Suddenly, undramatically, I was beyond the gates.
Iâ€™m sure that it was just a trick of the mind, but the air had a different quality just a few steps away from the gate.
Not much seemed to change in the physical surroundings just outside of the camp. The bigger changes were in the people.
Spring was in full effect, so things were green and in bloom. This was in stark contrast with the mostly dazed people wandering around just outside the camp walls.
I was accustomed to seeing thin and wasted women, but now I was struck by how horrible the Germans who ran the camp looked. Their uniforms hung loosely off of their bodies in much the same way that our prison clothes hung off of ours.
Once out we were unsure what to do. The guards kept us marching. They led us around the large lake that separated the camp from Furstenberg, and then into the village itself.
Furstenberg seemed so different from the town that we were taken through almost three years earlier. Gone were the hateful children who tormented us. The storybook village had been replaced by despair and resignation.
That first day we walked from dawn to our breaking point. We passed through many townsâ€” Furstenberg, Neu Strelitz, Welzenburg. We were stunned by what we saw around us. I don't understand.?
They must be fleeing the Russians.
Today people call it the “death march.” That name didn’t exist at the time. Its accuracy can’t be questioned, but in the moment we had no idea what lay ahead.
We walked along, mile after mile. At times two or three abreast, sometimes single file, resembling a grotesque parade, half dead, malnourished, putting one foot in front of the other.
Some of us had no shoes. In their place we wrapped what rags we could find around our feet.
That first day we passed long-ago plowed fields whose once deep furrows were merely suggested by shallow recesses and occasional mounds.
We were allowed to stop briefly, an hour at most, the first night, when the guards themselves needed to rest.
I remember the sky was a black inkwell, vast and starlit. Our surroundings were shrouded in thick darkness like the blackest velvet.
The combination of darkness, hunger, and fatigue caused my eyes to play tricks on me. To the side of the road, objects dotting the landscape had a spectral quality. Abandoned farm equipment and war machines. Dead animals. Vacant farm houses. All wrapped in mist and blackness. Illuminated by only moonlight and a few random fires.
That night and the next day many women succumbed to hunger and fatigue. Some were left to die. Others were shot on the spot. I stayed with one elderly woman from Lidice until the end. I refused to keep walking as she lay there about to yield. I told them...â€Ś SHOOT ME IF YOU MUST, BUT I WILL NOT LEAVE HER ALONE!
She collapsed and never rose again.
I held her frail hand, light as a birdâ€™s wing, absent of any muscle, like thin paper draped over hollow bone.
Her release from this life finally came.
When I got up to join the others, I noticed my own hunger, like a small fist in my stomach, was beginning to take its toll. Starvation is a capricious companion. While it pushes you on to survive, it tries to take your life from you at the same time.
My hunger triggered a strange lucidity which allowed me to see my surroundings with a remarkable clarity.
Ash and dust covered many of the surfaces.
The earth was pocked with holes. Gone was the verdancy of Middle Europe. Replacing it were the colors of death and ruin-brown, black, and gray.
Smoke hung in the still air like some living thing looking down from above. It cast a pall over the sky.
As we walked on, the wind lashed at our poorly clothed bodies, the rain stung my face, but stopping was never an option.
Our sad processional passed great swaths of scorched earth. Blackened remnants of persons, trees, machines burned together into terrible tableaux. At times the only the sounds we heard other than our own labored breathing were the shouts of large black crows, warning us of what awaited ahead.
The second night we stopped for a longer rest as the guards themselves were nearing their breaking point. Along the way the guards had become marchers like us.
Late that night a couple of the younger guards tried to escape their duties.
They were dealt with like most of the marchers who had tried to run.
A small group of us, some from Lidice and some from Prague, used this distraction as an opportunity to escape.
We ran as fast as our wasted bodies could manage. My feet, wrapped only in thin rags were sliced and bruised by branches and rocks as I sprinted for my life.
I still remember the anticipation of the hot slice of bullets entering my back. It never came. The shots we heard in the distance were not meant for us.
It felt like we ran for many kilometers, driven by adrenaline, but Iâ€™m sure it was a few hundred meters. When we got far enough away and our lungs gave out, we hid for a while to rest. I remember thinking that the odor of the dried leaves and moist spring soil were the finest fragrances I had ever smelled. After three years of the stench of death, these were the smells of life, of rebirth.
When we were sure the Germans were not coming after us, we walked on through the night, trying to put as much distance as we could between ourselves and them.
The direction that we walked took us uphill. Minutes turned to hours and our ascent seemed never to end.
Our feet move along, independent of us, unfamiliar to the rest of our bodies.
Just as dawn was breaking, we finally reached the top of a broad plateau. What I saw took my breath away. A landscape pocked and charred by war. A blackened wasteland through which we had to travel to reach home.
From the hilltop I saw a once fertile land ravaged by a pestilence called mankind.