So the Bomb Cyclone has come and gone, leaving a Polar Vortex in its wake. Did you survive it? Unborn generations will be asking us in future years how we coped. At the very least, the storm stranded thousands of passengers, shut down government services along the East Coast, provided a few days off from school, and probably froze enough pipes to keep the plumbing industry in America afloat (apologies for the pun) for quite some time.
Even here in western North Carolina, the so-called Isothermal Belt, where temperatures are expected to be, well, temperate, things got pretty nippy. The barn was drained, heaters were installed in the horses’ water buckets against freezing, the light bulb was kept on in the well house, and the fireplace well stocked. I am a veteran of almost 50 Connecticut winters, and even I felt a bit uncomfortable during my daily dog walk. And I had my polar fleece ski cap, insulated and padded LL Bean coat, cashmere scarf, and sturdy boots (again courtesy of LL Bean).
Today, as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to hasten along my dogs’ perambulations, I couldn’t help but reflect on an event that occurred two weeks shy of 72 years ago: the evacuation of Auschwitz, otherwise known as the Auschwitz Death March. Clad in cotton prison uniforms, some with blankets, some without, some with boots, some with wooden clogs, some with rags tied round their feet, approximately 56,000 prisoners set out on January 18, 1945, into the Polish winter. According to Professor Daniel Blatman, an authority on the death marches, temperatures in the area “dropp[ed] to -10 to -15°C,” or 5 to 14° F.
One of those 56,000 prisoners was ten year-old Tom Buergenthal. As Tom relates in his memoir, A Lucky Child, over the next three days he walked 70 kilometers (42 miles), sleeping on the frozen ground at night. By the time he reached Gliwice on the third day, Tom could no longer feel his toes. There, he ate his remaining bread and licked a few handfuls of snow. “Oh, what would I have given for even a few spoonfuls of that terrible Auschwitz turnip soup or, for that matter, anything warm!” he writes.
Auschwitz in winter
At Gliwice Tom was packed onto an open cattle car. At first the warmth of the crowded car was an asset, but as prisoners died and their bodies were thrown over the side, even that advantage faded. “The snow and wind seemed never to let up, and we could feel the cold more now than before because there were fewer warm bodies pressing against us.” With his bread gone, Tom was reduced to eating snow, imagining it tasted like ice cream, “although I doubt that we remembered what ice cream tasted like.”
How such cruelty could be visited upon a ten year-old boy, for no other reason than his Jewish birth, is a question that both perplexes me (no matter how much I read up on the subject), but also frightens me, as the disease of anti-Semitism once again gains virulence, even here in America.
Was there any saving grace, or silver lining, to be extracted from the experience of the Death March? Hardly. Thousands of prisoners died in the process, a mere 100 days before the war’s end. After ten days on the cattle car, Tom had several of his frostbitten toes amputated when he finally arrived in Sachsenhausen. But in a strange twist of fate, his injury placed him in Sachsenhausen’s Revier III (Infirmary No. 3), which also housed one of Odd Nansen’s Norwegian friends. It was while visiting his friend that Odd first encountered young Tommy, so young and so innocent that Nansen called him “one of Raphael’s angels.” Otherwise, the chances that Tom and Odd would ever have crossed paths in a camp as large as Sachsenhausen were almost negligible. And that improbable meeting proved a boon to both Nansen and Buergenthal.
Even in the darkest hours there were a few other gleams of light. Saul Friedländer, in his book Nazi Germany and the Jews, Volume II (The Years of Extermination), recounts the experience of another Death March participant, Paul Steinberg, who had “’a precise, detailed, overwhelming memory.’” When Steinberg’s train approached Prague, Czechoslovakia, it passed under bridges where Czechs were marching overhead on their way to work.
“’As one man,’ Steinberg recalls, ‘the Czechs opened their satchels and tossed their lunches down to us without a moment’s hesitation. . . . We were showered with rolls, slices of bread. . . .’”
Tom Buergenthal had a similar experience:
“Just when I was sure that it would only be a matter of a day or two before I too would die and be thrown out of the car, a miracle occurred. As the train moved slowly through Czechoslovakia, . . . men, women and children standing on the bridges we passed under [began tossing bread loaves into the cars] . . . . Had it not been for that Czech bread, we would not have survived. I never learned how this magnificent campaign had been mounted, but as long as I live, I will not forget these angels—for to me they seemed to be angels—who provided us bread as if from heaven.”
Think about that the next time you reach for your fur-lined gloves.