the village cemetery.
Bernard Halat, 91, also from Studzionka, said that in 1940, he and his family had to report to have their facial features measured to determined if they were Jewish. They were not, but assigned to Category IV, for people who resisted Germanization, they were still deemed undesirable and put on a list of people to be interned at a later date.
They managed to avoid the camps but Mr. Halat recalls watching the death marchers pass by his home and thinking how easily his family could have been among them.
“So many people. They walked all day long,” he said. “We were afraid.”
But he also recalled how two Jewish women escaped and hid in the village. A few years after the war ended, they returned to thank a farmer who had helped them. It was a rare hopeful story on a road full of despair.
For the millions who died during the Holocaust, including the thousands who did not die in the camps but along lonely stretches of frozen roads and snow-covered fields, their stories were buried with them long ago.