During the last days of the German Reich, on 26 January 1945, approximately 7,000 people, mostly Jewish women – began their death march from their Königsberg prison towards the town of Palmnicken in the Samland region on the Baltic coast.
They had been herded together in Königsberg from across all of East Prussia, and their evacuation march was one of many death marches from Nazi concentration camps by Jews imprisoned in East Prussia – from January 1945 onwards.
With the Soviet troops already in East Prussia, the Nazi regime had begun their chaotic last minute attempt to remove all traces of the East Prussian concentration camps and their evacuation. And while much has been written about the desperate but entirely futile attempts by the Nazis to remove all traces of their state-sponsored genocide program against the Jews of Europe, relatively little was known about their criminal deeds in much of East Prussia after the Soviets took over control of the area via the Potsdam agreement of 1945. However, some of it was revealed in 1994 via a memoir covering the war years by Martin Bergau, a former Hitler Youth member from the coastal town of Palmnicken—where the massacre was to reach its tragic climax—who 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.
When the prisoners were led out of the Königsberg factory early that morning, there were no longer any overland routes to the Reich. Many of the prisoners were shot in the city of Königsberg, their corpses left on the streets. The prisoners whom the SS herded to Palmnicken went without food or warm clothes.
One survivor, Maria Blitz (née Salz), 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.
Many of the inhabitants of Königsberg also remembered the march. Rose-Marie
Blask witnessed it on a very dreary and cold afternoon:
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.
The distance from Königsberg to Palmnicken is approximately 50 kilometers. During the march, the guards shot around 2,000 to 2,500 prisoners who had collapsed from sheer exhaustion; they left the corpses on the side of the road. The Begleitkommando then went on its way, leaving an SS man nicknamed the Genickschußkommissar (“the shot-in-the-neck commissar”) behind to murder any fleeing Jews. Only 3,000 of the approximately 6,500 to 7,000 original prisoners arrived in Palmnicken, most probably on the night of 26–27 January 1945. Two hundred to three hundred corpses were found on the morning after their arrival, between Palmnicken and Sorgenau, a distance of about two kilometers.
In circumstances marked by extreme chaos, the SS encountered an unanticipated obstacle on the procession’s arrival at the amber mine in Palmnicken. Their plan had been to drive the Jewish prisoners into the Anna Grube, a disused mine shaft, and then to seal up the entrance. However, the mine’s manager refused to open any of the mine-shafts intended for the mass murder: the mine was needed for the Palmnicken water supply. Instead, he allowed the main gate be opened so that the exhausted and freezing victims could be housed in the mine’s large workshop.
The next morning, Hans Feyerabend , estate-manager and a highly respected man in the region arrived; he stated that as long as he was alive, the Jews would be fed and none killed; Palmnicken was not to become a second Katyn. He ordered straw, peas and bread and had cattle slaughtered. The factory canteen had to cook for the exhausted women. Shortly after, on 30 January 1945, Feyerabend was found dead, his own his own gun in his mouth. It seems that there was no investigation as to whether he had committed suicide or had actually been murdered.
On the evening of Feyerabend’ death, Kurt Friedrichs – who was both the Palmnicken mayor and the regional Nazi Party group leader – ordered a dozen armed Hitler Youths including Martin Bergau to accompany some SS-men to the disused Anna mine. They should also to ask civilians if they had seen fleeing Jews, as well as to search the woods for any in hiding. They could either shoot the victims immediately or hand them over to the SS. Bergau recalls:
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.
With Feyerabend out of the way, the fate of the remaining 3,000 prisoners now lay in the hands of the SS. The latter now opted for a different approach. On Wednesday evening the prisoners, under the pretence that they were being taken to safety from Pillau to Hamburg by ship, were led out of the factory’s northern gate on the quickest route to the sea, from where they were forced to march south along the icy Baltic seashore. The seashore and the town thirty metres above were separated by a broad strip of park and woodland. Therefore only a few of the inhabitants of Palmnicken saw what happened that night. The SS machine gunners gathered together the widely dispersed column from the back, and, each time separating the last group from the rest, chased their victims onto the ice and into the water under machine gun fire. In the darkness and haste, the SS could not murder all of the Jews systematically, in spite of their use of flares. Many Jews were initially only wounded, some 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.
While the snow had hidden the signs of murder, it soon melted when a thaw set in and bloodstained puddles filled the ditches along the roads, and to the local population 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 the total number of those who survived as approximately fifteen of the original group of 7,000 individuals. The crime was reported to the Soviets when they captured Palmnicken ten weeks later. Eventually, a final rite took place under Soviet supervision, with around two hundred girls and women from Palmnicken being forced to unearth 263 corpses with their bare hands. The bodies had been buried in a thirty meter long trench near the Anna mine — 204 women and 59 men.
In 1945 Palmnicken became part of the Soviet Union and Königsberg was renamed Kaliningrad. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1992 it became part of the Russian Federation. The mass grave in the Anna mine disappeared into a sand dune. In the 1960s, the corpses would finally be unearthed by amber excavators. The corpses were thought to be those of Soviet soldiers murdered by the Germans, and a memorial stone was duly erected, bearing the inscription ‘Eternal Glory to the Heroes’. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union the Komsomolzen laid wreaths every year at the site and organized parades. Following the collapse—in 1994—it became possible for Martin Bergau to convince the regional authorities that the bodies lying at the site were in fact Jewish.
And so ends another 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 2015, Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Lest we forget …
Endlösung on the ‘Amber Shore':
The Massacre in January 1945 on the Baltic Seashore—
A Repressed Chapter of East Prussian History
BY ANDREAS KOSSERT