Warning: This, sadly, is a true story of incredible cruelty that you will not be able to get easily out of your mind once you have read it. At the same time it is one of many similar acts of unimaginable savagery making up the holocaust and perpetrated by the criminal leadership of the German Nazi Reich during its dying days. Once they realized that their game was up and that the end of the Reich was in sight, they embarked on a desperate attempt to erase the evidence of their state run genocide directed against the Jews of Europe. This would include closing existing concentration camps, by evacuating prisoners to other areas, to be killed and their bodies disposed of.
It was this approach to the Final Solution – Endlösung – that saw approximately 7,000 people, mostly Jewish women – begin their death march on 26 January 1945 from their Königsberg prison in East Prussia towards the town of Palmnicken in the Samland region on the Baltic coast. They had been gathered from various areas in Eastern Europe, and their death march to Palmnicken would be one of many similar marches by Jewish prisoners in East Prussia from January 1945 onwards.
Palmnicken was approximately 50 kilometers away. Once they arrived there, the plan was to drive the prisoners into a disused mine shaft in the large amber mine complex at the shore front, and then to seal up the entrance.
The march started the late morning of January 26 under the most atrocious conditions. It was the midst of a very cold winter, and the prisoners went without food or warm clothes. One survivor, Maria Blitz (née Salz) (1), recalled:
We were wrapped in dirty, threadbare blankets and on our feet we wore crude wooden clogs, which made moving forward on the snow and ice—in addition to our constant mortal terror—pure torture. Our clothing consisted of rags and paper, which we had tied together with wires to protect ourselves from the cold. Anyone who could not go on or fell over was shot immediately or beaten with a rifle butt. My sister Gita could not go any further—she had violent diarrhea and collapsed. We tried to get her back on her feet, but she asked us to leave her lying there, she wanted to go to her mother—whom we had already lost in Auschwitz. She was shot.
A Königsberg resident who witnessed the start of the march, Rose-Marie Blask, remembered the following:
I was 14-years-old back then. … I saw a procession of people on the other side of General-Litzmann-Strasse [the former Fuchsberger Allee]. I stood near a tree, it was already getting dark, the air full of snow, and no one could see me. Then I saw in horror that the SS were driving a long procession of prisoners in front of them. Again and again, an SS man raised his arm and a person fell in the snow, though I could not hear a gunshot. I don’t know how long I stood there, as if frozen. At any rate, I saw a lorry following on behind. The dead were lifted out of the snow and thrown into the back of the lorry.
Only 3,000 of the approximately 6,500 to 7,000 Jewish prisoners arrived in Palmnicken later that night on January 26. Around 2,000 to 2,500 marchers where either shot by the accompanying SS guards when they tried to flee or simply fell down, or died from sheer exhaustion during the 50 kilometer march under abhorrent conditions. The following morning up to 300 corpses were found along the final two kilometer stretch between Palmnicken and the village of Sorgenau.
Once at the mine site in Palmnicken things did not go to plan for the SS as the site manager refused to allow the disused shaft – the Anna Grube – to be used for mass murder. It was argued that the shaft was needed for the town’s water supply. Instead, the remaining exhausted and freezing victims were allowed to recover from their ordeal by being housed in the mine’s large workshop, and the factory canteen was order to cook for them. On January 30th, however, the site’s estate manager – Hans Feyerabend – was found dead, his own gun in his mouth, but unclear if he had committed suicide or was murdered. He had opposed the SS plans to murder all the prisoners from the moment he found out about it.
That same evening a number of Hitler Youths were ordered by the town’s mayor and the regional Nazi Party group leader to assist the SS at the disused Anna mine site with re-captured Jewish prisoners who had managed to get away during the final stage of the march. One of the Hitler Youths, Martin Bergau – on which much of this account is based – stated the following:
When we left the municipal office with the SS-men, it was already quite dark. … When we reached the northern part of the town, we turned left and went down the path to the closed Anna mine. We reached the squalid buildings, situated at sea level. I noticed a group of around forty to fifty women and girls. They were captured Jews. A diffuse source of light sparsely illuminated what seemed a ghostly scene. The women had to line up in twos, and we were instructed by the SS-men to escort them. Around six to eight SS-men might have belonged to the command. I could not tell whether they were Germans or foreigners, as their commands were extremely terse. Once the line-up was complete, two women at a time were led around the side of the building by two SS-men. Shortly afterwards two pistol shots rang out. That was the sign for two more SS executioners to take the next two victims to the building, which was shrouded in twilight, and shots soon resounded there again. I had had to position myself pretty much at the end of the long line. A classmate stood right across from me with a cocked rifle, watching over the women on the other side. One woman turned to me and asked in good German if she could move two places forward; she wished to walk this last path with her daughter. In a voice nearly choked with tears, I granted this brave woman her request. … Then I accompanied a mother whom I will never forget to her daughter.
