The Death March of Thorn (Part 1)
Aside from this great deportation death march there were countless smaller ones, trudging along almost every road through Polish territory. Who could ever name them all, locate all the graves, tell of all the horrors their victims endured? One such death march was that from the Schrodau region, and it alone left a hundred and nine victims murdered in Turek. Another was that from the Siedlce prison to the citadel in Brest, and it left twenty-five of its members dead and dying in the ditches. A third led to the concentration camp Bereza-Kartuska, and for all its members it was a march straight to hell. Of all these countless marching columns, one of particular significance, besides Dr. Kohnert's, was the column that endured the longest march of all, namely the one coming from the Thorn region, which included among its number the well-known ethnic German leader Lengner, and with him, the equally prominent Kittler, and the well-known minister from Gursk, Dietrich.
This group was assembled in the police prison of Thorn after its members had first spent two days in the prison cells there. One of the first men to be brought in was Dr. Konrad Raapke, a factory owner from Thorn. He spends his first day alone in his cell, which incidentally is only meant for one inmate anyway, but on September 2 another seven men are crowded in with him. As it turns out, most of them are good friends of his, including Lengner, the leader of the German Association of Thorn, a short but physically very fit man in his fifties, with unusually bright eyes beneath a strikingly broad forehead. Later they are joined by Kittler, the leader of the Young German Party of Thorn. Thanks to the aid of a boilerman they manage to get in touch with their families, so that these can bring them the barest necessities before they are marched out, most importantly a backpack, readied some time ago in case of such an emergency.
On that infamous Sunday, which is sunny and hot in and of itself, their Polish captors turn the central heating system on full, and the afternoon becomes unbearably hot in the overcrowded cells. Since the eight men can barely even move in this cell meant for one, the heat is triple the torment for them, and soon their sweat runs in rivulets and their clothes stick to their bodies like wet rags. "That's typically Polish," says Dr. Raapke, with resignation. "But this time nobody can excuse it as 'an impulsive act by a hotheaded people', this time it's a deliberate, calculated dirty trick!"
Due to the heat, the air, which is used up anyway, becomes so unbearable that some prisoners begin to suffocate from the lack of oxygen. Everyone has to fight for air with every breath. Add to that the fact that the entire cell is covered in weeks-old grime, that hordes of vermin crawl the walls, and that shrieks of pain frequently resound from the other cells. Whenever new prisoners are brought in the cries of the maltreated rise to a gruesome chorus, clearly showing the other prisoners that the great Polish manhunt is taking on more and more horrible forms with each passing hour.
"Just think of what awaits us when we get out..." one of them whispers, shaking his head helplessly.
"It's odd," says Raapke, "I was still treated fairly decently when they brought me here two days ago. But since then their psychosis of hatred has taken on forms that one can really only describe as pathological."
Around ten o'clock at night, as their exhaustion is beginning to turn deadly, everyone is suddenly chased outside at breakneck speed. In sweat-soaked clothes they now stand in the frigid autumn night until everyone is horribly cold and their weakened bodies shiver like leaves. Then everyone is first relieved of all metal objects, such as pocket knives, aluminum soap capsules, cigarette lighters, even keys on their key chains. Gradually the guards also arrive. They consist of two units of junaki, a kind of organization similar to the strelzi, and the two hundred of them are led by an army Captain and several NCOs assigned to him. Just before the march-out several policemen also join the guards, so that in the end the escorts number two hundred and fifty, almost half as many as the prisoners themselves, of whom there are about six hundred. Among these prisoners there are numerous octogenarians, as well as about sixty women, one of whom has her child with her, a little girl just four years old.
Fifty men make up the vanguard, and then comes the marching column itself. To either side of the prisoners walk two rows of junaki, all of them armed with French rifles, with sharp three-edged bayonets fixed. The rear is brought up by fifty soldiers. Most of the prisoners can hardly wait until the column will finally move out, as they hope that walking will warm their shivering bodies somewhat. As the column marches off in the direction of the main train station, a few naive ones among them already expect to be entrained, but the march goes past the station and in the direction of Alexandrowo. For as long as they are still in the city streets, these prisoners as well must pass through a line-up of malicious rabble, and a few of those weakened by the heat already fall victim to their maltreatment. Speaking is strictly forbidden, as is looking around; both offenses are immediately punished by blows from truncheons. Whoever falls down with exhaustion is instantly beyond help, for giving assistance of any kind is also strictly forbidden.
Outside the city limits things improve considerably for the column of prisoners, but then the junaki begin to torment them. Especially the elderly are shoved forward time and again, and also anyone who is ill. There truly does not seem to be a heart beating in these young people's chests. And don't these unhappy people, with their bruised and beaten faces, look as though every raised hand should drop again at the very sight of them? A seventeen-year-old junak wearing the blue coverall of an apprentice mechanic has chosen a half-unconscious old woman to pick on; for the last ten kilometers he has not left her side, herds her along in front of him the entire time even though she is almost collapsing from exhaustion, and gives her countless little pokes with his bayonet. And the German men must see and watch this, watch it the entire time - and can not even raise a hand in the old lady's defense because any such movement would be tantamount to suicide. At times like this, when men are powerless, oh why do not the heavens open with a crash of thunder, to strike down such violators of nature with a bolt of divine lightning? For this here went against nature herself, and she herself should rise up against it...
