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The Auschwitz “Death Marches”

Early in February, US historian Marc Masurovsky paid a two-day visit to the archive of the International Tracing Service (ITS) with a view to examining its holdings on death marches. “I just wanted to gain a rough idea on the type of documents available and the value they might have for my research work“, said Masurovsky.

For about two years now, Masurovsky, researcher with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), has been focusing on a case study of the evacuations from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. The study is part of a joint project of historians and geographers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The main parties to the project are geographers from Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas, and Middlebury College, in Vermont. “A major challenge especially to us historians”, said Masurovsky. “Geographers have a tendency to require an optimum of precision and accurateness. But getting to know the landscape of the evacuations in fact helps to retrace the events.”

He cites two examples in that respect: The “marchers’” chances to flee diminished distinctly when they were faced with a bare winter landscape, and their speed decreased sharply over time and especially when the roads sloped upwards. “The concentration camp inmates recalled the death marches as more menacing than life in the camp. The survival of the “marchers” depended on their staying together as a group and giving support to each other”, related Masurovsky. “However, many of them abandoned hope entirely.”

There are few documents on the death marches. Inasmuch as the Nazis did not keep any substantial volume of records in those days of confusion and disorder, there is hardly any material on the German part that can be exploited. The key historical sources that benefit researchers are witness statements. “We strive to reconstruct the death marches as completely as possible, day by day, sometimes hour by hour, victim by victim”, explained Masurovsky. “Our goal is to grasp the event from the perspective of the people concerned and understand the awful experience they suffered.” To this end, the historian conducted in-depth field research in Poland.

After the end of WWII, the Allies—including the Soviet Union-had taken steps to investigate the death marches– an undertaking that one specific collection of documents at ITS throws light on. “On Auschwitz, however, one can hardly find any data”, observes Masurovsky. “Since they were unable to access pertinent documents, the Allies could not examine more closely the death marches in Silesia.” Although he could not compile much material on this particular subject, the American will use the ITS archive for research again later. “In my view, the archive is a gold mine”.