Outside Auschwitz, the Mystery of a Mass Grave Is Finally Solved

For the first time in nearly seven decades, some of the victims of a death march from Auschwitz have been identified and a new gravestone bears their names.

In the Polish town of Miedzna, roughly 15 kilometers southwest of Auschwitz, is a mass grave containing the bodies of 42 camp inmates who were murdered during the death march in January 1945. The mass grave is in the local cemetery, near a large wooden church. Until last month, the victims’ identities were unknown. At the end of last month, in a special ceremony attended by a rabbi, a priest, town residents and a delegation from Israel, a new marker bearing the names of those victims who had been identified was placed over the grave.

The identification of the victims and the placing of the stone were made possible after months of research into the victims’ identities by Gil Faran, a guide for Israeli delegations to Poland. The research and the new grave marker were funded by the Israeli telecommunications company, Bezeq. “The victims went from being anonymous casualties to people with an identity and sometimes a face as well,” Faran said. Bogdan Tarnowski, the mayor, said during the ceremony that “the choice between good and evil, between light and darkness, is up to us alone and the Nazi period is a warning light for us about the abysses we must never reach again.”

The victims were part of a group of roughly 25,000 inmates from Birkenau and Auschwitz who were marched through the village on their way to the trains that took them to Germany, where the intention was to use them for the war effort. Forty-two of the victims set out on January 18, 1945 and were murdered that same day or the next at the latest. Their corpses were retrieved from the road and the forest by local residents, by order of the Germans. Thirty-nine of them were buried in the cemetery on January 19, and three more were buried later.

The commemoration of the names of death-march victims is part of a large-scale project that began several years ago. So far, the project has collected the names of victims from five sites along the death-march route. A different group of Israelis, including retirees from the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the Airports Authority and Bezeq, worked at each site. Yaki Ganz, who also works as a guide for delegations to Poland, got Bezeq on board, which made the new grave marker in the Miedzna cemetery possible.

Jozef Cieply, a survivor of the death march, wrote in his memoirs: “In the vicinity of Rajsko, not far from the camp, I noticed the hunched figure of a woman at the side of the road. It was the corpse of a prisoner, shot by SS guards. I saw the greatest number of corpses of shot prisoners between the localities of Miedzna and Cwiklice. One of our friends, who came from Poznan, counted 114 corpses. These were the bodies of those marching ahead of us. The corpses lay scattered on the road and we had to step around them. I remember that a German kapo tried to move a corpse that was lying at the side of the road, causing a delay. The entire contents of the skull, which evidently had been blown to bits by a gunshot, lay on the road. The sight was so shocking that the kapo gave up and left the corpse as it had been.” Another survivor, Oswald Gruszczyk, recalled: “We walked on the road, which was full of snow. Clogs, mugs and blankets fell onto the road. Ahead of us walked a group of women from Birkenau. After a walk of several hundred meters we saw, just a few meters away, bleeding corpses of women lying in the ditch.”

A resident of the town testified: “After I arrived at the police station, two wagons were waiting.... They collected inmates who had been murdered on their way from the bridge to the Miedzna junction. The second wagon collected bodies from the forest to the Miedzna junction. Together, 42 corpses were collected in both wagons. They were later buried in a mass grave in the cemetery.” Another resident testified: “Together with a few other men, we collected the bodies and they were buried in a mass grave.... The picture of the prisoners who were found shot in the forest is particularly etched in my memory. One woman prisoner survived for two freezing days after crawling into the forest, but she died during efforts to resuscitate her. She was buried with the other victims.” Faran says that “in almost every village, the inhabitants were summoned to collect the bodies, and they buried them in mass graves. Each village has its own story.”

In some places, the victims’ names were written down in the cemetery records, in the Germans’ documents or slips of paper. In this case, the victims were identified when an archived document was discovered. On January 19, 1945, the commander of the German police station in Miedzna reported the discovery of 39 bodies of the Auschwitz inmates — 29 women and ten men. Only 25 of them were identified by their prison number. “Others had no identifying marks,” the commander wrote.

When Faran began checking and cross-checking the numbers on the commander’s telegram, he found that most of the inmates buried there were Jews from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands. Of the Jews buried in the mass grave, three men were identified by name. Of the Poles buried there, one woman and one man were identified by name. Another prisoner was identified by name as well, but his origin remains unknown. In addition, five inmates of Auschwitz whose inmate numbers are known are buried there, together with 17 other victims about whom nothing is known.

Among the victims who have now been identified:

Sandor Wohl, 16, a Jewish teenager from Hungary, born May 12, 1928. He was deported to Auschwitz in August 1944.

Israel Hershson Kogen, 55, a Jewish man born in 1890 in Lublin, Poland, who worked as a waiter. He was deported to Auschwitz in 1941.

Zeiwel Giser, 33, of Poland, born December 1, 1912. He was deported to Auschwitz from the Grodno Ghetto on December 8, 1942.

Balbina Kruk, 53, of Poland. Born in 1882, she was deported from Warsaw to Auschwitz in 1944 after the Polish uprising.

Josef Jankowski, of Poland. He arrived at Auschwitz as part of a group deported there by the Gestapo in Lodz on August 3, 1943.

Adi Bar'el
Gil Faran