Austria, January 1945
Fritz Kleinmann shifted with the motion of the train, shuddering convulsively in the sub-zero gale roaring over the sidewalls of the open freight wagon. Huddled beside him, his father dozed, exhausted. Around them sat dim figures, moonlight picking out the pale stripes of their uniforms and the bones in their faces. It was time for Fritz to make his escape; soon it would be too late.
Eight days had passed since they’d left Auschwitz on this journey. They had walked the first sixty kilometres, the SS driving the thousands of prisoners westward through the snow, away from the advancing Red Army. Intermittent gunshots were heard from the rear of the column as those who couldn’t keep up were murdered. Nobody looked back.
Then they’d been put on trains bound for camps deeper inside the Reich. Fritz and his father managed to stay together, as they had always done. Their transport was for Mauthausen in Austria, where the SS would carry on the task of draining the last dregs of labour from the prisoners before finally exterminating them. One hundred and forty men crammed into each open-topped wagon – at first they’d had to stand, but as the days passed and the cold killed them off, it gradually became possible to sit down. The corpses were stacked at one end of the wagon and their clothing taken to warm the living.
They might be on the brink of death, but these prisoners were the lucky ones, the useful workers – most of their brothers and sisters, wives, mothers and children had been murdered or were being force-marched westward and dying in droves.