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We began this death march in early April, walking day after day, all the while guarded by SS. They directed us to walk mostly through forests so American planes wouldn't spot us from the air. Whenever an American plane did fly overhead, I'm guessing at about 20,000 feet, the guards would leave their posts and walk among the prisoners: They were afraid of being recognized as German soldiers and shot from the air.
After a while there was no food and the SS began to eliminate as many of us as possible. Weak ones were executed in the forest. The front wagon continued to go on ahead to prepare food, just for the SS.
It had been a couple of weeks and I kept pushing on without gloves and with few breaks. A friend of mine marched directly across from me, also pushing the heavy four-wheeler. I remember it was late in the afternoon one day and the sun was going down. That's when my friend, completely exhausted, just stopped in his tracks and laid down. The rest of us didn't pause but kept going. People walked right over him. I heard the shot and knew he was dead.
With such happenings a constant occurrence, my concern was to survive not the day but the hour. That was never more true than a couple of days later.
While I pushed the cart, I always kept a lookout for food, possibly some scrap along the side of the road. One day, I spotted something five feet from the wagon, something that looked like food. I thought if I was quick, I might not be noticed. I let go of the wagon and ran to pick it up. But an SS officer saw me and dragged me to the Death Commando. Two of them held my arms so that I could not run back to the prisoner line. I knew I'd soon be shot in the forest. This was to be the end then. But still I had hope.
I addressed the two men holding me. "What if I sing for the SS?" I asked. "Do you think if I tell them that I will sing, they will let me go?" That won't help you now, they said.
The SS executioner was a rough guy, a Yugoslavian, maybe 40 years old. I noticed that there was no one else to be executed at that point but me. Maybe he was too lazy to go into the forest to shoot just one prisoner. Or maybe he had a son my age. I don't know what was going through my mind at that point, but I had nothing to lose. I opened my mouth and began to sing.
I sang for maybe two minutes. I don't know what song I sang, something in Yiddish, maybe a folk song. But it was the solo of my life.
For whatever reason, the executioner, this man who shot prisoner after prisoner without a thought, listened to my song and then ordered the Death Commando to send me back to the line of prisoners. Not the wagon this time, but I didn't care. My life had been saved.
Hunger would give me several more close calls. The first time we had all stopped to rest. The SS, of course, always hoped that after a rest period, many of us would never be able to get back up again. While we were resting at this particular farm, I was looking in the barn for something to eat. An SS officer caught me, bayonetted my right leg and broke nose with the butt of his rifle. Another time, an SS officer gave a prisoner a piece of bread. Other prisoners saw him do this and ran at him to get a piece for themselves. Startled by their approach, he shot his pistol at the crowd and killed a man right in front of me. I can still smell the gun powder.
During another rest period, SS stood around a fire made out of coal. One of the most foul SS officers was throwing potatoes into the fire, daring prisoners to go in after them. Like a fool, I ran to the fire to grab one, but was so weak that I fell and severely burned my right leg.
By this time, just about a week before our liberation, although we did not know this, we numbered fewer than 200 prisoners, a tenth of those who had begun the long march. Two prisoners overheard an SS officer say that everyone soon would be executed. They escaped that night, but were caught and shot the next day.
Soon after we arrived in Laufen, Germany. There, we learned later, the SS officer in charge gave the town's mayor an ultimatum: Take these 156 prisoners, or we will execute them in your forest and you will have to explain to the Americans what happened. The Burgermeister, afraid for his town, accepted us.
I clearly remember marching into the women's prison camp in nearby Liebernau. A forest grew on either side of the camp, and a huge gate opened before us. There, prisoners were busy planting vegetables. Farther down the way, we spotted wooden barracks with garbage cans out front. We prisoners, famished and emaciated, ran as fast as our bony legs could carry us. I weighed about 60 pounds at the time. We threw off the cans' lids, and I, along with the other prisoners, began scooping potato peelings into our mouths. Suddenly we became aware of being watched, and looked up and up and into the faces of the women prisoners peering down at us from their barrack windows. They were weeping, horrified at our skeletal appearances.
Meanwhile, the SS had quickly changed into their civilian clothes and disappeared, crossing over the nearby Danube River into Austria. The news that they were gone had to sink in and in and in. We just lay in our beds in a daze, trying to comprehend: We were free.