The column marches all night long, arriving in Alexandrowo the next morning. In the city, black seething masses of rabble await them once again and beat them with all kinds of objects. Near the train station, quite a distance from the city, there stands a huge customs warehouse that was once used as tobacco storage hall; the prisoners are penned into it. The great wooden hall contains no straw, and so everyone drops onto the bare floor where they are allowed to rest until the evening. A couple of times, air raids on the nearby train station take place; the pressure of the bursting bombs can be felt all the way into the hall, and the crash of the explosions rings in everyone's ears for a long time. Once more the ethnic German leaders show their exemplary characters: the rations which some few still possess are distributed fairly and equally among all. In the course of the day the leaders even manage to convince the Captain to procure some carts for the sick.
At dusk the order is given to line up, and the prisoners arrange themselves in rows of four in the hall itself. But while they are still waiting to march out, an old man suddenly moans that he would not be able to walk any more. This message is immediately passed to Lengner, standing at the front, who in turn whispers back via Kittler to Dr. Bräunert that the old man should join the other sick prisoners on the cart. At that moment a man leaps out of the prisoners' ranks nearby and demands to speak to the Polish Captain, announcing that he has just overheard a dangerous conspiracy. Evidently he is one of those Poles who had been placed in each column as spies. The Captain arrives, and listens with a scowl. "Who was whispering?" he then asks.
The spy pushes his way through the ranks and first points out Lengner, then Kittler, then Bräunert, and last at a fourth man named Oliva.
"So you planned an escape, did you - were hoping to take off, all of you!" the Captain says cynically.
Lengner tells him truthfully what they had spoken about, and says that they had whispered only because speaking in and of itself was forbidden.
"If it's forbidden, then why do you do it?" yells the Commandant.
"It's a matter of someone who is deathly ill, Captain!" says Kittler calmly. He is only thirty-four years old, a strikingly tall man, his face has pronounced cheekbones and an expression of great intelligence.
"You just see to yourselves, you'll soon be deathly ill too!" the Commandant growls scornfully. Then he turns around and yells, almost falling over himself with excitement: "Out with these four dog-blooded Hitlerowkis!"
A dozen junaki surround them and force them out with blows. As he leaves, Lengner greets his faithful followers and Kittler looks his friends in the eyes one last time - an offense which the junaki immediately punish by descending on the prisoners and pistol-whipping them in the face with their Brownings. The last thing the prisoners see of their leaders are faces quickly turning red with blood - but their heads remain proudly thrown back and they do not bow even under these blows...
Right after these four are led off, the column is marched out and forced at a run up an incline, where mounted police await them. But during this run, some few of them do manage to cast a glance backwards, and they see their four leaders standing with hands raised in front of the warehouse wall; a few also hear one of the policemen rant furiously at one of the four that he should damn well raise his hands too. And they also hear the reply, the devastating reply: "How am I to raise my hands now that you've smashed my joints..."
That is the last anyone knows of the four ethnic German leaders. Since no shots were fired, they must have been killed with bayonets. And so the sad procession moves on in deep silence, deprived of its leaders and the encouragement they had known so well how to give. Their place is now taken by Reverend Dietrich who, like them, devotes himself to his task with a degree of self-denial that soon earns him the admiration of all his fellow sufferers. The column is now almost entirely mixed, a few rows of men are followed by women, but this only puts them at the disadvantage of being treated just as cruelly as the men, which had not been the case when they were segregated.
After an hour's march, shots are suddenly fired in the vanguard - have they encountered German troops after all? For the first moment the entire escort seems to think so, and a panicked fury breaks out among them like a kind of insanity. "Hands up, you swine!" they scream. "Down on the ground, you whore-sons!" roar others. "We'll liberate you, all right - you're all going to be shot now!" shriek the remainder.
The entire column immediately drops to the ground, but even that does not suffice to calm the guards. They aim their guns accurately at the dark masses on the ground, and fire rapidly into them for several minutes. Terrible screams rise from the prostrate prisoners, many are mortally hit, others thrash about with dreadful injuries. "Whoever can still raise his head, do so immediately!" a shrill voice cries, and repeats the order a dozen times or so. A few of the women comply automatically, and another round of shots rings out and hurls them back down into the dust...
Finally the shooting ceases, and the vanguard grows quiet as well. It was no Germans, it was just a sudden panicked short-circuit. "Up!" the order goes now. "Close up the ranks!" Anyone who can still get up struggles to his feet, some of them stand in pools of blood from shot prisoners, others can only get to their knees. One young woman also tries to stand up but collapses again immediately - a bullet has smashed her ankle. "Oh, just shoot me dead..." she finally cries.
