Near the end of the war, when Germany's military force was collapsing, the Allied armies closed in on the Nazi concentration camps. The Soviets approached from the east, and the British, French, and Americans from the west. The Germans began frantically to move the prisoners out of the camps near the front and take them to be used as forced laborers in camps inside Germany. Prisoners were first taken by train and then by foot on 'death marches,' as they became known.
Prisoners were forced to march long distances in bitter cold, with little or no food, water, or rest. Those who could not keep up were shot. The largest death marches took place in the winter of 1944-1945, when the Soviet army began its liberation of Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the Germans marched tens of thousands of prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzislaw, a town thirty-five miles away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. About one in four died on the way.
The Nazis often killed large groups of prisoners before, during, or after marches. During one march, 7,000 Jewish prisoners, 6,000 of them women, were moved from camps in the Danzig region bordered on the north by the Baltic Sea. On the ten-day march, 700 were murdered. Those still alive when the marchers reached the shores of the sea were driven into the water and shot.
January 18, 1945: The SS begins evacuating Auschwitz and its satellite camps. Nearly 60,000 prisoners are forced on death marches from the Auschwitz camp system. Thousands are killed in the days before the death march. Tens of thousands of prisoners, mostly Jews, are forced to march to the city of Wodzislaw in the western part of Upper Silesia. SS guards shoot anyone who falls behind or cannot continue. More than 15,000 die during the death marches from Auschwitz. In Wodzislaw, the prisoners are put on unheated freight trains and deported to concentration camps in Germany, particularly to Flossenbuerg, Sachsenhausen, Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen. On January 27, 1945, the Soviet army enters Auschwitz and liberates the few remaining prisoners.