Because of the concerns about contaminating the town’s water supply, the SS opted for a different approach. With the promise that the prisoners would now be taken by ship to Hamburg, they were led out of the main complex and through a gate that led directly onto the beach where they were directed to start marching South towards along the icy Baltic seashore towards Pilau. Once on the way, the SS executed their plan kill each and every one of the roughly 3,000 remaining prisoners, by machine-gunning the marchers from the back and herding them into the icy waters. Because of the melee that followed – and the sheer number of prisoners involved – the SS could not murder everyone as systematically as they had planned. Many victims were initially only wounded, or not even hit. Some fainted and froze to death, or became trapped between ice floes and drowned. Others died on the beach after days in agony. But some survived; Zila Manielewicz, born in 1921 in Ozorkow, recalled the following:
When we arrived on the shore, it was already darkest night. … Suddenly I was hit on my head with a rifle butt and I and I fell into a precipice. I gained consciousness in the water. At this time, dusk had already fallen. The shore was full of corpses and the SS men were still hovering over them. …. Towards morning the SS men disappeared. Around this time we became aware that about 200 of us were still alive. We got up and climbed onto the beach. The path we had taken that night was itself full of corpses and the seawater was red from the victims’ blood. Together with two other Jewish women, I dragged myself to the closest German village; …
Another account, by Pnina Kronisch,born in 1927 in Belzec:
Then they threw the murdered Jews into the water by kicking them. As the seacoast was covered with ice, the murderers pushed their victims into the icy water with their rifle butts. Since I was at the front of the column with my sister Sara, we were the last in line to be shot. I was also laid down on the seacoast together with my sister, though I was not killed by the shot that was aimed at me but only wounded in my left foot, and my face was soaked in the blood of the murdered Jews lying next to me. During this time my sister was killed. I did not wait until the Germans threw me into the sea—I threw myself in and remained lying next to the ice floe, which already was caught up in the water and hit by the waves. The Germans believed I was dead, and since I was alone, to my good luck, and last in line to be murdered, the Germans got into their sleds and drove off. Before dawn I scrambled out of the sea and hid in the coal store of a German farmer who did not live far from where these events occurred.
Because the seashore where the massacre occurred was separated by a broad strip of park and woodland and the town 30 meters above, only a few of the inhabitants of Palmnicken saw what happened that night. But next day it was immediately apparent that a massacre had taken place. Helene Zimmer, a former resident of Palmnicken, stated the following to the Ludwigsburg court:
… Then we went back to Palmnicken on foot, along the shore instead of along the completely congested road. It was a very painful march taking several hours. … Just before Palmnicken, actually between Nodems and Palmnicken, we suddenly saw countless corpses lying on the shore, and also heard desperate screams still coming from the water. As far as I could see, those lying on the shore were all dead, and every now and then we could hear desperate cries coming from the water. … The water along the shore was partly frozen and ice floes floated around, between them were the seriously wounded or dead people. Many of them were dressed in the same striped clothes. There were also many women among them. … I was so shaken at the sight that I covered my eyes with my hands. … We then quickly went on walking because we could not stand the sight.
It is estimated that approximately fifteen of the original group of 7,000 individuals survived death march and final massacre on the beach at Palmnicken. While the crime was reported to the Soviets when they captured Palmnicken ten weeks later, few details regarding this monstrous crime made its way into the West prior to 1994. It was then that Martin Bergau – a former Hitler Youth member from Palmnicken- had his memoir covering the war years published. He had witnessed the crime at the age of sixteen. Shortly after the massacre he had been taken prisoner by the Soviets; after his release he had not been allowed to return to his home in East Prussia.
In 1945 Palmnicken became part of the Soviet Union and Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad as a result of the Potsdam agreement. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992 it became part of the Russian Federation. While the mass grave in the Anna mine had disappeared into a sand dune, the murder victims’ remains were eventually unearthed by amber excavators in the 60’s. Initially thought to be the remains of Soviet soldiers murdered by the Germans, a memorial stone was erected and wreaths were laid every year at the site until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992. Finally, in 1994, Martin Bergau was able to convince the regional authorities that the bodies lying at the site were in fact Jewish.
And so ends another incredibly sad tale of man’s inhumanity to man – what an infinitely tragic species we are! Clearly, there can be no almighty god, or at least not one that is capable of compassion, empathy, love or self-respect – and in which case he might as well kill himself. Or perhaps he did that already, realizing what kind of creature he hath wrought here on earth, as we must have started slaughtering each other from the moment we found ourselves capable of it.
Today is January 27 2017, Yom HaShoah, or International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lest we forget …
This post is based on:
Endlösung on the ‘Amber Shore’:
The Massacre in January 1945 on the Baltic Seashore—
A Repressed Chapter of East Prussian History
BY ANDREAS KOSSERT (2004)
(1) Maria Blitz – one of the last survivors of the the Palmnicken Massacre in January of 1945 died on June 11, 2016, at the age of 98.