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Death marches

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Toward the end of the Second World War as the British and American forces closed in from the west and the Red Army from the East, the camp authorities started the systematical evacuation and liquidation of the concentration camps in an attempt to conceal the crimes, that had taken place there.

At the point of evacuation from the camps, all prisoners who were deemed healthy enough to be of further use to the Third Reich was sent off on what later has been called death marches, where the already weakened prisoners, who had been subject to the brutality of concentration camp life, was forced to walk for many miles in the snow and bitter cold of the Polish winter, to far away railway stations. Here, they would be loaded on the unprotected cattle trucks and often transported for days without food or water. After reaching the destination of their train journey, they were again forced to start walking to new camps, deep in the heart of the Third Reich to continue working for the Nazi Germans. Any that could not keep up, feel ill or was just too weak from hunger to keep going was executed by gunshot.

Many of the prisoners who were too weak or deemed of no use to the Third Reich were killed before the death marches started by gassing or by lethal injections. Rumor of this soon spread out among the remaining prisoners and everyone who could muster enough strength to walk set off on the long march in fear of the outcome of not going.

The best-known death march took place in January 1945, as the Red Army was advancing on occupied Poland and the camp authority in Auschwitz ordered the evacuation of the main camp. This was only nine days before the Red Army reached the camp at Auschwitz. The SS set off on a death march with nearly 60 000 prisoners to cover a distance of about 35 miles to the town of Wodzisław śląski, those who made the walk to Wodzisław śląski were then loaded onto cattle trains and transported on to other camps deeper in the Third Reich. It is estimated that approximately 15000 prisoners died on this march.

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The SS command in Auschwitz sent out the order on the 17th of January 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners who were remaining in the camp, but by this point the SS had no longer the same control over the camp, and the command structure had started to fail so in the chaos of the retreat the order was never carried out. When the evacuation of the 60000 prisoners who were to march to Wodzisław śląski was completed, it left some 7500 prisoners behind in the camp that had been deemed too weak or sick to complete the walk. These remaining prisoners were liberated on the 27th of January by the Red Army. Of those 60 000 that set off on the death march from Auschwitz, there were approximately 20000 that were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and were later liberated there by the British in April.

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