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And These are Their Names... Identifying the Death March Victims Buried in a Mass Grave in Poland
Yad Vashem And These are Their Names... Identifying the Death March Victims Buried in a Mass Grave in Poland

Death March of Male Auschwitz Inmates

"In their tens of thousands, from all the sub-camps of Auschwitz, the masses were dragged day and night, night and day, with no rest or break… and the Germans guarding the marchers…strew their path with gunfire. Those who lagged behind were shot, and the snow engulfed their skeletal corpses."
(Ka-Tzetnik, Salamandra)

In a Christian cemetery in the village of Książenice, Poland, about an hour and a half from Auschwitz-Birkenau, is a memorial which stands over a mass grave of 45 people, victims of the death march that left Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unlike many other victims of death marches, they received a burial. The local priest, Pawel Rys, decided, for humanitarian reasons, to bury the victims and also to document their 'names' – the inmate numbers tattooed on their arms. The priest instructed the grave-digger to record the numbers. The original document is stored in the Auschwitz Archive and a copy is on display in the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem.

Together with the thousands of other inmates in the death march, they departed from Auschwitz-Birkenau on 18th January 1945. The inmates received a piece of bread, one packet of canned food between four and a blanket. They were forced to walk tens of kilometers in the freezing cold wearing rags and trudging through the snow in wooden clogs. The inmates suffered from exhaustion and dysentery, eating handfuls of snow to ease their hunger. Any inmate who became weak and dropped behind was immediately shot by the SS. After a march of approximately 59 km the inmates arrived at a train station in the city of Gliwice where 100-150 inmates were crowded into open train carriages. The inmates were transported for hours in the extreme cold of -20°C and many of them froze to death. When the train stopped, the SS guards continued to march the inmates, who had not received food for three days. On the 22nd of January the inmates neared the forest by the settlements of Mlyny and Rybnik. As the inmates entered the forest the guards began to shout that they were being attacked by partisans and began shooting towards the inmates. The site was filled with dead and injured. Residents of Mlyny used wagons to transport some of the corpses for burial in Książenice cemetery. Their funerals were held on the 26th of January and the 12th of February.

The mass grave site was known to researchers and to some Polish tour guides. The initial idea, to try to identify the victims by means of the numbers engraved on the gravestone and to erect an additional gravestone which would list their names, was raised following a visit by the Israel Security Agency. Yad Vashem joined this important initiative, as the fundamental essence of Yad Vashem is "Unto every person there is a name" (Yad Vashem Law, 1953. Clause 2: The task of Yad Vashem is to gather in to the homeland material regarding all those members of the Jewish people who laid down their lives, who fought and rebelled against the Nazi enemy and his collaborators, and to perpetuate their memory.). Even today, over 60 years after the Holocaust, Yad Vashem continues the mission to restore the names and life stories of the Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Initial research in the Auschwitz Archive revealed that 26 of the buried were Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, The Netherlands, Poland and Hungary. Five of the buried were Polish political inmates and the others were of varied nationalities. It seems that some of the inmate numbers were copied inaccurately and their information conflicts with other sources.

Thus far, 16 of the Jews buried at the site have been identified. The research has been conducted through the use of information sources already available in the Yad Vashem Archive; Pages of Testimony, community records, memorial books, etc. and so too, through additional archives in Poland, France and The Netherlands. Through these sources we have succeeded in building the life stories for a significant proportion of those Jews whose names were identified.

We appeal to anyone with a connection to the death marches or their victims, if you have any additional information about the people or of their families, please pass it on to Yad Vashem. This will be a significant contribution to the important work of revealing the names and faces of Holocaust victims and to fulfilling the imperative "Unto every person there is a name."

Do you have any additional information about this person? Contact Yad Vashem.