"Shut up, you whore!" roars one of the junak..
"Just shoot me dead, please, please, please, just shoot me dead!" she begs anew.
"Let her have it, if she wants!" yells another junak.
"I don't shoot at women!" says the first, with a proud gesture. Oh, after all, he's a Pole, always chivalrous to the ladies...
"Well, you sure are stupid," says the other coldly. "Aren't they Hitlerowkis too?" And he walks eagerly to her, presses his rifle against her left breast, and with a scornful laugh pulls the trigger...
Gradually the rows form again. The still-living step over the dead, walk around the dying. In almost every row someone is missing. Once again new people join up to fill in the rows, and now even individual women walk in some of the men's rows. Despite this terrible "rest period" the survivors hold up as well as before, only now and then there is the sound of quiet sobbing...
Hardly has the rear of the column left the last victims on the ground behind it before a horrible spree of murder begins - every single body on the ground is carefully listened to, and if there are any sounds of breathing he or she is dispatched for good with dozens of stabs from bayonets. For a long time the prisoners walking at the end of the column still hear death screams behind them, and the quiet calm of merciful night descends only slowly over this site of horrors...
But the march itself is growing harder and harder. Did the scent of blood whip the junaki into such a frenzy that they are now dreaming up ever new torments? After a short time one gives the order that all luggage is to be thrown away, into the ditches - mind you, without the slightest pause. Since nobody has the chance to take anything out first, this means the loss of everyone's last few treasures, the last rock-hard crusts of bread, the last carefully hoarded cigarettes.
"The purses too, you damned whores!" the junaki yell at the women. At that, Reverend Dietrich turns to the Commandant and points out to him how senseless this demand is, and actually manages to have the order rescinded. With a poke of his bayonet one of the junaki has just forced a young lady to throw her purse away; but hardly has this lady heard the order being withdrawn that she walks back to her tormentor, head raised high, and tells him coldly: "Pick up my purse!"
"Are you crazy?" The junak freezes.
"I said, pick up my purse, didn't you understand me? Don't you know what's proper around a lady?" she repeats icily.
For a while the boy stares dumbfounded into her eyes, then he surrenders to the bright girlish gaze and bends down meekly to pick up her purse.
"That's Poland!" thinks Dr. Raapke, who is standing nearby. "What a country - what a people..."
After a period of uneventful marching, another order is given: Everyone is to close up ranks tightly! At the same time the rear of the column is prodded to speed up so much that everyone ends up constantly stepping on the heels of those in front of them. Many come away from this with deep wounds in their heels, and many soon lose both their shoes. "Maybe they only dreamed this up so that the rearguard can collect all the shoes, just like that was the reason for making us throw away our luggage. There's nothing one can put past these louts, not even something that seems absurd to normal people!" thinks Dr. Raapke.
He is walking in a row of four brawny men. The row in front of him, however, is made up of four young girls who have linked arms in order to support each other better. But since the men's row is much wider than the row of girls, this is a constant annoyance to the side guards. "Line up with the person in front!" one group yells constantly, and shoves the men with their truncheons from the right. "Walk in exact single file!" yells the other group just as constantly, and shoves them in the same manner from the left. Finally the young girls realize that they can only keep the men behind them from suffering constant blows by unlinking their arms again and walking at the same distance and in a row of the same width. Walking among these girls is a certain Fräulein Buller, a secretary from the German Consulate, a remarkably delicate girl but she holds her own in exemplary fashion.
Hardly have the prisoners adjusted to this harassment before the junaki think of something new, and yell as in a chorus: "Dropping to the ground doesn't go smoothly enough yet, do you think we're going to risk bombs hitting us for your sake? So let's practice, down on the ground, all of you as one, when we give the order..." And then each of these boys yells whenever he feels like it: "Down..." So there are always a few rows of prisoners down on the ground. If they do not comply quickly enough they have to repeat it a dozen times - but if they do comply with precise suddenness and to the guards' satisfaction, the row behind them usually falls over them due to the unexpected stop.
"Hahahaha!" the junaki then laugh, slap their thighs, roar at the top of their lungs: "See them tumble, those elegant Hitlerowkis, falling over each other like rabbits..."
The last torment of this stage of the journey comes in the form of an order for everyone to walk with their hands behind their backs. And so they march the last few kilometers with their backs ramrod-straight, which quickly becomes so painful that not only the women moan softly with every step. Having to walk like this robs one old man of the last of his strength, and in a fit of weakness he staggers in front of an oncoming truck, which crunches right over his body...
In the gray of dawn they finally see a large estate, which is already full of soldiers
but which also has a number of barns beside the stables. This is the Jarantonice
Estate, the second day's intended
destination - but when Reverend Dietrich does a head-count, there are fifty fewer than
there were the evening before.