The evacuation columns were supposed to consist only of healthy people strong enough to march many score kilometers. In practice, however, sick and enfeebled prisoners also volunteered, since they thought, not without reason, that the Germans would kill those who remained behind. Underage prisoners—Jewish and Polish children—set out on the march along with the adults.
Along all the routes, the escorting SS guards shot both the prisoners who tried to escape and those who were too physically exhausted to keep up with their fellow unfortunates. Thousands of corpses of the prisoners who were shot or who died of fatigue or exposure to the cold lined both the routes where they passed on foot or by train. In Upper Silesia alone, about 3 thousand evacuated prisoners died. It is estimated that at least 9 thousand, and more probably 15 thousand Auschwitz prisoners paid with their lives for the evacuation operation. After the war, the travails of the evacuated prisoners came to be known as the “Death Marches.”
One of the few extant Nazi documents referring to the Death Marches is an SS report from March 13, 1945 on the arrival in the Leitmeritz (Litomierzyce) camp in Bohemia of 58 prisoners evacuated from the Auschwitz sub-camp of Hubertushütte, mentioned above. The report states that 144 other prisoners (mostly Jews) “died” (verstorben) en route.
Massacres of prisoners took place in some of the localities along the evacuation routes. At the Leszczyny/Rzędówka train station near Rybnik on the night of January 21/22, 1945, a train carrying about 2.5 thousand prisoners from Gliwice halted. On the afternoon of January 22, the prisoners were ordered to disembark. Some of them were too exhausted to do so. SS men from the escort and local Nazi police fired machine guns through the open doors of the train cars. The Germans then herded the remaining prisoners westward. After they had marched away, more than 300 corpses, of prisoners who had been shot or who had died of exhaustion or exposure, were gathered from the grounds of the station and its surroundings.
Many Polish and Czech residents of localities along or near the evacuation route came forward to help the evacuees. For the most part, they gave them water and food, and also sheltered escapees. People in various localities were honored after the war with the Israel Righteous among the Nations of the World medal for helping escapees survive until liberation.